Se­nate race in Ari­zona gets tougher

Two women — Sinema and McSally — run­ning neck and neck

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

In any nor­mal year, and with any nor­mal can­di­date, Ari­zona’s Se­nate race be­tween a Repub­li­can for­mer fighter pi­lot and a Demo­crat with a his­tory of left-wing ac­tivism wouldn’t even be a con­test.

But this isn’t any year, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the Demo­crat, isn’t any can­di­date. In­stead, she is one of her party’s best chances to cap­ture a Repub­li­can-held Se­nate seat.

“She is per­haps the sin­gle best politi­cian in Ari­zona to­day,” said Stan Barnes, pres­i­dent of Cop­per State Con­sult­ing Group and a for­mer Repub­li­can state law­maker. “She is en­gag­ing, she is funny, she mir­rors peo­ple. She makes peo­ple think she agrees with them, even if she doesn’t.”

Ms. Sinema is tak­ing on Rep. Martha McSally, the for­mer A-10 Air Force pi­lot, in a race that started out nasty and has only got­ten rougher.

At a de­bate last week, Ms. McSally ac­cused Ms. Sinema of trea­son for telling a ra­dio host in 2003 that she would be fine with some­one trav­el­ing to join up with the Tal­iban. That fol­lows ads with footage of Ms. Sinema, who at the time was a Green Party ac­tivist, protest­ing the Iraq War in a pink tutu.

In 2010, Ms. Sinema was caught on tape call­ing Ari­zona “the meth lab of democ­racy,” and a year later re­fer­ring to the state as “crazy.”

Yet polls show her in a dead heat with Ms. McSally — of the lat­est four polls, each woman leads in two of them — sug­gest­ing many vot­ers aren’t turned off by her past. In­deed, she is run­ning well ahead of David Gar­cia, the other ma­jor statewide Demo­cratic can­di­date this year, who is chal­leng­ing — and well be­hind — Gov. Doug Ducey, a Repub­li­can.

An­a­lysts said Ms. Sinema’s suc­cess is partly per­sonal charm, partly a care­fully bi­par­ti­san vot­ing record, and the po­lit­i­cal skill to have cleared out any ma­jor chal­lengers early on, leav­ing her with months to in­oc­u­late her­self.

“Kyrsten did not have a sub­stan­tial pri­mary, and she was able to in­tro­duce her­self statewide dur­ing that pe­riod of time, spend a con­sid­er­able amount of money telling that story about her and her po­si­tions lead­ing up to the pri­mary,” said Ron Ober, a long­time Demo­cratic hand and founder of Pol­icy De­vel­op­ment Group, an Ari­zona strat­egy firm.

“With Kyrsten, she had enough of a rep­u­ta­tion, a story, by the time the pri­mary was done, when the bar­rage hit her, she did go down, but hit the foun­da­tion and bounced back,” he said. “Not all the way, but a good part of the way.”

The two women are com­pet­ing for the seat left open by Sen. Jeff Flake, a Repub­li­can who de­cided not to run for re-elec­tion af­ter clash­ing re­peat­edly with Pres­i­dent Trump.

Mr. Trump was ea­ger to see Mr. Flake go but didn’t pick sides in the pri­mary to re­place him. Ms. McSally emerged over for­mer state Sen. Kelli Ward and for­mer Sher­iff Joe Ar­paio.

Now, how­ever, Mr. Trump is all in. He held a rally ear­lier this month with Ms. McSally in Mesa, where he la­beled Ms. Sinema a “far-left ex­trem­ist” who hasn’t re­ceived the scru­tiny she de­serves.

“She’s be­ing pro­tected by the fake news back there,” he said, draw­ing boos as he pointed to the row of tele­vi­sion cam­eras.

Ms. Sinema, though, hasn’t risen to the bait. While not prais­ing Mr. Trump, she has been care­ful to forgo the sort of harsh at­tacks that pep­per Democrats’ cam­paigns else­where.

“The most di­rect con­trast be­tween her suc­cess in mak­ing it a real statewide race and David Gar­cia’s lack of suc­cess in his statewide race for gov­er­nor is her will­ing­ness to play ball with Trump vot­ers and David Gar­cia’s un­will­ing­ness to do so,” Mr. Barnes said.

Dur­ing six years in Congress Ms. Sinema has amassed one of the more mod­er­ate vot­ing records of any Demo­crat — Mr. Ober said per­haps even to the right of her dis­trict on some key is­sues. She has voted to re­peal some of Oba­macare and backed Kate’s Law, which would have im­posed stiffer penal­ties on re­peat il­le­gal im­mi­grants with crim­i­nal records.

“She’s fig­ured out you can­not win as a statewide Demo­crat in Ari­zona in 2018 un­less you have some por­tion of that Trump coali­tion in your camp. So she’s play­ing nice with the pres­i­dent, she’s tough on the bor­der,” Mr. Barnes said.

Ms. Sinema also is avoid­ing en­tan­gle­ment with her party’s left wing.

Sen. Bernard San­ders, whose 2016 pres­i­den­tial bid made him a star for lib­eral Democrats, cam­paigned in Tuc­son and Tempe for Mr. Gar­cia at two state uni­ver­si­ties. But an­a­lysts said they ex­pect Ms. Sinema to stay far away from those ral­lies.

Ms. McSally has gone the other way, tack­ing to the right to fend off her op­po­nents in the pri­mary.

“What she chose to do was to pivot to the right,” said Mr. Ober. “If you want to pivot back more to the cen­ter, it’s harder to do with a late pri­mary. But she’s not cho­sen to do that very much. She has cho­sen to con­tinue down the same course, and I think also rely on the neg­a­tive ad­ver­tis­ing on Sinema.”

Ms. McSally’s big­gest hur­dle now is her vote last year to sup­port full re­peal of Oba­macare. Mike No­ble, the poll­ster at OH Pre­dic­tive In­sights, said that is par­tic­u­larly hurt­ing among older vot­ers, who usu­ally are a solid part of the Repub­li­can base in Ari­zona.

Still, his most re­cent poll ear­lier this month had Ms. McSally up by 6 per­cent­age points. A CBS News poll taken about the same time had Ms. Sinema up 3 points. A New York Times/Si­enna poll taken last week puts Ms. McSally up 2 points.

Mr. No­ble said the Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion bat­tle did help Ms. McSally, giv­ing Repub­li­cans who were anti-Trump or anti­estab­lish­ment a rea­son to back her.

“It clearly brought Repub­li­cans home,” he said. In a state with a nat­u­ral Repub­li­can regis­tra­tion ad­van­tage that helps her — par­tic­u­larly in a year when more in­de­pen­dents are go­ing with Ms. Sinema.

Com­pli­cat­ing things for both can­di­dates is that early vot­ing has been open for weeks. By the time Elec­tion Day rolls around, well more than half of vot­ers will al­ready have cast bal­lots.

That means each day there are fewer vot­ers out there who can be per­suaded. It also means there were live bal­lots sit­ting on kitchen ta­bles across the state when the can­di­dates de­bated, or as Mr. Trump cam­paigned last Fri­day.

“It’s like a gun go­ing off in a race. Ev­ery day, that vote uni­verse gets smaller,” Mr. No­ble said.

Martha McSally, the Repub­li­can can­di­date for a Se­nate seat in Ari­zona, tacked to the right of her op­po­nents in the pri­mary, which could be a li­a­bil­ity in the gen­eral elec­tion.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Kyrsten Sinema is con­sid­ered to be one of the Demo­cratic Party’s best chances to cap­ture a Repub­li­can-held Se­nate seat in Ari­zona.

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