Senate race in Arizona gets tougher
Two women — Sinema and McSally — running neck and neck
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.
Kyrsten Sinema is considered to be one of the Democratic Party’s best chances to capture a Republican-held Senate seat in Arizona.