The Senate election in Arizona will get a lot of attention in November. For Democrats to have a plausible path at winning the Senate, they need to win this seat.
Arizona does not have a ‘Class 2’ Senator, and normally the state would not have a Senate seat up in this cycle. The seat up is Arizona’s ‘Class 3’ seat, which was last contested in 2016 and will need to be defended by the winner in 2022. The reason for the vacancy is that this was the seat held by John McCain, former Republican Presidential nominee, who passed away from brain cancer in August 2018. His death came too late to schedule a special election for the 2018 electoral cycle, and so the seat has been held by Republican appointees since then.
To tell the story of the special election in Arizona, we need to start by looking at the last regularly scheduled election, for Arizona’s other Senate seat, that was held in 2018.
Arizona has long been one of the Democratic Party’s greatest hopes for expanding the playing field in their favour. Not only have the margins at the presidential level been moving in Democrats’ favour (with polling suggesting Biden is either tied with or outright favoured against Trump this year), but the state elected its first Democratic Senator since 1988 in 2018. Kyrsten Sinema, running as a centrist “Blue Dog” Democrat, won the seat left behind by retiring Republican and occasional Trump critic Jeff Flake, delivering Senate Democrats a rare piece of good news in what was otherwise a disappointing election cycle for them. She defeated her fellow then-Congresswoman, Martha McSally, who had, like Sinema, attracted attention as a “rising star” of the party who had won a competitive district in the state earlier that decade.
Flake had been an unpopular Senator. On the right, he had earned ire by frequently criticising Trump’s rhetoric and approach to governing, including being a noticeable voice calling for Trump to stand aside after the infamous ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ tape. These criticisms did not earn him Democratic fans, however. While a more libertarian-favoured Republican who was willing to buck the party line on issues such as privacy and compromise on issues such as immigration, he was no moderate, and in the end there was little appetite in Arizona for a conservative yet Trump-critical Senator.
McSally quickly emerged as the choice of the party’s big names, with Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell throwing her their support. In addition to being a mainstream conservative of the sort that could typically win elections in Arizona, McSally also had an intriguing personal backstory and could rightly claim to have made history before entering politics. A former fighter pilot, she won accolades for being the first female commander of a US Air Force fighter squadron, and had successfully sued the Department of Defense to repeal a requirement that female service personnel had to wear the body-covering abaya when stationed in Saudi Arabia. She was a prolific fundraiser too and, in winning her competitive congressional district in southeastern Arizona against an incumbent Democrat named Ron Barber, proven her mettle in contested elections.
To win the nomination, McSally needed to defeat two candidates in the Republican primary. The most dangerous was Kelli Ward, who two years prior had launched a primary challenge against John McCain from the right, and secured the endorsement of Trump allies such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. Ward attracted controversy for her affiliations with alt-right conspiracy theorists and insensitive comments around McCain’s fight with brain cancer.
There was also Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was the former Sheriff of Maricopa County, who had a notorious record of racial profiling, failing to investigate serious crimes and using county resources on cases such as the Obama birth certificate hoax. He had created a Tent City detention centre for inmates that he himself described as a “concentration camp”. Arpaio had been convicted in July 2017 for contempt of court, only to be pardoned the next month by President Trump.
Despite a high public profile, Arpaio was not an active campaigner and it was widely dismissed as a run motivated by ego and a desire for publicity. Ward hoped to consolidate the right-wing nativist vote in the primary, but Arpaio’s decision to stay in the race made that impossible, and she underperformed her 2016 bid against McCain. In the end, McSally defeated them both with nearly 55% of the vote. Arpaio is now, at 87, running to retake his old job as Maricopa County Sheriff, while Ward is the chair of the Arizona Republican Party, where she has urged protests against stay at home orders put in place to fight coronavirus. McSally’s commanding victory prompted a sigh of relief from the Republican establishment – she was seen as a mainstream conservative, able to win over moderates and independents while still securing the support of Trump’s diehard fans.
And yet McSally lost.
Not only that, but a Democrat won McSally’s old House seat. It wasn’t even especially close. The new Representative was Ann Kirkpatrick, who had previously represented the congressional district to the north of McSally’s before giving it up to run against McCain in the general election in 2016 (likely as an insurance policy in the event Ward beat McCain and the Republican party was left with an unpopular nominee). She won by a 54-45% margin, giving Arizona Democrats a majority of the state’s seats in the House of Representatives.
Straight after losing a critical Senate election, Martha McSally took solace in her new job as US Senator for Arizona.
The McCain seat, which had previously been held by Flake’s Senate predecessor Jon Kyl as a caretaker appointment, came up as Kyl announced his resignation. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey appointed McSally, still palpably believed by Republicans to be the future of the party statewide, to fill the seat and to defend it going into 2020. She took office as Senator the same day as Sinema, though was sworn in afterwards to allow Sinema to claim seniority.
Since then, Sinema, despite having been in her youth a left-wing Green Party activist, has made sure to vote as a moderate and to stay doggedly in the ideological middle of the Senate. McSally, meanwhile, has tethered her political fortunes firmly to Trump. She has strongly supported Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and sparked controversy by calling a CNN reporter a “liberal hack” and refusing to talk to him. Sinema’s strategy, while it has earned her ire from some of the party faithful, has earned her an impressively high approval rating. McSally, meanwhile, is beginning to consistently trail in the polls.
After initial speculation about other candidates such as Representative Ruben Gallego, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and former Republican and McCain ally Grant Woods, Democrats have coalesced around Mark Kelly as their candidate in the special election. Kelly has proven himself to be a prolific fundraiser, despite being a first-time candidate, and has developed a modest yet consistent polling lead over McSally. Like McSally, perhaps Kelly’s greatest asset is his personal story, where both can claim to have made history in their own ways. A fighter pilot and engineer who served in the First Gulf War, Kelly became an astronaut and, along with his identical twin brother Scott Kelly, became the only siblings to have both flown in space. Scott Kelly’s 340 days in the International Space Station, while Mark remained on Earth, was part of a pioneering experiment to test the impact of living in space.
But Kelly’s greatest claim to fame, and reason for such popularity in Democratic circles, has been as a gun control activist. His wife, Representative Gabby Giffords, was the Democratic representative for the seat that McSally would later go on to hold. On 8 January 2011, she was critically injured, shot in the head at point-blank range, by a gunman who killed six and left 13 others injured. Among the dead were a nine-year-old girl, a federal judge, and a Giffords staffer; among the injured was Ron Barber, who would eventually succeed Giffords in her House seat before losing to McSally. Despite initial reports that Giffords had been killed, however, she survived. She was left critically wounded, however, and in need of intensive recovery and rehabilitation.
Kelly and Giffords became prominent advocates of gun control action in America, and Kelly became a dream candidate for Arizona Democrats. After a final Space Shuttle mission in May 2011, Kelly retired from NASA and the US Navy, and up until this cycle repeatedly refused requests to run for office. Unlike Sinema, who had a long career as an elected official at both state and federal levels before winning her Senate seat, Kelly’s ideological placement within the Democratic Party is something of an open question. His previous public advocacy has been almost exclusively focused on gun control work – though Giffords, like Sinema, was a centrist during her time in Congress.
Right now, Kelly looks like he has a small but consistent advantage in winning this seat for the Democrats, and the fundamentals of the state are increasingly looking to be in his favour. Regardless of who wins, however, they will only be guaranteed this seat for two years. As a special election, the seat will be up for its regularly scheduled election in 2022, and the midterm dynamic then will be heavily dependent on which party wins the White House. Both now and in the future, Arizona looks to be a critical state for control of the Senate.
Gianni Sarra is a PhD candidate at King’s College London. He is a recipient of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership studentship award and his doctoral research is on ‘The Dirty Rules Dilemma: Achieving Justice in Conditions of Corruption’.