PHOENIX (AP) — Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic astronaut Mark Kelly secured their parties’ nominations Tuesday in the Arizona race to finish the late John McCain’s U.S. Senate term.
It sets up a heated contest between two former combat pilots in what is expected to be one of the most expensive and spirited Senate races of 2020. The race will test Democrats’ growing strength in sprawling Sun Belt suburbs and Republican efforts to blame China for the coronavirus outbreak.
In early returns, a conservative challenger to McSally, businessman Daniel McCarthy, garnered about 20% of the vote with his anti-establishment message and an appeal to voters who think government is overreacting to the pandemic. McCarthy spent only about $500,000 and was not well known, so his share of the Republican vote suggests that McSally still has work to do to win over the GOP’s conservative base despite President Donald Trump’s endorsement.
Kelly faced only a write-in opponent for the Democratic nomination. He’s married to former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in an attempted assassination during a constituent event in Tucson.
With the pandemic leaving Americans anxious about their health and the ailing economy, McSally has been a leading Republican lawmaker looking to pin the blame on China. She routinely deflects from criticism of the U.S. response to the virus, saying Chinese cultural practices and obfuscation let the disease take root.
“Republican leadership and policies unleashed record economic growth, rebuilt our military, and finally began to hold China accountable for years of ripping off American workers,” McSally said in a statement after her primary win.
Kelly and his Democratic allies are doubling down on a strategy they have pursued for well over a year: focusing on GOP efforts to repeal former President Barack Obama’s health care law, including its requirement for insurers to cover people with preexisting conditions.
In an acceptance speech on YouTube, Kelly said the nation faces “a crisis of leadership” and portrayed himself as an independent voice.
“Even during a national emergency, Washington still isn’t working together to solve problems,” Kelly said. “Over and over again we’ve been a step behind because leaders in Washington have been too focused on politics, and not on public health.”
An influx of new voters in the fast-growing Phoenix suburbs and extensive organizing in the Latino community have helped put Arizona, a longtime Republican stronghold, in play for Democrats. The trend has accelerated with the shift away from the GOP among white suburban women who have turned against Trump.
The 2018 victory of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who was the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate seat in 30 years, showed the changing nature of the state. If Kelly wins the general election, it would be the first time Democrats held both of Arizona’s Senate seats since before Barry Goldwater defeated Earnest McFarland in the 1952 election.
Sinema defeated McSally, who had represented Tucson and southeastern Arizona in the House for several terms. McSally was then appointed to McCain’s seat and is fighting to finish his term. The winner would face reelection to a full six-year term in 2022 to keep the seat.
McSally was a trailblazing woman in the U.S. Air Force, the first woman to fly in combat and to lead a fighter squadron out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. More recently, she revealed a darker side of her military career, disclosing last year that she was raped by a superior officer.
Kelly flew combat missions for the Navy during Operation Desert Storm before becoming a test pilot and later an astronaut. He flew four missions to the International Space Station.
After retiring, he and Giffords founded a gun-control advocacy organization.
Kelly has a big fundraising advantage, raising more than $46 million, one of the largest hauls of all 2020 Senate candidates and a sum unheard of in Arizona. McSally also has been a top Senate fundraiser, pulling in more than $30 million so far.