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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

Scramble for the Senate: Can Democrats pick up a seat in Arizona with Mark Kelly?

Although the race for the White House is at the fore­front of atten­tion in the run-up to the gen­er­al elec­tion in Novem­ber, there is more at stake for the coun­try than Don­ald Trump’s re-elec­­­tion. Elec­tions for thir­ty-three seats in the U.S. Sen­ate will be held on the same day, and the Democ­ratic Par­ty once again has a chance to retake con­trol of the cham­ber since los­ing it to Mitch McConnell in 2014.

The impor­tance of the upcom­ing elec­tions was hint­ed at ear­li­er this month by Mitch McConnell’s deci­sion to recon­vene the Sen­ate, in spite of the fact that about half of the Sen­ate is over six­ty-five years old and Wash­ing­ton D.C. is still expe­ri­enc­ing a steady uptick in coro­n­avirus cas­es. The Repub­li­can leadership’s deci­sion to drag sen­a­tors back to the cap­i­tal from across the coun­try – most­ly for the pur­pose of jam­ming through Trump judi­cial and exec­u­tive nom­i­nees – shows that they are wor­ried that the clock is tick­ing down on their time in pow­er.

To wrest back con­trol of the Sen­ate, the Democ­rats need a net gain of either three or four seats, depend­ing on who wins the pres­i­den­cy. The party’s path to vic­to­ry is com­pli­cat­ed, but polls have shown the par­ty’s prospects improv­ing over time.

If the Democ­rats want to win back the Sen­ate, they will need a win the spe­cial elec­tion for Arizona’s junior Sen­ate seat. That’s the race we’ll look at in today’s install­ment of Scram­ble for the Sen­ate :: 2020.

This elec­tion in the Grand Canyon State is rat­ed as a “tossup” by Cook Polit­i­cal Report, but if the Democ­rats don’t win there, they are unlike­ly to win else­where.

The incum­bent Repub­li­can, Martha McSal­ly, is a par­tic­u­lar­ly weak can­di­date.

McSal­ly was defeat­ed in her run for Arizona’s oth­er Sen­ate seat in 2018, los­ing to Demo­c­rat Kyrsten Sine­ma. McSal­ly was the first Repub­li­can to lose a Sen­ate race in Ari­zona since the 1980s, and her defeat was wide­ly blamed on a poor­­­ly-run cam­paign, in which she cozied up to Don­ald Trump despite his low approval rat­ing in the state. Despite the embar­rass­ing defeat, she was appoint­ed to her cur­rent posi­tion by Gov­er­nor Doug Ducey, to serve out the remain­der of John McCain’s term.

In con­trast to McSally’s weak posi­tion, her Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent is one of the strongest con­tenders in the entire coun­try.

Mark Kel­ly is a new­com­er to elec­toral pol­i­tics, but has a great deal of expe­ri­ence in the polit­i­cal world thanks to his wife, for­mer Con­gress­woman Gab­by Gif­fords.

Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords

U.S. Sen­ate can­di­date Mark Kel­ly and his wife, for­mer Con­gress­woman Gab­by Gif­fords (Cam­paign pho­to)

The cou­ple rock­et­ed to nation­al fame in 2011 in trag­ic cir­cum­stances; an assas­si­na­tion attempt on the con­gress­woman killed six peo­ple and left her with brain dam­age. Gif­fords resigned from her posi­tion, but she and her hus­band stayed in the pub­lic spot­light thanks to their staunch sup­port of gun respon­si­bil­i­ty.

In 2018, McSal­ly tried to use her record as an Air Force vet­er­an as a dif­fer­en­tia­tor against her Demo­c­ra­t­ic rival, to lit­tle effect. This time around, her mil­i­tary cre­den­tials will prob­a­bly mat­ter even less. McSal­ly may have flown in the cock­pit of a fight­er jet, but Mark Kel­ly has pilot­ed a Space Shut­tle. As both a Navy pilot and an astro­naut, Kel­ly has a sto­ried career that he can ref­er­ence con­stant­ly – to the extent that his cam­paign logo seems to be draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from Starfleet.

Mark Kelly (left) has flown multiple missions in the Space Shuttle

Mark Kel­ly (left) has flown mul­ti­ple mis­sions in the Space Shut­tle (Pho­to: NASA, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Kel­ly is not just an impres­sive can­di­date with a resume that would make a polit­i­cal con­sul­tant drool; he has a for­mi­da­ble cam­paign machine. Kelly’s high pro­file before his Sen­ate run and his tight rela­tion­ship with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s estab­lish­ment ensured that his cam­paign would be flush with funds from the start.

Unlike most Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lengers, Kel­ly has been able to con­sis­tent­ly out-raise the Repub­li­can incum­bent, rais­ing over $20 mil­lion last year.

This finan­cial advan­tage may be one of the key fac­tors in the race.

Many Democ­rats have found that the stay-at-home orders prompt­ed by the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic have made tra­di­tion­al cam­paign­ing activ­i­ties dif­fi­cult. Mean­while, vot­ers forced to stay at home are the­o­ret­i­cal­ly exposed to more adver­tis­ing than ever through TV and online, which makes the Repub­li­can Par­ty’s strength – hav­ing more cor­po­rate mon­ey to spend on polit­i­cal ads – more pow­er­ful.

In the case of Ari­zona, though, McSal­ly is like­ly to be out­spent by Kel­ly.

Besides, her 2018 cam­paign proved that she is not very effec­tive at using cam­paign ads to her advan­tage. How much mon­ey you have mat­ters, but what is ulti­mate­ly more impor­tant is how you spend it.

While a lot can change in six months, espe­cial­ly in the era of COVID-19, right now, cir­cum­stances in the Grand Canyon State are look­ing good for the Democ­rats.

Ari­zona has been slid­ing away from the Repub­li­cans for a num­ber of years and Mark Kelly’s can­di­da­cy seems to be accel­er­at­ing that process. In the past month alone, polling shows Kelly’s lead over McSal­ly increas­ing by 4%.

Div­ing into the details only makes the sit­u­a­tion look worse for Repub­li­cans. Mari­co­pa Coun­ty (Arizona’s most pop­u­lous coun­ty and a for­mer Repub­li­can strong­hold) has seen Kelly’s lead increase from 5% to 18% over the past year. Mean­while, on the statewide lev­el, inde­pen­dents break for Kel­ly by a two to one mar­gin.

If Mark Kel­ly wins, he is unlike­ly to be a notable pro­gres­sive voice in the Sen­ate. His cam­paign plat­form large­ly reflects the incre­men­tal­ism that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty’s estab­lish­ment prefers, but there are good rea­sons for pro­gres­sives to be excit­ed about his cam­paign. Vic­to­ry in Ari­zona – a bor­der state that Trump nar­row­ly won in 2016– would be a land­mark rejec­tion of Trump’s racist, anti-immi­­­grant agen­da.

Fur­ther­more, Kel­ly is a pow­er­ful advo­cate of gun respon­si­bil­i­ty with a com­pelling per­son­al sto­ry to back his advo­ca­cy. He could do a whole lot of good for the coun­try if Ari­zo­nans elect him to the Unit­ed States Sen­ate.

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