Scramble for the Senate: Arizona
Scramble for the Senate: Arizona

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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