Battleground Arizona critical for White House and Senate races
Mark Kelly has a good chance of unseating GOP Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona. | Carolyn Kaster/AP

“I never expected to be here,” says Mark Kelly, running in Arizona for U.S. Senate against sitting GOP Sen. Martha McSally. “Gabby was always the member of Congress in the family, and the person who taught me everything I know about how to use policy to improve people’s lives.”

Gabby is, of course, Gabrielle Giffords, U.S. Representative from Arizona’s 8th Congressional District who served from 2007 to 2012. Giffords was gunned down in an assassination attempt at a public meeting with constituents in Tucson on January 8, 2011, when 19 people were hit and six killed. She survived with profound brain damage, making a protracted, partial recovery which in all likelihood will never be complete. She and her husband Mark have become among the nation’s leading gun-control advocates.

“I bring a different set of experiences to the table than most in Washington,” Kelly continues. “Seeing the challenges that we face as a state and a country, I know I can put these experiences to use to make a difference in the lives of people here in Arizona.”

Kelly, 56, was a career combat pilot, engineer, and NASA astronaut, the Space Shuttle’s pilot on two missions, and commander of two others. He and Giffords married in 2007.

“Through 25 years in the Navy and at NASA, I learned how to solve really tough problems, and I also learned to get along with and lead people from different backgrounds and different opinions in service of a greater mission. Unlike the federal government, the International Space Station can’t just shut down when people don’t get along. And when you’re orbiting the Earth at 25 times the speed of sound and bad stuff starts to happen, you have to work the problem as a team, and you can’t dismiss ideas based on the politics of the person offering them.

“That kind of perspective teaches you to look problems in the face, not ignore them like so many in Washington do. I’ve never looked at things through a partisan lens, and I believe Arizona needs an independent voice representing them in the Senate.”

That leads him to say, “I’ll always put what’s right for Arizona and the country above any political party. And why my campaign isn’t taking corporate PAC money.”

Kelly says he’s “running for the United States Senate because Washington is broken.”

One of the reasons Washington is “broken” has a lot to do with Martha McSally, the incumbent senator Kelly is struggling to unseat, who happens also to be a former Air Force colonel and the first woman combat pilot.

In the 2018 Senate race to replace retiring Republican Jeff Flake, Democratic U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema won over GOP Rep. Martha McSally by 3.76 percentage points (almost 56,000 votes). That race showed that the rapidly changing demographics in Barry Goldwater’s Arizona have made politics more competitive there, allowing for challenges to GOP hegemony in statewide races. Her victory is notable, too, in that she openly identifies as a bisexual—the first in the U.S. Senate—signifying that Arizonans are far less provincial than the rest of the country might presume. Despite some history with the left in her younger days, which is well remembered in certain circles in the state, Sinema is no progressive firebrand, however. Feeling the shifting winds of the state’s voters at her back, she has voted with President Trump’s agenda 51.9% of the time, second-most for a Democratic senator. This behavior may be calculated to display a verifiable record of working “across the aisle” which could be useful for any future political aspirations she may hold.

So, how did Martha McSally wind up in the Senate anyway?

Arizona’s senior Sen. John McCain died on Aug. 25, 2018, and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Jon Kyl, the far-right former U.S. Senator for Arizona from 1995 to 2013, to return to the Senate as McCain’s replacement. At that moment, McSally was engaged in the Senate race against Sinema. The timeline of events makes it clear that Kyl was only going to serve until the end of the calendar year. At that point, on Dec. 18, 2018—after McSally had lost her own election—Gov. Ducey announced that he was appointing her to the seat. Given her voting record in Congress, it is believed by many that Mitch McConnell had a strong hand in asking for her as a loyal ally in the Senate. This move elicited widespread protest not only from progressives in the state but even from conservatives, including the McCain family, who found the appointment “anti-democratic.” McSally was succeeded in Congress by a Democrat, Ann Kirkpatrick, representing Arizona’s 2nd C.D.

The Nov. 3 election, therefore, serves to fill out the remainder of McCain’s original six-year term, so the winner will only serve two years before another election for that seat in 2022. The winner will be seated immediately, as soon as the election is certified, not having to wait for January’s investiture of the new Congress.

One of the ironies about McSally, but a telling one, is that as an elected representative in 2014 and 2016, she was not quite so far right. For example, as a victim of rape and sexual abuse herself, during her military career as well as earlier in life, she pointedly did not endorse Donald Trump for the presidency in 2016. But even if she might have been marginally considered a “moderate Republican,” the breed does not exist anymore. McSally has come full around and gotten into line, supporting Trump’s 2017 corporate tax giveaway. Politico wrote: “Martha McSally wants to make one thing clear before she launches an Arizona Senate campaign: She’s a big fan of President Donald Trump.”

In 2020, McSally affirms that Trump has her vote, and she is fighting to keep the Senate in GOP hands. She ticks off all the right Republican boxes. She voted to acquit Donald Trump in the Senate, she has praised him for his COVID-19 response and does not support any further pandemic relief funding. She wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, returning healthcare to the law of the jungle, privatize Social Security, and raise the retirement age. She opposes an increase in the federal minimum wage, she has received generously from gun rights groups and voted accordingly. Her foreign policy views have been described as “hawkish.” Not accepting the finality of the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell, she is still against same-gender marriage, and opposes abortion in “nearly all cases.” The American Conservative Union gave her an 84% rating in 2018, and she got an 87% from Americans for Prosperity. She has voted with Donald Trump 95% of the time.

This is the senator Mark Kelly seeks to unseat on Nov. 3.

Where does Mark Kelly stand?

“We’re all concerned about the same things,” Kelly has come to see in the course of his campaign—“being able to afford health care for our families, providing our kids with the education and the opportunities they deserve, whether wages are going to keep up with increasing costs, if the Social Security and Medicare that you have paid into and earned are going to be there when you retire.”

Kelly stands for “ending the tax breaks for the super-wealthy and big corporations that are exploding the national debt while not benefiting working and middle-class Arizonans”; also “investing now in things that will pay off for our country down the road, like infrastructure and research and development.”

Kelly is a cancer survivor. And being the husband of Gabby Giffords, who owes her life to quality medical care, he deeply values having a reliable health care system and coverage people can rely on. Seeing how many Arizona families still lack affordable health coverage, he believes health care is a human right irrespective of a pre-existing condition. He supports the public option that would compete with private insurers, challenging the pharmaceutical industry to lower the cost of prescription drugs, greater transparency and oversight of hospital costs, and going after those responsible for the opioid epidemic.

For candidate Kelly, Medicare and Social Security are “solemn promises” not be gambled away in the stock market.

As a veteran, Kelly advocates for expanded services for our changing veteran population, from the GI Bill to the VA, and programs designed to translate skills learned in the service into good-paying jobs.

Arizona is a border state, where emotions around immigration and security can often run very high. He argues for a more rational and humane border policy “in a way that is true to our values, provides for the workforce we need, and doesn’t separate children from their parents.” He supports protection for the DREAMers, including more than 25,500 individuals living in Arizona, “who were brought here as children, have been educated here, and played by the rules.”

He also stands for removing barriers to women’s success and supports equal pay as a justice and family issue. He acknowledges that women of color are more likely to be subject to wage discrimination and that most families today rely on two incomes to survive. Workers have to be paid a living wage.

In short, Kelly’s campaign aligns closely with the Biden program.

How is the race shaping up?

Earlier in the season, Democrats turned out in the primary in near record-breaking numbers and outpaced GOP voters. Over the summer, CNN was saying Martha McSally is “a clear underdog,” and other commentators viewed her loss as “likely.”

By August, the race was tightening and beginning to look tied. McSally was outraising Kelly financially, eradicating his lead in great part due to a $21 million investment by Mitch McConnell’s Senate PAC. Attack ads helped her to gain ground among Independents in what now must be considered a swing state.

Mike Pence flew to Arizona to stop Mark Kelly’s momentum, and Trump visited Arizona for rallies in August and again on Weds., Oct 28. Ahead of his latest visit, Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego and Nevada Rep. Dina Titus released a joint statement, saying:

“As Donald Trump tries to save his sinking campaign in Arizona and Nevada today, it’s clear that the stakes of this election have never been higher. Trump has openly called for the Affordable Care Act to be terminated, leaving health care coverage for hundreds of thousands of Arizonans and Nevadans hanging in the balance. And by giving up on containing the pandemic, Trump is abandoning our small businesses and working families who desperately need economic relief and leadership in the White House. Arizona and Nevada families deserve leaders who will fight for them and help them build back better. The only way we will recover from Trump’s failed leadership is to vote early for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

As of Oct. 30, Biden was up by an average of 3 points in Arizona. But earlier in the week, End Citizens United posted, hysterically but also perhaps not wrongly, that “Mark Kelly is LOSING to GOP Senator Martha McSally. NO!!!” offering 700% matches for contributions to his campaign. Other polls at the end of October show Kelly ahead: RCP (Real Clear Politics) published a polling average of 3.5% advantage for Kelly.

But polls can be inconsistent and wrong. On the ground, many labor and political activists are expressing confidence that Biden—and Kelly—will prevail. Some intangibles are powerful factors in the senatorial race. McSally doesn’t have a lot of admirers and is considered personally dislikable, a view stemming not only from her sketchy appointment as senator but from a much longer history in the state as a dreary, negative force with no distinctive issues or causes in which she has invested any special passion.

Even at Trump’s latest airport rallies in Tucson, Prescott, and Bullhead City, directly across the Colorado River from Laughlin, Nev., he only briefly called McSally up to stage once for little more than a shout-out to underline her talking points. “Everything is on the line and my race is about the Senate majority,” she said. “We’ve got to bring it home, Arizona. My race will decide the direction of the country. The radical left can take over in the Senate. So if you want someone who’s going to be Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s fifty-first vote to take away our freedoms and our Second Amendment rights…then you got a guy named Mark Kelly. But if you want a fighter, if you want to continue to have a fighter who is proud to work with President Trump for the great comeback and strong military and secure our borders…I’m your girl, Arizona.”

By contrast, everyone in Arizona knows what a wonderful husband Mark Kelly has been to devote all his attention to his wife’s care and recovery after that life-changing event of 2011. His running for office now is possible only because of the remarkable progress she has made.

One hopeful event was that in a recent court victory in favor of Mi Familia Vota and the Arizona Coalition for Change, the voter registration deadline in Arizona was extended by 10 days. Back in March, Arizona imposed a stay-at-home order and other restrictions on day-to-day interactions in order to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, and these were only lifted in mid-August. During that time voter registration efforts virtually ceased. Thanks to the court decision, 35,000 more voters in Arizona registered to vote and will be able to participate in the Nov. 3 election.

The Mexican-American voice is critical in Arizona. It is growing each year and is largely Democratic in orientation. That vote will go overwhelmingly to Kelly. Mi Familia Vota was heavily backed by SEIU, and the larger labor movement in the state is solidly backing the Biden-Harris and Kelly ticket.

Another progressive driver in this electoral cycle is Prop 208, “Invest in Ed,” an initiative to tax the wealthiest in Arizona to fund education, which is always a popular issue.

It would be remiss to overlook the effects of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation, which comprises over 27,000 square miles and 173,000 residents spread out across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Politically, the Navajo Nation leans blue: In 2016, Hillary Clinton won over 56% of the vote in the 10 counties that include parts of the reservation. But the pandemic has struck the Navajo Nation hard, with infections reaching the highest per capita rate in the U.S. in May. This may affect the ability of many far-flung, isolated Navajo voters to participate in the election.

With its 11 Electoral College votes, Arizona may not be quite the blockbuster powerhouse of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, or Ohio. Yet it is the nation’s 14th biggest state in population and growing, so in a closely contested election, which Nov. 3 may turn out to be, 11 votes may make a difference. Eyes will be watching this critical race.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.