Arizona’s Leftward Swing Bolsters Democrat in Key Senate Race

  • Former astronaut Mark Kelly leading incumbent Martha McSally
  • Changing demographics tilting state that once elected Goldwater

Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democrat Mark Kelly will meet Tuesday, on the eve of early voting, for their only debate in a race central to the fight for the Senate majority.

Changing demographics, President Donald Trump’s sagging popularity, and eye-popping fundraising are boosting Kelly’s challenge for a seat that’s one of the most likely to flip party control. If he’s successful, it would be the second Democratic Senate victory in Arizona in two years following a 30-year drought and a second straight defeat for McSally. She was appointed to the seat following the death of the late Sen. John McCain and shortly after losing the 2018 open-seat Senate race to Kyrsten Sinema (D).

In a state that once elected conservative stalwarts such as Barry Goldwater, McSally likely can’t count on the coattails of President Donald Trump, who carried Arizona narrowly in 2016 but has trailed Democratic nominee Joe Biden in recent polls.

“People’s partisanship and their attitudes toward Trump have colored the way they view McSally,” said Barbara Norrander, a University of Arizona political scientist.

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Sen. Martha McSally is facing a tough re-election race in Arizona

Latino voters, who represent 31.7% of the electorate and a majority of whom support Biden, are playing an increasingly large role, said Lisa Sanchez, a University of Arizona political scientist.

Typically Latino turnout hasn’t been as high as other groups, she said. But if Latinos participate more this year, Sanchez said, “it will be safe to say they will be instrumental in giving a victory to the Democratic Party.”

New Arrivals

Another key factor making the state more competitive for Democrats is an influx of new voters from more-liberal states in recent years. The migration of more than 100,000 people last year from states such as California has continued to reshape the state’s political landscape, Sanchez and other said. In 2018, some 80,000 settled in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, making it the fastest-growing county for the third year in a row.

The shifting politics of the state are underscored by a New York Times/Siena College poll, conducted of likely voters the first week of October. It found Biden leading Trump 49% to 41% and Kelly ahead of McSally 50% to 39%.

In the special election to fill the remainder of McCain’s term, Kelly has sought to appeal both to the Democratic base and critical swing voters. After raising $46 million through mid-July — some $16 million more than the well-funded McSally — he’s had plenty of money to deliver his message over the airwaves.

Kelly’s pushed to protect the Affordable Care Act and its provisions covering pre-existing conditions. But at the same time he has rejected some other liberal positions, such as cutting resources for the police. Kelly’s parents were both police officers.

“Unlike some in my party, I will never vote to eliminate private health insurance,” Kelly says in a new ad. “But I will focus on making health care more affordable.”

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Glamour
Kelly and his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.)

He’s also carefully navigating the issue of gun control. Kelly’s wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), was seriously wounded by a gunman while she was meeting with constituents in a supermarket parking lot in 2011. Since then the couple have campaigned for stronger gun control measures.

But in a state with many hunters, Kelly, a retired astronaut and Navy officer, has backed the constitutional right to gun ownership and says he owns several guns himself. He also backs less controversial changes, such as a universal background check and restrictions on gun ownership for mentally ill persons, positions that have strong bipartisan support.

GOP Pitch

Republicans hope Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg will energize conservative voters. They’re also looking to appeal to Latinos with their economic policies, and argue Biden and Kelly are out to raise their taxes, McSally spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said.

“A mistake people make is assuming that these Latino voters are a monolith and they have a different issue set,” Anderegg said.

McSally, a former Air Force colonel, was the first woman to fly combat tours in the Middle East and touts her record of delivering projects and money from Washington, including during two terms in the House. But her close ties to Trump and appearances with him at places like the border wall in Yuma could jeopardize support from swing voters, Norrander said.

Anderegg noted McSally has broken with Trump on some issues, including the naming of military bases and on tariffs that could hurt cross-border commerce with Mexico, which could nudge some voters to split their tickets.

Biden recently got a Republican boost from the endorsement of Cindy McCain, wife of the late senator. McCain, however, told the Arizona Republic she won’t endorse in the Senate race.

Mario E Diaz, a Democratic consultant in the state, said recent ads are telling. While McSally unveiled an ad late last month highlighting her life story, Kelly has moved beyond straight bio ads to those discussing plans to work on the economy and health care with a “we’re all in this together” approach, he said.

“McSally seems to be focusing completely on her base and not reaching out nor expanding to independents and some conservative Democrats,” Diaz, said.

Trump had to cancel a planned trip to Arizona on Monday after he contracted the coronavirus, but the state’s swing status ensures it will remain a center of attention until Election Day.

On Thursday, the state will host Vice President Mike Pence, Biden, and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris. The trips coincide with the start of the state’s established vote-by-mail program.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at; Kyle Trygstad at