By Jim EllisFeb. 15, 2019 — Intrigue is already building in the Arizona US Senate special election. On Tuesday, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, a Democrat, announced his candidacy for the party nomination. The next day, he claimed more than $600,000 had come pouring into his campaign literally overnight after making his declaration. Kelly, you remember, is the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tucson) who was tragically shot in 2011 but miraculously survived a bullet passing through her head.
While many might take his brandishing the financial number as signaling appointed Republican Sen. Martha McSally that he is going to run a tough and well financed campaign, at this point the move is likely first directed toward his potential Democratic opponent.
US Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Phoenix) was first elected in 2014 to replace then-Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Phoenix) who retired. Rep. Gallego has publicly stated on several occasions that he is considering running for the Senate in 2020. In fact, on Kelly’s announcement day, the congressman tweeted a message saying that he is still interested in running and will decide shortly.
According to Arizona sources, Gallego would like to hold his announcement until the Phoenix mayoral special election concludes next month. A special election is necessitated for that office because then-Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton (D) was elected to succeed Kyrsten Sinema in the 9th Congressional District seat.
The original special primary was held concurrently with the regular election day, Nov. 6, 2018, and Kate Gallego, the congressman’s ex-wife, advanced into the March 12 run-off against former Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, also a Democrat. Though the Gallegos are divorced, they are still political allies and he reportedly does not want to upstage her chances of winning the special election. But, it is clear that Kelly is now intensifying the pressure upon his potential primary opponent in hope that he might decide against running.
Kelly clearly sees the danger of becoming embroiled in a primary battle too soon before the general election. Arizona holds a late primary — in 2018, the nomination vote occurred on Aug. 28 — and coming through a bruising primary makes the transition into the general election even more difficult.
Sen. McSally faced this problem herself in 2018. Running against both former state Sen. Kelli Ward and ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, McSally had to concentrate on winning the party nomination virtually all the way to the beginning of September.
She did so easily, but still did not receive majority backing since the other two candidates divided the most conservative voters’ support. Therefore, she had to spend the first part of the shortened general election cycle firming her Republican base in order to position herself to battle Sinema on an even footing. Thus, the primary situation is likely one reason McSally fell two percentage points short in the general election.
For the Democrats, a tough two-way primary between Kelly and Gallego — and there will likely be several minor candidates entering as well — would likely be problematic for the eventual winner. Such an intra-party race portends to be close. And, both will have to move decidedly to the left to capture the most partisan Democratic voters committed to voting in the lower turnout primary election during the dog days of a hot Arizona summer. This could force the eventual nominee to quickly tact back toward the ideological center post-primary with time quickly elapsing.
The 2018 Arizona Senate vote was interesting in that it demonstrated political weakness for McSally in the state’s most critical geographic region. While she lost to now-Sen. Sinema by just under 56,000 votes statewide, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was recording a victory of more than 336,000 votes in the same election. This, in a governor’s race that drew 203,493 fewer total voters than the Senate contest.
In fact, the difference between the McSally and Ducey performance came down to the state’s dominant Maricopa County that houses 61 percent of the state’s population. Gov. Ducey carried Maricopa by 197,155 votes while McSally lost it by 60,256, a swing of nine percentage points between the two Republican totals. Overall, both Ducey and McSally carried the same 10 of the other 14 counties, but the Maricopa County totals proved the difference in the final race results.
Already, the Arizona special election is beginning as one of the country’s most interesting Senate races, which is not expected to change anytime soon. The eventual winner will serve the balance of the late Sen. John McCain’s (R) final term, and then be eligible to run for a full six-year stint in 2022.