By Jim EllisOct. 30, 2017 — Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R) announcement Wednesday that he will not run for re-election has ignited a flurry of political activity in Arizona about who now might enter the newly open 2018 Senate race. Decisions are already being made, with many quickly saying they won’t run for the seat.
A great deal of attention surrounds 2nd District US Rep. Martha McSally (R-Tucson) for obvious reasons, because she is likely the best Republican candidate on paper, but the congresswoman has yet to make a public statement about running for the Senate. Published reports, however, quote sources close to her as saying she is being “inundated” with supporters urging that she run.
Winning her first congressional election in 2014, a 161-vote victory over then-Rep. Ron Barber (D-Tucson) that proved to be the closest congressional result in the country that year, and then racking up 57 percent support over former state Rep. Matt Heinz (D) last year even though Hillary Clinton was scoring a five-percentage point win in her southeastern Arizona congressional district makes Rep. McSally a proven political commodity. As a freshman House member, she raised an eye-popping $7.7 million for her first re-election effort. This year, ranking high on Democratic target lists and drawing eight announced opponents including former US Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff) who moved to Tucson right after losing to Sen. John McCain (R) in the 2016 election, Rep. McSally already has accumulated over $1.45 million for her next campaign.
With tough election wins already to her credit, proven fundraising ability, almost $1.5 million in her congressional campaign that is transferable to a Senate account, and a trailblazing military record as an Air Force pilot that made her the first US woman to fly a combat mission and command a flight squadron (retiring as a Colonel), Rep. McSally has the type of resume and record that makes her a highly attractive statewide candidate.
But others are making decisions. Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) and Trent Franks (R-Peoria/Sun City) both said yesterday that they would remain in the House. Rep. David Schweikert (R-Fountain Hills/Scottsdale) indicated he is highly unlikely to run, but did leave the door wide open to run for governor when that position next opens, likely in 2022 assuming Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is re-elected next year. Freshman Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Gilbert/Mesa) is giving no indication that he intends to run statewide. Therefore, if a Republican comes from the congressional delegation, it will be McSally.
State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, the former Trump campaign chairman for Arizona, says the playing field is now much different with Sen. Flake out of the picture. DeWit said he would not have challenged the sitting senator, but now is considering the open race. Former state Republican Party chairman Robert Graham had also been toying with the idea of entering even before Sen. Flake’s decision to depart became public, and now says he will decide in the “next week or so” (i.e., this week) about whether he will run. He and DeWit have apparently agreed, however, that they will not run against each other.
State Sen. Kelli Ward, who long ago entered the Republican primary and was leading Flake in all early polling, remains a candidate but her future now becomes more cloudy. Viewed as a weak general election statewide candidate despite holding Sen. John McCain to a 51-40 percent primary victory in 2016 and running ahead of Flake this year, it remains to be seen whether she can maintain her early momentum in an open seat situation instead of challenging Republican incumbents who are not immensely popular within the party base.
Ward was, at the very least, drawing positive comments from former presidential advisor Steve Bannon but things may now change about whether she draws future support from his affiliated political operation. As we know, Bannon has been pledging to actively oppose many establishment Republican incumbents, and was certainly after Flake, who became President Trump’s most vocal Senate adversary within the Republican conference. With him now out of the race, the Arizona campaign may be a lesser priority for Bannon especially if McSally runs.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix), who timed her Senate announcement after seeing that Flake was in deep primary trouble thus weakening him for the general, definitely finds her position changing. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Tucson), while removing himself from consideration as a Senate candidate, did speculate whether the opportunity was now arising for the party to find a more liberal alternative to Sinema. Clearly, a Sinema-McSally Senate contest, for example, would create a more difficult scenario for the Democratic congresswoman in a state that may be drifting more to the center as population demographics have changed, but still brandishes reliable Republican voting patterns in statewide elections.