By Jim EllisDec. 20, 2018 — Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix) defeated Rep. Martha McSally (R-Tucson) for the open Arizona seat by 55,900 votes in November, but ironically now both are headed to Washington as new members of the US Senate.
Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced that he is appointing Rep. McSally to fill the Senate vacancy after interim Sen. Jon Kyl (R) resigns on Dec. 31. McSally will then serve the next two years of the current term and looks to stand for a special election that will run concurrently with the regular 2020 election cycle. Whoever wins that election will then have the opportunity of running for a full six-year term in 2022 as the elected incumbent.
The late Sen. John McCain (R) won for the sixth time in 2016, meaning four full years remain before this seat next comes in-cycle.
The reaction to McSally’s appointment was predictably partisan. Republicans were generating positive comments mostly about her strong record of military service while Democrats responded that Arizona voters already rejected the Tucson House member, and saying they will beat her again in 2020.
While true that senator-elect Sinema did win the election just past, the battle was hard fought, and the victory spread ended close, 50-48 percent. McSally led through most of the counting and the final result was determined days after the last vote was cast. Therefore, suggesting that the state’s voters overwhelmingly rejected McSally is quite a stretch.
Arizona has 15 counties, and McSally won 10 of them. Gov. Ducey, who rode to a 56-41 percent re-election victory, carried 11. The difference was Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest population entity, and home to 61.4 percent of the state’s residents. It is clear that if McSally is to win the 2020 special election, she must drastically improve her performance in this dominant county.
Sen-Elect Sinema carried Maricopa by 50.3–46.9 percent, a margin of 60,256 votes. McSally ran ahead in the rest of the state, 47.4–47.0 percent, a difference of 4,356 votes. The newly appointed senator’s Maricopa County problem is underscored when comparing her performance with that of Gov. Ducey.
While McSally lost the county by more than 60,000 votes, Gov. Ducey won it by just over 197,000 ballots, capturing 800,210 votes or 55.0 percent against Democratic nominee David Garcia. Statewide, Ducey won 56-42 percent.
From a political perspective, McSally must begin to secure the statewide Republican base during her incumbency period to avoid the costly late primary that she endured in the open Senate race. Arizonans nominate their candidates in late August, which gives a new nominee only a short window to build a general election victory coalition after winning an arduous primary campaign.
Earlier this year, Rep. McSally defeated former state Sen. Kelli Ward and ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the Republican primary, both from her political right. Now, she must successfully unify the Republican base for the 2020 campaign, which is a must if she is to defeat a strong Democrat in the new special election.
This time, however, it is the Democrats who look to have a contested primary because it is doubtful that another candidate will do as well as Sinema is securing the party base. This is especially so considering a highly contentious Democratic presidential primary will have unfolded in the same cycle.
In all, McSally, even in a losing effort, secured over 1.13 million votes and raised just under $22 million for her statewide effort. She will be well positioned to do even better on both fronts in 2020.
Among the two most prominent individuals mentioned as being possible candidates are Republican-turned-Democrat former Attorney General Grant Woods, and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Phoenix) who was just elected to his third term. Both issued highly negative statements about Rep. McSally’s appointment as soon as the Ducey announcement made his action official.