Arizona’s 2020 Senate Race Already Looks Tough

Signs point to the Arizona Senate special election being a key race in determining who controls the Senate in 2020. On the Republican side of the race to fill the late Sen. John McCain’s old seat, Sen. Martha McSally — who was appointed to McCain’s seat after losing her 2018 bid for the state’s other seat — is expected to run to finish off the last two years of McCain’s term. But she could face a formidable challenger in retired astronaut and Navy veteran Mark Kelly, who announced he’ll run for the seat as a Democrat last month. But Kelly could face his own adversary in the primary, so here’s a detailed look at the possible Democratic primary battle that lies ahead and an early look at the all-important general election.

The Democratic primary could get heated

After announcing his plans to run for Senate, Kelly raised $1.1 million in the first two days of his campaign, putting him on par with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris in initial fundraising hauls for their 2020 presidential campaigns. Considering Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema spent $24 million to narrowly defeat McSally in 2018, Kelly will likely need a similar budget for the state’s upcoming Senate race, so his early fundraising haul is promising. And Kelly is no stranger to politics. He is the husband of former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot in the head during an assassination attempt in Tucson in 2011 that killed six and wounded 13. In the aftermath, Giffords and Kelly founded a political organization to fight gun violence, and in the 2018 midterms, their organization spent nearly $7 million to campaign against Republican members of Congress. But despite being a gun control activist, Kelly has indicated he will embrace a centrist, bipartisan approach, similar to how Sinema positioned herself in the 2018 race.

But Kelly may not have the Democratic field to himself. Rep. Ruben Gallego is also eyeing the race, and his entrance would set up a centrist vs. progressive battle for the party’s nomination. Gallego is a three-term congressman and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a collection of the most liberal members on Capitol Hill. What’s more, Gallego is a veteran, which could help him match qualifications with both Kelly and McSally, who was the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot in combat.

How might a Gallego-Kelly primary play out? Well, if we just look at Arizona’s electorate, Kelly might have an advantage. Although Gallego, like 23 percent of the state’s electorate, is Hispanic, the majority of Democratic primary voters are white,1 which might undercut any edge his heritage gives him in a primary. Kelly might also be able to make an electability argument in a primary race against Gallego: An early general election survey of the race from OH Predictive Insights found McSally ahead of Kelly by just 2 percentage points while she led Gallego by 8 points. Still, Gallego might be able to use Kelly’s voting record against him, as Kelly has voted in a Republican primary and has switched his party identification between independent and Democratic in the past. Kelly has also caught flak for taking money from big companies while working the speaking circuit.

Even more critical is the role geography can play in a primary, as candidates tend to get the most support from their home base. This could boost Gallego, who represents part of the state’s biggest city, Phoenix. Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix, usually casts about half or more of all votes in Arizona’s Democratic primaries. Meanwhile, Pima County — which covers Tucson, where Giffords and Kelly are based — casts less than a quarter of the vote. So if Gallego does run, Kelly will have to keep the margins close in Maricopa and elsewhere while performing strongly in Pima to win the primary.

The Phoenix area dominates Arizona’s Democratic primaries

Share of Arizona Democratic primary votes cast in Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix) and Pima County (which includes Tucson) compared to the rest of the state, 2012-2018

Year Primary Maricopa Pima Rest of Arizona
2012* Congress and state offices 47.9% 25.1% 27.0%
2014 Congress and state offices 50.0 21.3 28.7
2016 President 53.5 23.3 23.2
2016 Congress and state offices 50.9 23.3 25.8
2018 Congress and state offices 55.8 21.6 22.7
Average 51.6 22.9 25.5

*There was no 2012 Democratic presidential primary in Arizona.
State primaries are held in August; the 2016 presidential primary was in March 2016.

Source: Arizona Secretary of State

Should Gallego run, it’s likely this primary will be competitive, which could make things difficult for Democrats in the general election because Arizona holds its state primaries very late2 — the last Tuesday in August — which leaves roughly two months to consolidate support for a general election candidate.

McSally found herself in a similar situation in the 2018 Republican primary when she was up against former Maricopa county Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state Sen. Kelli Ward, though McSally pulled away at the end with 55 percent of the vote; meanwhile Sinema coasted to victory in the Democratic primary with 79 percent of the vote against a minor opponent. So if the 2020 Democratic primary proves to be contentious and McSally doesn’t face a notable primary challenger of her own, she could stand to benefit from a heated Democratic primary. But she too could face her own primary — some Republicans didn’t want her to fill McCain’s seat because her performance in the 2018 race raised concerns that she would lose a 2020 race as well.

The general election could be close

Regardless of who wins the Democratic primary, Democrats face a tough opponent in McSally. Although McSally lost the 2018 Senate race, she raised more than $20 million and has experience winning elections in a competitive House district, which she held for two terms until she stepped aside to run for Senate this past November and Democrats captured her old seat. McSally has also received national attention for sharing her experience of being raped while she was serving in the Air Force. McSally’s one of several women in Congress who, since the rise of the #MeToo movement, have spoken openly about their own experiences with sexual assault or domestic violence. McSally’s support of sexual assault survivors may help her cut across party lines and change the perception of the #MeToo movement as a liberal women’s issue.

More broadly, the potential competitiveness of the Arizona contest speaks to the state’s evolution toward becoming a battleground state in U.S. politics. Sinema’s 2018 victory over McSally came on the heels of President Trump carrying the state by just 3.5 points in the 2016 election, the smallest GOP edge in Arizona since 1996, when Bill Clinton won the state — the only Democrat to do so since 1952. So despite its Republican lean (9 points more Republican than the country as a whole prior to the 2018 election,3) Arizona could see a lot of presidential activity in 2020, which could influence the state’s down-ballot elections.

This Senate race will be one of the top-tier contests in 2020 — handicappers currently view it as a toss-up (Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball) or lean it toward the GOP (Cook Political Report). As the GOP has a 53-47 edge in the Senate,4 most paths for Democrats retaking the Senate require capturing this seat (and others) because it may be difficult for Democrats to retain the Alabama seat that they won in 2017. So just like in 2018, Arizona will host a high-octane Senate contest, one that could be pivotal in deciding the Senate majority.


From ABC News:
Who is Martha McSally?


Martha McSally May Run For Senate Twice In Two Years. How Have Others Like Her Fared?

Despite losing a Senate election last November, Republican Martha McSally still became a U.S. senator. She was appointed to fill the seat held by the late Sen. John McCain,1 but to hold on to the seat, she will have to win a special election in 2020. Assuming she runs and wins her party’s nomination, McSally would be the 12th major-party candidate since 1984 to contest a Senate general election just two years after losing one.2 It’s a small sample, but the bad news for McSally is that although almost all of those second-chance candidates improved upon their previous performance, only four of them won on the second try.

Senate candidates looking for a second chance rarely win

Change in Senate vote margin for candidates who lost a Senate general election and then ran again two years later, since 1984

1st election 2nd election
State Candidate Party Year Margin Won Year Margin Won Change
WA Slade Gorton* R 1986 -2.0 1988 +2.2 +4.2
OH Mike DeWine R 1992 -8.7 1994 +14.2 +22.9
NV John Ensign R 1998 -0.1 2000 +15.4 +15.5
SD John Thune R 2002 -0.1 2004 +1.2 +1.3
NC Erskine Bowles D 2002 -8.6 2004 -4.6 +4.0
MS Erik Fleming D 2006 -28.7 2008 -22.9 +5.8
DE Christine O’Donnell R 2008 -29.4 2010 -16.6 +12.8
CT Linda McMahon R 2010 -11.9 2012 -11.8 +0.2
WV John Raese R 2010 -10.1 2012 -24.1 -14.0
MA/NH Scott Brown* R 2012 -7.6 2014 -3.3 +4.3
DE Kevin Wade R 2012 -37.5 2014 -13.6 +23.9
AZ Martha McSally R 2018 -2.3 2020 TBD TBD

*Gorton was an incumbent running for re-election 1986. List only includes Senate general elections that took place on regularly scheduled federal November election dates.

In 2012, Republican Scott Brown ran for re-election and lost in Massachusetts; in 2014, he unsuccessfully sought a seat in New Hampshire.

Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, CQ Voting and Elections Collection

To be clear, we shouldn’t project too much about McSally’s chances from this data set, since this is a small sample — 12 elections across almost 35 years — and several of these candidates ran under unusual circumstances. For instance, Slade Gorton was a sitting senator running for a second term in 1986 when he lost his re-election bid; two years later, he came back and won the race for the other Senate seat in his state. Then there’s the very peculiar case of Scott Brown, who lost his 2012 re-election bid to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and then ran in a different state two years later. He did a bit better the second time but still came up 3 points short.3 And Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell was something of a fringe candidate running at the height of the tea party movement. Although she did better in 2010 than in 2008, she still lost by almost 17 points the second time around, and she may have cost Republicans a pickup opportunity in a GOP wave year.

And even though most of these repeat candidates never made it to the Senate, for a few of them, the initial defeat was not a kiss of death, especially if the race was relatively close the first time they ran. The three who lost by the narrowest margins the first time around — Gorton, John Ensign and John Thune — all went on to win two years later. This might augur well for McSally, who lost by a little over 2 points in 2018.

But there is some evidence that changes in the electoral environment and the type of opponent a candidate faced can spur a successful turnaround — or at least this appears to be true in three of the four cases where the repeat candidate won on the second attempt.

Ohio’s Mike DeWine, for example, first ran unsuccessfully in 1992 against three-term Democratic Sen. John Glenn, who had always won more than 60 percent of the vote in past elections but garnered only 51 percent against DeWine. However, when DeWine ran again two years later, he easily won an open seat as part of the 1994 Republican wave. As for John Ensign of Nevada, he lost by just 428 votes to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1998, which was an unusually good midterm for Democrats, who held the White House and so would be expected to lose seats in Congress under most circumstances. But two years later, Ensign had no trouble winning an open-seat race in 2000 while George W. Bush carried Nevada for the GOP at the presidential level. Like Ensign, John Thune of South Dakota lost by fewer than 600 votes in 2002 to incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. But Thune then defeated Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle by 1 point in 2004 while Bush carried South Dakota by 21 points. As for Slade Gorton of Washington, he successfully mounted a Senate comeback attempt after losing as an incumbent in 1986. He narrowly won by 2 points during a presidential cycle in which Democrat Michael Dukakis carried Washington state by less than 2 points.

As for McSally, she’ll hope to benefit from Arizona’s Republican lean and a lift from the presidential coattails, but considering President Trump only won the state by 3.5 points in 2016, McSally may not be able to count on a baseline GOP edge in 2020.

What’s more, of the repeat candidates we looked at, only McSally was appointed to a Senate seat following a defeat. So she’ll be running as an incumbent of sorts in 2020, but that’s not necessarily to her advantage. Appointed incumbents have a mediocre re-election record compared to their elected counterparts: Prior to the 2018 election, 53 percent of appointed senators who ran for another term had won re-election, compared to 78 percent of elected senators.

McSally’s appointment may not promise much for her future electoral success, but appointments are an important method of getting women into the GOP caucus — and the Senate in general.

One-fifth of women in the Senate started as appointees

Female senators in the 116th Congress by party and the share who were appointed to their first term

Female senators
Party Total initially appointed Share appointed
Democratic 17 2 12%
Republican 8 3 38
All 25 5 20

Includes senators such as Lisa Murkowski and Kirsten Gillibrand who have since won elected terms.

Source: U.S. SENATE

In the 116th Senate, 11 out of 100 members first joined the Senate as appointees, although many of them were appointed years ago and are now serving elected terms. Five of those 11 — three Republicans and two Democrats — are women. Although both parties have about equal numbers of women in the current Senate who were initially appointed, those appointees account for 38 percent of all GOP women in the Senate compared to just 12 percent of Democratic women. This reflects the makeup of the two parties — women are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans — but also how each party’s electorate responds to women on the ballot.

“McSally was appointed in a political moment when we aren’t seeing Republican women running in large numbers,” Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told me. “Even when they do run, Republican women are struggling to get through GOP primaries.”

According to the center, in the 2018 cycle, 48 percent of women who ran for Senate as Democrats won their party’s nomination, while 36 percent of GOP women candidates won.4 In the House, 51 percent of Democratic women and 43 percent of Republican women won party nominations. In Senate races, about 40 percent more women sought office as Democrats than as Republicans, and in House contests, about three times more Democratic women than Republican women entered the race. The gap between Republican and Democratic women — where fewer women seek a GOP nomination, as the chart below shows, and those who do are less likely to win it — contributes to a growing partisan gap in female representation in Congress.

So appointments like McSally’s are an important part of increasing the number of women in the Senate as a whole, but especially the number of Republican women. Overall, 20 percent of women and 8 percent of men in the current Senate were appointed to their first terms, but close to half of all GOP women senators started out as appointees. Historically, appointments have provided the initial entrance for nearly one-third of women senators dating back to the first woman senator, Rebecca Felton of Georgia, who was appointed in 1922. The Democratic Party has sent more women to Congress in recent years, but Republicans are sending fewer women to Congress this year, even though McSally’s appointment helped bring the total number of women serving in the Senate to a record high of 25.

Five of the eight Republican women in the Senate are up for re-election in 2020,5 so McSally’s re-election success — or failure — will be play a major role in determining not only the overall success rate of repeat Senate candidates but also the relative diversity of the GOP caucus.

Martha McSally Will Probably Vote Like McCain In The Senate

If at first you lose a Senate race … hope for an appointment! Despite a narrow defeat in Arizona’s 2018 U.S. Senate race, Republican Rep. Martha McSally will still be headed to Congress’s upper chamber next year. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced on Tuesday that he is appointing McSally to fill the state’s other Senate seat, formerly held by the late Sen. John McCain and currently held by Jon Kyl, who Ducey initially appointed to the seat; Kyl announced last week that he will resign on Dec. 31.

So what might we expect from Sen. McSally? Well, perhaps she won’t be too different from McCain. According to data from Voteview, a system that measures the political ideology of all senators and representatives based on their voting records, both McCain and McSally were more moderate than most other Republicans in the 115th Congress.1 In fact, less than a third of congressional Republicans were more moderate than McSally (29 percent) and McCain (30 percent). Both were squarely in the left wing of their party. However, despite having a relatively more moderate ideology score, McSally voted in line with President Trump in most cases, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score.

During her two terms in the House, McSally represented the Arizona 2nd, a R+1 battleground district that Democrats won in November. That purple electorate probably influenced her moderate approach. If we just look at McSally’s first term, she had an even less conservative voting record, so she has shifted a bit further to the right during her tenure, perhaps in anticipation of her Senate bid and the fact that she needed to beat staunch conservative challengers like Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio to win the Republican nomination. Still, Arizona looks likely to be a politically competitive state going forward, so if McSally mimics McCain’s record as a “maverick”, a less-than-hardline voting record might work out for her, electorally-speaking. He did win six Senate elections from 1986 to 2016, all by margins greater than 10 percentage points.

Then again, members of Congress sometimes shift ideologically when they move from the House to the Senate. Take Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, for example. She went from being one of the most moderate Democrats in the House to one of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate. That shift can be partly explained by the leftward shift of the Democratic Party overall, as well as Gillibrand’s potential presidential ambitions. But it’s also reflective of her switch from representing a competitive Upstate New York district to serving a very liberal state. McSally might find herself subject to a similar pull, just in the opposite direction, moving from an R+1 district to an R+9 state. Electoral concerns certainly won’t be far from her mind. Provided McSally stays in the position, she faces a re-election bid in a 2020 special election, and if she wins that, she would then have to run in the seat’s regularly-scheduled election in 2022. McSally’s next primary could also be a real challenge given the dissatisfaction among some Arizona Republicans over how she handled her 2018 Senate campaign and subsequent defeat against Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

McSally’s record in the next Congress will be an important factor in that primary, as it could encourage or discourage a significant challenger.