August 29, 2018
Republicans are trying to defend the seat vacated by Jeff Flake, whose persistent criticism of Trump made him unpopular with conservatives
Martha McSally beats Joe Arpaio and Kelli Ward to win Arizona Republican primary
Congresswoman Martha McSally, the Republican establishment favorite, fended off competitive challenges from the far-right to face Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic congresswoman from Phoenix, setting the stage for one of the most anticipated open-seat Senate elections this year.
McSally, an air force fighter pilot, easily defeated Kelli Ward, a hardline former state senator, and Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff whose criminal conviction was pardoned by Donald Trump last year, when they split the anti-establishment vote. Sinema meanwhile soured past progressive activists Deedra Abboud. The outcome guarantees Arizona will elect its first female senator in November.
Republicans are trying to defend the seat vacated by retiring GOP senator Jeff Flake, whose persistent criticism of Trump made him unpopular with conservative voters. The primary came just days after the death on Saturday of Arizona’s longtime senator John McCain.
“It’s difficult to celebrate anything this week as we mourn the loss of Senator McCain,” McSally said at her victory party in Tempe. Then she turned sharply to her opponent, who she nicknamed “Hollywood Sinema” in a jab at the Democrat’s transformation from liberal to moderate.
“This is how I see this campaign,” McSally said. “It’s a choice between a doer and a talker, between a patriot and a protester.”
The line, which drew wild applause from her supporters, is a reference to the searing campaign ad McSally launched against Sinema last week. The commercial contrasts imagery of McSally in uniform with footage of Sinema protesting against the Iraq war in a pink tutu. “How did you guys like those side-by-side outfits?” she said, drawing laughs.
In a statement acknowledging her primary win, Sinema made no mention of her opponent. “Arizonans are also reflecting on Senator John McCain’s lifetime of service and the example he has set for us,” she said. “It’s up to all of us to follow his lead of always putting country over party.”
She continued: “Tonight, we look ahead and continue fighting to uphold the values we all share: a fair shot at the American dream and an unwavering commitment to the Arizona we love.”
The late August primary leaves 10 weeks before the general election. Strategists here believe a brutal primary race makes it harder for McSally to pivot to a general election message.
During the Republican primary, the candidates exchanged vicious insults while highlighting their closeness to the president. Ward and Arpaio attacked McSally for her evolution from Trump critic to ardent supporter.
In a statement, Arizona Democratic party chairwoman Felecia Rotellini said McSally will “say and do whatever she thinks will get her ahead” and accused her of embracing a “destructive GOP agenda that aims to slash healthcare access, Medicare and social security, education funding, and privacy rights for Arizonans”.
For months Arizona voters have seen Sinema’s ads touting her “record of independence”, said Chuck Coughlin, a veteran Republican strategist in the state, and that will make it harder for McSally to make the case that she is “too liberal” for Arizona.
Sinema “is the best politician in the state by far because she can be anything you want her to be”, he said. “She’s very charming. She’s warm.”
But, he added, “her record doesn’t speak to her being a moderate Democrat and we can expect to hear a lot more about who is the real Kyrsten Sinema and what does she stand for.”
Both Senate candidates have compelling personal stories. McSally, a graduate of the Naval Academy, was the first American woman to fly in combat.
Sinema grew up poor – her family lived for three years in an abandoned gas station without running water and relied on food stamps for a while. Before entering politics, she was a social worker.
A contest between Sinema and McSally is one of the most evenly matched of the cycle, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the non-partisan Cook Political Report, who is tracking Senate races.
“What makes this race unique is that in almost every criteria, they’re equally qualified in terms of money and campaign experience,” she said. “It really is a toss-up.”
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