Close elections are old hat to Martha McSally, both wins and losses. But after losing to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in her race for Senate, McSally faces an uncertain future for the first time in her political career.
McSally could still end up sworn into the senate this coming January. Jon Kyl, currently filling John McCain’s old Senate seat, has said he will vacate the seat January 3, 2019, opening up the possibility of Governor Doug Ducey appointing McSally (or any other Republican) to the seat until a special election in 2020.
In her concession speech, McSally was gracious, thanking volunteers and campaign staff.
“Congrats to Kyrsten Sinema. I wish her success. I’m grateful to all those who supported me in this journey. I’m inspired by Arizonans’ spirit and our state’s best days are ahead of us.”
The concession contrasted her campaign style of an airman standing in the way of a tutu-ed radical. Still, the loss was not the first for McSally, once viewed as the GOPs rising Pima County star.
Beginning her career as a political neophyte flirting with Tea Party policies, McSally moderated her tone and policy proposals during two competitive congressional races against former congressman Ron Barber.
Then, during her last two years in Congress, she voted for President Trump’s agenda over 97 percent of the time, leaving constituents to ask: is Martha McSally the ultimate flip-flopper? How will she represent Arizona?
Numerous attempts were made before and after the election to reach McSally’s congressional offices in Tucson, Sierra Vista and Washington, D.C., as well as her campaign for Senate. Neither she nor her representatives responded for comment on this story.
During a 2012 debate among the three candidates in Saddlebrook, north of Tucson, McSally said that she, Jesse Kelly and Frank Antenori, both avowed members of theTea Party, a fringe conservative wing of the Republican Party. She said her views aligned philosophically with her opponents, thus locking herself into the trendy Tea Party label.
“When it comes to the issues … we have very similar philosophies,” she said, before including issues like taxes, gun rights and education.
Sue Mitchell, chair of the Cochise County GOP, said the Tea Party label on McSally – both then and now – is inaccurate.
“Tea Party Republican? I never thought of her that way,” Mitchell said. “I never looked at her as a Tea Partier. When she first got elected I thought of her more as a moderate.”
In her next tow elections, McSally rid herself of the Tea Party label and cast herself as an avowed moderate.
That side would be on display during McSally’s twin faceoffs with former congressmen Ron Barber in two razor-thin general elections in 2012 and 2014. McSally won the second race by just 167 votes in an election where just short of 220,000 ballots were cast.
Up next was McSally the conservative.
McSally the Conservative
Barber has a saying when it comes to Martha McSally. “’Listen to what people say and you might find what they are about,’ is a good adage,” he said.
He referenced McSally’s performance during the 2012 special election when, during a debate, McSally said she wouldn’t back federal legislation to address rising tuition costs.
“As a conservative, the federal government needs to be doing less legislation, not more legislation,” McSally said. “Especially when it comes to these local issues. So, I would propose no legislation to deal with these rising costs.”
McSally sang a different tune when she met Barber in their 2014 rematch.
Barber brought up healthcare and the issue of pre-existing conditions, which wouldn’t be covered under a proposed Republican health-care plan supported by McSally.
During this current Senate race, McSally’s once again changed, supporting coverage of patients with pre-existing coditions.
“(McSally) is claiming that she is all about protecting pre-existing conditions,” Barber said. “That’s become the new mantra for Republicans.”
McSally’s congressional website celebrated the implementation of the Trump-supported American Health Care Act, which eliminates coverage for pre-existing conditions.
“This is not about saving or killing the Affordable Care Act or scoring political points. This is about identifying and negotiating real solutions to real urgent problems and helping the people who have been harmed most by the ACA,” McSally said.
In a recent interview with Sean Hannity of Fox, McSally said she was “getting her ass kicked” for voting to replace Obamacare and said it was “misconstrued by the Democrats.”
“They are trying, you know, to invoke fear in people who have family members or loved ones with pre-existing conditions,” McSally said.
McSally the Chameleon?
However, Barber pointed out that McSally was present during a run of more than 50 symbolic votes held by the GOP during the Obama administration, that ostensibly looked to repeal and replace the ACA.
“It’s definitely disingenuous and you can also say it’s a lie, and I would call it a lie,” Barber said. “Because she voted against the pre-existing condition healthcare law, her votes are really who she is, and not for spin.”
Barber went even further, calling McSally’s decision to run for Senate an example of “career opportunism,” and alleged she would have likely lost a campaign for CD2 had she decided to stay put.
Mitchell contested Barber’s assertions, and said McSally running for Senate is just par for the political course.
Barber saw little change in McSally during their rematch in 2014, he said, and even less during her time in Congress, but credited the media with giving her a new image that has taken hold.
“The media, quite frankly, has given her this moderate sort of description because it’s been well sold by her communications team, but she has never been a moderate. I think that’s a misnomer,” he said.
In fact, Barber questioned whether McSally understood the culture and make-up of CD2. He noted McSally’s upbringing in Rhode Island and the relatively short time she spent in Sierra Vista as part of her military service.
Mitchell, said there is an explanation for McSally changing her tune.
“She was working with a Democratic president,” Mitchell said. “So what we would have wanted to get done wasn’t possible.”
Now with the election of a “real leader,” as Mitchell calls Trump, McSally can spread her conservative wings. With Trump in office, Mitchell argued conservative policies McSally always agreed with could be implemented she could now openly embrace.
“She knows as a real politician she needs to do things the way we want her to do,” Mitchell said.
In 2016, McSally faced off against Tucson physician and former state representative Matt Heinz to retain her seat, beating him handily by over 30,000 votes. Heinz felt he faced a moderate McSally at the time, and shares many of Barber’s concerns, including whether or not she will “show up” in Southern Arizona and what version of McSally will show up in the Senate.
“Based on her interest in Southern Arizona and never showing up, I just kind of worry that as our U.S. Senator, she isn’t going to be here,” Heinz said.
McSally and Trump
If her current lead holds, perhaps no other issue will be as scrutinized by constituents as McSally’s relationship to President Trump.
In October of 2016, just after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape that caught Trump claiming he could “grab (women) by the pussy,” McSally turned to Twitter to express her outrage.
“Trump’s comments are disgusting,” she said. “Joking about sexual assault is unacceptable. I’m appalled.”
Heniz recalled that, in an editorial board meeting with the Arizona Daily Star during their race for CD2 in 2016, McSally refused to acknowledge who she would vote for and was hedging her bets as to her support for Trump.
“She wouldn’t admit to voting for him,” Heinz said. “Joe Ferguson, Sarah Gassen, they all asked at least once. She would not even say it. Then all of a sudden she has pictures on her social media sideways hugging Donald Trump. She will say or do anything to get elected.”
McSally did not support Trump until after his election, and even jumped on the #MeToo movement by sharing with the Wall Street Journal an alleged incident of abuse at the hands of her high school track coach.
Fast forward to McSally’s kick off for her Senate campaign and it was a Trump lovefest. She released a video, tying herself directly to Trump and his rhetoric.
“Like our president, I’m tired of PC politicians and their BS excuses,” she said in the video. “I’m a fighter pilot, and I talk like one. That’s why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done.”
McSally’s closeness to the president goes beyond rhetoric. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, a political statistics and data site, McSally voted with the president’s agenda 97.8 percent of the time. This despite representing a district that went for Hillary Clinton by 4.9 percent.
That proximity to Trump is a boon for McSally in the eyes of Republican’s and conservative’s, said Mitchell.
“Her 97 percent voting with the president? He’s right, she should be voting with him,” Mitchell said.
Eddie Celaya is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.