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McSally Flops in Only Arizona Senate Debate

The Republican incumbent, far behind her astronaut challenger in the polls, squandered a chance to turn things around.
October 7, 2020
McSally Flops in Only Arizona Senate Debate
US Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) removes her mask as she prepares to debate Democratic challenger Mark Kelly (not in frame) at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 6, 2020. (Photo by Rob SCHUMACHER / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ROB SCHUMACHER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Last night was the debate in Arizona between that state’s two Senate candidates. It proved to be a embarrassment for the incumbent, Republican Martha McSally, and a pretty good night for her challenger, Democrat Mark Kelly.

McSally, a former Air Force pilot—the first woman to fly in combat—served in the House for two terms before she ran for the Senate in 2018. She lost to Kyrsten Sinema. But she was appointed to John McCain’s seat after Jon Kyl, the initial appointee, stepped down, and so had the strange experience of being sworn in on the same day as the woman who defeated her. She’s now running to keep the seat she was appointed to.

Kelly served in the Navy—as a test pilot and a combat aviator—before becoming an astronaut. His wife, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, had to retire from the House after a shooting almost killed her. Ever since, Giffords and Kelly have advocated for policies that restrict ownership of guns through an organization named after her.

McSally used to be a rising star and a McCain Republican: pragmatic, hawkish, pro-immigration, and moderate. Once the GOP became Trumpy, though, McSally—as Tim Miller has put it—maneuvered toward Trump.

During her failed Senate campaign in 2018, McSally attacked her opponent’s flamboyance by dubbing her “Hollywood Sinema.” It didn’t work. And she’s doubling down on the Trumpy name-calling this year: Mark Kelly is “Counterfeit Kelly,” a phrase she used at least nine times during the debate. Counterfeit of what? Who knows! Perhaps his identical twin?

One thing was clear: Somebody was lying. McSally went after Kelly over things that Kelly had allegedly done and said, and, every time, Kelly responded that it had never happened and some variation on “I do not know where Senator McSally gets her information from.” Toward the end, there was a clue as to who was lying: When the moderator asked McSally about her support for red flag laws—laws that let authorities temporarily confiscate guns from people who could be a threat to themselves or to others—McSally responded that the moderator was “misstating” a conversation. To which the moderator, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, with a good reputation in Arizona, responded, “I did not misspeak. We’ve had multiple conversations . . . with your office, so I just want to be clear on that.”

McSally’s broader strategy was to depict Kelly as a far-left candidate in bed with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, which is funny since Schumer, despite his countless flaws, isn’t a far-left politician himself. She kept mentioning Kelly’s support for the Squad, naming Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib but not Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, and one wonders whether this has to do anything with the fact that Arabic names are scarier to Arizona voters. This particular attack isn’t entirely baseless: Giffords, the organization Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords run, has endorsed Tlaib. And Kelly did participate in a 2018 gun-control panel with Omar, before she had become the most toxic, scandalous, and despicable politician in America not named Donald Trump.

But the problem with depicting Kelly as a far-left candidate is that he just isn’t one. (In fact, the far left was trying to recruit Rep. Ruben Gallego to run in the primary against Kelly.)

McSally even smeared Kelly as a Red: She said that he was in the pocket of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after the CCP funded a 2003 trip he took to China. Further, she said that Kelly had taken the CCP’s banner on a shuttle mission. “Of all the things he could have brought to space!” And she mocked him for calling that trip to China the second-greatest experience of his life after going to space.

The truth is that the trip in question was funded by an American organization called the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, which has on its board retired American statesmen and members of the business community, not CCP members. The banner that Kelly took to space was the program’s banner, not the CCP’s. And the reason he described the trip as “one of the absolute highlights of my life, second only to flying in space” was that it was on that trip that he met his wife.

Toward the end of the debate, the subject of policing came up. McSally said that “I back the blue,” objected to police reform, and charged that Kelly was anti-police. Kelly countered not by posturing but by calmly stating a simple, devastating fact: “Both of my parents were cops.” He went on to say that there is a distinction between peaceful protests and violence, that the violence should stop, and that he supports police reform.

Kelly was not always on defense. He charged that McSally wanted to get rid of mandatory insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, which she denied, as she has throughout the campaign—earning herself four Pinocchios and a Politifact slapdown. Kelly also called out McSally for flip-flopping: “Senator McSally used to support DREAMers, then she said DACA was unconstitutional. There was a bipartisan agreement on a pathway to a normal status for DREAMers; Senator McSally used to support it, and then when it wasn’t politically convenient anymore she decided not to.”

The examples go on and on. But the most interesting part of the debate was how McSally kept dodging questions on Trump’s character. The moderators repeatedly gave her opportunities to say she disapproved of the president’s reported remarks about fallen warriors—he allegedly called them “losers” and “suckers”—or to distance herself in other ways from Trump. Every single time, McSally refused to do so. She kept talking about what she had accomplished in the Senate, never engaging the president’s character.

Kelly’s only bad moment came in the beginning when he refused to pick a side on getting rid of the filibuster. Overall, he came off as personable, calm, and articulate—in a word, he was senatorial. McSally, by contrast, was obnoxious and spoke too fast. She had to be corrected on facts by her opponent and a moderator. The polls suggest that November is going to bring an unfortunate end to her once-promising political career.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.