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Arizona Senate Primary Battle Officially Kicks Off

Martha McSally joins Joe Arpaio and Kelli Ward in likely drawn-out primary

Rep. Martha McSally kicked off her bid for the open Arizona Senate seat on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rep. Martha McSally kicked off her bid for the open Arizona Senate seat on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Arizona Senate primary officially kicked off Friday, and it’s going to be a battle — with war planes and all. 

Republican Rep. Martha McSally launched her Senate run at the Tucson Jet Center on Friday morning and will travel to other areas of the state later in the day. She donned a blue flight suit to fly in a World War II-era AT-6 trainer to Phoenix, and then to Prescott. McSally, of course, is piloting the plane herself. 

“Fly, fight and win. That’s our plan,” said McSally, a second-term congresswoman and the first female pilot to fly in combat. 

But the current Republican primary is a very different race from when a notice for McSally’s “special announcement” first surfaced Monday morning.

She now faces controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an immigration hard-liner and Trump ally who was convicted of contempt of court in a racial profiling case. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who was already challenging Republican incumbent Jeff Flake before he decided to retire, is also still in the race.

The open-seat contest is a somewhat new experience for the Grand Canyon State, which has only been represented by 11 senators in its history. And the race is expected to be one of the most expensive and closely watched in the country, with Democrats eyeing Arizona as a key pickup opportunity. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.

Some GOP strategists see McSally as the best candidate for the general election to take on Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who is the top contender on the Democratic side. But first she’ll have to make it through a lengthy and expensive primary.

‘Disaster’ or opportunity?

Whether the long and likely divisive GOP primary will help or hurt the eventual nominee depends on whom you ask. 

The Arizona primary is not until Aug. 28, giving the eventual nominee very little time to shift gears for the general election. And GOP candidates run the risk of draining much of their resources to win the primary. 

Robert Graham, former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it tests the GOP candidates and the primary dominates the news for most of the election.

“What happens is the Democrat has to get name I.D. and catch up to all the earned media that was happening to the Republican candidates,” said Graham, who considered running for Senate himself but decided against it. “I don’t care how much you stockpile because your name ID is much lower than the Republican candidates.”

Some other GOP operatives in the state disagreed.

“This primary has the potential to be a disaster,” one Arizona Republican consultant said. The consultant speculated that either Arpaio would win the primary, and lose the general election, or McSally would win but be weakened by primary attacks and a lack of resources for the general.

Democrats are counting on Republicans to battle it out on the primary.

“Like in nearly every other state facing a Senate election this cycle, the Arizona Republican primary will be nasty, expensive and very long,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee . “It will drain the GOP’s resources, demoralize their voters, and expose the flaws in each of their candidates.”

The late primary is not new for Arizona Republicans, and Graham said people outside the state now recognize that the eventual candidate will need help in the fall.

Graham pointed to Flake’s election in 2012, when he made it through the primary, but only won the general election by 4 points.

“That woke a lot of people up nationally,” Graham said.

Millions of dollars are expected to pour into the state in 2018, and into the primary as well.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is “all in” for McSally, according to a GOP strategist familiar with SLF’s plans. The group is expected to spend several million dollars on her behalf.

Conservative groups including the Club for Growth PAC are also expected to oppose McSally in the primary, though it’s not clear how much they will be willing and able to spend on the race.

The individual candidates are likely to bring in plenty of money on their own.

McSally has been a top fundraiser in the House, and had $1.4 million in cash on hand, according to the latest Federal Election Commission documents from the end of September.

Arpaio is also a fundraising powerhouse. He raked in nearly $10 million, according to The Associated Press, in his losing re-election race for Maricopa County sheriff in 2016.

He has flirted with running for statewide office several times in the past, raising skepticism about this latest run. But Graham, who said he is friends with Arpaio, said the former sheriff is serious about running.

Ward, the third candidate in the primary, is not expecting to raise as much money. Since she was originally challenging Flake, some Republican operatives in the state raised questions about her place in the primary.

“We’ll be competitive but we’ll also get outraised,” said Ward consultant Eric Beach, who also co-chairs the pro-Trump group Great America Alliance. Beach said Ward will make the case that she is “the thoughtful conservative that understands how to get real reforms done.”

Beach said the team was building up its infrastructure, and noted that strategist Ed Rollins, who led President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign, was Ward’s campaign chairman.

Still, other Republicans were skeptical of Ward’s candidacy, noting controversial statements she made about Sen. John McCain’s age when she challenged him in the primary in 2016. She did raise more than $1 million in 2017, but has also spent nearly 80 percent of it already.

Trump loyalty

Ward has tried to argue that she is the most ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. The president has tweeted that he was glad to see her challenging Flake, who has sharply criticized him.

But Ward’s case for running is more difficult with Arpaio in the race. Arpaio also backed Trump from the beginning, and Trump pardoned him last year.

Proving loyalty to Trump will be a factor in the primary, with McSally already tying herself to the president in her announcement video.

In 2016, McSally condemned Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and called his comments about sexual assault in an Access Hollywood tape “disgusting” and “unacceptable.” She has since aligned with Trump, supporting his priorities 97 percent of the time in 2017, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Vote Watch.

One issue intertwined with backing the president is supporting his hard-line immigration stances.

Immigration has been a top issue for GOP primary voters in Arizona for several years.

All three of the candidates will likely work to prove that they have the strongest immigration positions. Ward has said she supports Trump’s proposal for a wall along the southern border.

Arpaio is well-known among conservatives for his hard-line stances as sheriff, which led to the lawsuit alleging racial profiling. 

McSally’s House seat includes part of the southern border, so she is expected to tout her work pushing for border security. After Trump’s request for border wall funding, she and Texas GOP Rep. Will Hurd wrote in a letter that a physical barrier was “one of many tools” necessary to secure the border.

One GOP strategist said charges of being moderate on immigration will likely be thrown at McSally. 

“That’s Arizona primaries 101,” the strategist said. 

And the divisive and expensive primary could get even more complicated. Two Arizona Republicans said they had heard that someone who is capable of self-funding is considering jumping into the primary, though it’s not clear who that would be.

“It’s just crazy out here,” one GOP consultant said.

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