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20 Years After ‘Fab Five,’ Arizona Will Get Its First Woman Senator

A Senate seat has proven elusive for Arizona women

GOP Rep. Martha McSally or her opponent, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, will be Arizona's first woman senator. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
GOP Rep. Martha McSally or her opponent, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, will be Arizona's first woman senator. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

AVONDALE, Ariz. — When an auto technician instructor began to describe how women and men approached issues differently, GOP Rep. Martha McSally pushed back. Such is the context of running in a state that, for its 112 year history, has never elected a woman to the Senate despite a history of strong women in its politics. 

She had been fighting gender stereotypes her entire life, McSally told him while touring the Universal Technical Institute last week. She encouraged him to look at students individually.

The Arizona Republican often discusses her background as the first woman pilot to fly in combat. And she could make history again as the Grand Canyon’s State first female senator. But so could her opponent, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema

Women face off 

Arizona is not exactly unique — 19 other states have also never sent a woman to the Senate. But it might come as a surprise that Arizona hasn’t yet, given that 20 years ago the state became the first to elect women to all five of its highest state offices.  

The group of women elected in 1998 became known as the “Fab Five.” They included four Republicans — Gov. Jane Dee Hull, Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan, State Treasurer Carol Springer — and one Democrat, Attorney General Janet Napolitano.

But a Senate seat has proven elusive. That could be because there haven’t been many open Senate races in Arizona. The Grand Canyon State has only had 11 senators since it became a state in 1912.

Women from both parties said at a number of campaign events last week that Arizona’s first woman senator is long overdue.

“It’s about time,” said Sheila Fraley, a 67 year-old Realtor from Peoria supporting McSally.

The next Arizona senator will likely still be in the minority in the chamber, with the possible number of women senators ranging from 18 to 26 depending on next week’s election results, according to an analysis by Inside Elections’ Leah Askarinam.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., stops to chat with supporters. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., stops to chat with supporters. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

While the Senate race is historic, women are also competing in five of the state’s nine House races. Both parties’ nominees are women in two of those contests.

Former Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrickfaces Republican Lea Marquez Peterson in Arizona’s 2nd District based in Tucson, which Inside Elections rates Lean Democratic.

“Definitely women are energized. And we saw this with the Women’s March,” Kirkpatrick said in an interview in Tucson last week, referring to the 2017 march following President Donald Trump’s inauguration . “At that time I wondered if it would be sustainable. but it is.”

The 8th District outside of Phoenix is hosting a rematch between GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko and Democrat Hiral Tipirneni. The race attracted national attention in April when Tipirneni lost to Lesko in a special election by five points in a district Trump carried 20 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican.

And it’s not just women candidates influencing races in the Grand Canyon State. Independent and Republican women are considered critical swing voters who could support Sinema, given her emphasis on health care. 

Gender dynamics persist

After the tour of the technical institute, McSally was asked if the president is hurting her party’s chances with women voters. A reporter noted that polling has shown a gender gap, with women more likely to support Democratic candidates this year.

“I’m not the kind of person that says all women believe this and are like this, and all men believe this and are like that,” McSally responded. “So we talk to voters individually. Everybody has individual concerns.”

McSally was sharply critical of Trump as a candidate in 2016, calling his remarks about grabbing women’s genitals “disgusting” and “unacceptable.” She has since aligned herself with the president, and casts her race as a “firewall” against Democratic control of the Senate. 

Karen Lieneke, a 65 year-old English teacher from Tucson who is backing Sinema, said that having two women running against each other “seems to have sort of neutralized the gender issue in some way.”

But gender dynamics are still at play in the race.

McSally, for example, launched her Senate run with a video saying, “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.”

Her opening attack against Sinema highlighted Sinema’s opposition to the Iraq War and featured a photo of the Democrat at a protest wearing  a pink tutu.

“You know the deal: the flight suit or the pink tutu,” McSally told a group of supporters at an event in Scottsdale last week.

Sinema was asked about the ad in a recent interview with KTAR in Phoenix. The host remarked that his wife was “appalled that a woman attacked another woman based on their dress, their appearances.”

“Well, Martha has chosen to run a very low road on this campaign,” Sinema responded. “Her entire campaign has been focused on personal, really dirty smears against me and false attacks.”

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Senate race a Toss-Up.

Alex Gangitano contributed to this report from Tucson.

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