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Where the money is: What fundraising in Phoenix and Tucson area says about the Arizona Senate race

Democrat Mark Kelly leads McSally in areas that backed Trump in 2016

Democrat Mark Kelly, here with his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2017, has outraised GOP Sen. Martha McSally in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.
Democrat Mark Kelly, here with his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2017, has outraised GOP Sen. Martha McSally in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Only five people running for Senate this year have raised more money than Sen. Martha McSally. That would normally make the Arizona Republican’s 2020 election prospects seem rosy, except for one thing — her opponent is No. 1.

Democrat Mark Kelly raised about $2 million more than McSally in the final three months of 2019, and his $20.2 million total for the year is $7.6 million more than McSally’s haul. As a former astronaut who spent more than 54 days in space, and as the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Kelly can tap a vein of donors nationwide that many other first-time candidates cannot.

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But a review by CQ Roll Call shows the Democrat also has commanding fundraising leads both in Arizona statewide and in some of its largest cities and suburbs, including areas that backed President Donald Trump in 2016. Some say that advantage could signal increased support at the ballot box.

“It’s a little dangerous to predict from money to actual outcomes, but there is a pattern there,” said former Tucson Mayor Thomas J. Volgy, now a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

Individual donations from the Grand Canyon State directly to Kelly’s main campaign account totaled about $2.8 million, while McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, raised roughly $1.9 million.

Both candidates hail from Tucson, and that is where both campaigns raised the most money in-state last year. But Kelly’s roughly $1 million nearly doubled what McSally took in.

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It’s the same story in Phoenix, where Kelly’s $537,000 outpaced McSally’s $266,000. Kelly’s fundraising advantage in the Phoenix metropolitan area is especially notable because it has more registered Republicans than Democrats, and that edge could indicate his statewide viability.

“Tucson is a liberal Democratic stronghold, but when that gets replicated in Phoenix, that becomes really problematic” for McSally, Volgy said.

Kelly has also outraised McSally in areas to the north of both the Tucson and Phoenix regions where Trump did better than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In the area centered on the suburban town of Oro Valley, north of Tucson, Kelly was able to pull in roughly $117,000, while McSally raised about half that.

And in the far northern parts of metro Phoenix, around places such as Peoria and Paradise Valley, Kelly’s $62,000 was again more than double McSally’s total.

These figures do not include contributions to joint fundraising committees the candidates created with other party organizations, but when that data is included, the percentages do not change significantly.

McSally was a second-term congresswoman, representing the Tucson area, when she first ran for Senate in 2018. She lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema by 2 points but was appointed in January 2019 to the state’s other Senate seat, left vacant by the death of Sen. John McCain.

Her bid for the remainder of McCain’s term, which runs through 2022, could be the most expensive congressional battle of the year.

McSally endured a bruising primary on her way to the GOP Senate nomination in 2018, but she was still a relative unknown in the Phoenix area. She is not expected to have much trouble winning the party nod this year.

Sinema, a three-term House member from a district that touches the Tempe, Scottsdale and Mesa areas of Phoenix’s Maricopa County, won her 2018 primary with 79 percent of the vote and was able to introduce herself to voters across the state as a middle-of-the-road candidate. McSally raised $21.9 million in that race to $22.6 million for Sinema.

Deep ties

Many Arizonans know Kelly as the husband of Giffords, who was shot and gravely injured in an assassination attempt at a 2011 constituent event near Tucson. She survived and became the namesake leader of a movement to promote gun safety at the state and federal levels. While the nonprofit has endorsed candidates around the country, it has said it would not be involved in the Arizona Senate race.

Nevertheless, Kelly was closely involved with his wife’s advocacy before he launched his campaign, and his candidacy no doubt benefited from that, said Russell D. Smoldon, the CEO of Phoenix-based lobbying firm B3 Strategies, who said he has been friends with Giffords for two decades.

“He’s had a pretty easy time so far,” Smoldon said of Kelly.

McSally’s support of Trump in the impeachment trial could hurt her in the campaign, Smoldon said, but Kelly also needs to worry about the impact of the Democratic presidential primary, especially issues advocated by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Arizona tends to elect pro-business candidates who are free thinkers, and Kelly will have to choose carefully what issues in the Democratic platform he supports.

“He’s really going to have to strike out as an independent,” Smoldon said.

‘Too liberal’

McSally has tried to tie her opponent to Sanders. She released a TV ad last month called “Bernie Bro,” which said Kelly and Sanders were “too liberal for Arizona.”

Trump praised McSally as “tough as hell” at a rally in Phoenix on Feb. 19. She used her time at that event to again try to connect herself to Trump and tie Kelly to Sanders.

“Mark Kelly is flying on Bernie Sanders’ wing, and I’m flying on your wing, President Trump, and we’re going to win in November,” McSally said to the roaring crowd.

In McSally’s 2018 race, independent expenditures on her behalf totaled more than $24 million, while more than $32 million was spent to boost Sinema, according to Federal Elections Commission data. Smoldon said he expects out-of-state money to play a role in this election too.

“We’re used to a lot of outside money coming in,” he said.

The candidates are similar when it comes to the breakdown of large and small donations in their overall fundraising. Each got 53 percent of all funds from those giving $200 or less. And where Kelly raised 25 percent of his money from those giving $2,000 or more, McSally raised 26 percent.

But those percentages are applied to bankrolls of different sizes: Kelly raised $5.1 million in amounts over $2,000, while McSally raised $2.9 million. And among so-called small donors giving $200 or less, Kelly has raised $9.2 million so far to McSally’s $4.3 million.

“It tells me that he is resonating much more assertively with at least Arizonans, and perhaps nationally, than she is,” Volgy said.

The two candidates differ on the amounts raised out of state. While a majority of their contributions came from outside Arizona, Kelly was able to bring in $7.4 million to about $4.1 million for McSally.

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McSally campaign manager Dylan Lefler said the campaign was happy with the money coming in and “more is always better” when it comes to fundraising.

Lefler also criticized Kelly, saying the reason he is raising so much from “California and Massachusetts liberals” is because they know he will stand with lawmakers such as Sanders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom he panned as “out-of-touch liberals.”

The Kelly campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

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Ilana Marcus contributed to this story.

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