By Katie Spence
In Arizona, one of the four “toss-up” races, Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, is hoping to fend off his challenger, Republican political newcomer Blake Masters. The two could not be more politically opposed.
Kelly bills himself as a Senator willing to work across the aisle, but according to FiveThirtyEight, he has a voting record that suggests he’s fairly progressive.
Masters, on the other hand, secured Donald Trump’s endorsement in the primary and hasn’t been shy about his view that “the Swamp” is a threat to the United States.
In September, an Emerson College poll showed Kelly and Masters essentially neck and neck; Kelly received 47 percent, and Masters received 45 percent.
The polling numbers resemble Arizona’s 2020 Senate race, where incumbent Martha McSally, a strong Trump supporter, lost to then-challenger Kelly. The loss was the second time McSally lost to a Democrat.
The first loss happened in 2018 when Democrat Kyrsten Sinema successfully flipped retiring Republican Jeff Flake’s seat from red to blue. It was also the first time Arizona elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1988.
Thus, the question comes down to, as Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) alluded to at a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce luncheon, can a strong Trump supporter with a matching personality and campaign win in an increasingly “purple” state? Or will “candidate quality” again hamper Republicans in Arizona?
In 2018, McSally lost to Sinema in what, at the time, was considered a significant upset. Of the loss, McSally said, “We didn’t get a chance for [voters] to get to know me … We were very aware of these challenges at the time, but we ran out of airspeed and altitude. And we weren’t defined and resilient enough,” according to Rollcall.
But in a twist, Arizona’s Governor Ducey, a Republican, appointed McSally to the U.S Senate after the passing of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) McSally faced Kelly in a special election in 2020 to serve the last two years of McCain’s term. She was the incumbent. She lost.
Arizona Central called McSally’s campaign the worst campaign ever and said she lost specifically because her campaign didn’t appeal to moderates. Instead, she was a “mini-Trump” that sent voters “running” to Kelly—an issue at the heart of McConnell’s recent caution.
In 2020, Emerson College Polling had Kelly at 46 percent and McSally at 45 percent, and Kelly led among Independents by a margin of 45 percent to 41 percent. Additionally, the economy ranked as the number one issue for voters (33 percent), while health care came in second (18 percent), and immigration was third (13 percent).
For its most recent election polling, Emerson College showed that the economy is again the number one issue (36 percent), but abortion access and immigration tied for second (16 percent), while health care dropped down to third (11 percent).
In a hypothetical matchup between President Biden and Trump, Emerson College Polling had Trump at 44 percent and Biden at 41 percent. Thirteen percent of voters would vote for “someone else,” and two percent were undecided. The margin of error was +/- 3.85 percentage points.
With political vitriol at a fever pitch around the country, it’s easy to forget that not everyone falls into specific ideological camps. Instead, many voters just want a functional government and for both sides to work together. That’s a definite possibility for semi-purple states like Arizona in the last two elections.
As with McSally in 2020, Masters is a hard-core Trump supporter. His campaign website speaks heavily about how Masters is running to help fix a broken Washington and declining America. He doesn’t promise bipartisanship and echoes Trump’s approach of taking on not only progressive ideology but also “compromised RINO Republicans.”
In this way, Masters’ 2022 campaign echoes McSally’s 2018 and 2020 campaigns.
Conversely, while his voting record doesn’t always back up his website, Kelly is running a campaign centered on his being an “independent leader” and his role in advancing bipartisan legislation. He also points out that he introduced laws to ban stock trading by members of Congress, something House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has repeatedly opposed.
Kelly’s 2022 campaign resembles his 2020 bid.
However, one big difference between the 2022 and 2020 elections is that voters now live under the leadership of President Joe Biden Biden instead of Trump. Historically, voters have used midterm elections as a referendum on the current administration.
Still, in recent elections, Arizona voters have shied away from heavy partisanship and, as polling numbers indicate, have shown a desire for more moderate candidates.