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Trumpism Ate Martha McSally’s Brain

Why Arizona may be sending two Democrats to the Senate for the first time in 70 years

The most prominent statue outside the Capitol building in Phoenix represents an icon who touches a nerve deep in the cultural consciousness of Arizona: a fighter pilot. Frank Luke Jr., a local boy bronzed in a leather jacket and cap, was an ace who came second only to Eddie Rickenbacker in the number of confirmed kills by an American pilot during World War I. No protesters have tried to rip down Luke’s statue, nor has there been any interruption in Arizona’s habit of elevating its pilots to the realm of government. Though Luke had an air base named for him, he isn’t the most revered fighter pilot in state political lore: That honor goes, of course, to John McCain, the Vietnam War veteran who held one of Arizona’s U.S. Senate seats for six terms.

The race for McCain’s old seat this November now features a matchup between two retired military pilots who are both playing up their bona fides in the armed services. The contest between Republican Air Force Colonel Martha McSally and Democratic Navy Captain Mark Kelly shouldn’t be close. “It used to be that a well-funded Republican not prone to gaffes would run away with a statewide office,” said GOP consultant Barrett Marson. And if that candidate was a fighter pilot to boot, loyal to an incumbent Republican president? That would have been a dream candidate in Frank Luke’s twentieth-century Arizona.

But this is no ordinary time in a restive state, battered by a runaway coronavirus pandemic and leaning toward voting Democratic in a presidential race for only the second time since Harry Truman’s win here in 1948. Now Arizona is also poised to send two Democratic senators to Washington for the first time in almost as long, possibly helping tip control of the upper chamber to the Democrats.

Kelly has consistently led in polls since the spring. At the end of July, one survey showed him up by a dominant 18 points. Many weather patterns are involved: unhappiness over Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s inept response to the Covid-19 pandemic; rising anti-Trump sentiment in the Phoenix suburbs; renewed Latino registration efforts; and Democrat-friendly shifts in the population. 

But there are also fundamental problems that stem from McSally herself—particularly her calculated, if ham-fisted, embrace of the president’s toxic brand of politics. At times, her fighter pilot credentials seem like her only political asset. Her flailing campaign, as well as her embarrassment-riddled stint as McCain’s appointed successor in the Senate, are further evidence of the terminal decline that has gripped Donald Trump’s Republican Party, which has no answers to the problems plaguing Arizona specifically and America more broadly. McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, has gone so far as to endorse Joe Biden for president. When asked if she would support McSally, she responded, “I have no interest in it.”

That McSally could very well be wiped out in November should inspire existential panic in the GOP. And that Arizona is being written off as the price of doing business with Trump is proof that the party has all but given up interest in actually governing.

McSally, 54, retired from Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 2010 after a genuinely impressive career, in which she flew combat patrols over Iraq and became the first woman to command a fighter squadron. She won a seat in Congress four years later—a district that covered the same Tucson suburbs that used to be represented by Kelly’s wife, Gabrielle Giffords, who had been gravely wounded in 2011 in a mass shooting outside a supermarket near Tucson. (Disclosure: I used to work for Giffords as a field organizer and speechwriter.) McSally’s victory in a historically Democratic district, where the sympathetic shadow of the popular Giffords continued to loom large, signaled both the electoral troubles Democrats faced as Barack Obama’s second term came to a close and McSally’s own image as an establishment Republican who could win competitive elections. 

But McSally did not distinguish herself in the House. The highlight of her tenure was the pork she delivered back home, most notably her effort to save the local air base’s fleet of A-10 Warthogs—her old aircraft, which she once called “a badass airplane with a big gun on it”—from being scrapped by the Pentagon.

McSally (far right), pictured here welcoming Trump to Yuma, Arizona, in August, has been at the vanguard of the GOP’s decline in Arizona during the Trump years.

Despite her lack of a discernible record, she ran for Senate in the 2018 cycle to replace Senator Jeff Flake, who had committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting the Republican Party brand should not be built on racism and extremist rhetoric. He said so in a book titled Conscience of a Conservative (an explicit paean to Arizona’s own Barry Goldwater) that Trump took as a personal insult, making his displeasure known through tweets calling Flake “toxic” and “weak.” That was enough to endanger Flake’s reelection bid, and he decided not to run the gauntlet of a Republican primary, becoming a powerful cautionary tale for any Republican senator who dared challenge the president.

McSally absorbed the lesson. She turned the dial to Full Trump in her campaign against Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, even accusing her of “treason” in their sole televised debate. She ultimately lost by two points, mainly due to her weakness in the Phoenix suburbs—a bright red flag for the GOP that went unheeded.

McSally took office in the upper chamber anyway—as a gubernatorial appointee to McCain’s seat after he died of brain cancer. This may have been Ducey’s second-greatest political mistake, next to his overeager push to reopen Arizona’s economy amid the pandemic, in defiance of the warnings of the state’s top scientists. It had been assumed—mainly by Washington strategists and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—that McSally would be a powerful female antidote to charges of Republican misogyny in the #MeToo era. She would presumably come into the Senate armed with a broad base of preexisting support and fundraising tools that would allow her to defend the seat on short notice.

Instead, McSally has been a disaster. In an attempt to win over the far-right wing of the GOP, McSally cast her lot with Trump and now finds it impossible to disentangle herself. She became best known across Arizona not for her previous image as a moderate but for making two salty statements. One came during the run-up to Trump’s Senate impeachment trials in January, when CNN reporter Manu Raju asked McSally an innocuous question in the hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building about the case. “I’m not talking to you,” she said with airy contempt. “You’re a liberal hack.” 

Beyond its childish flippancy, the dismissal carried the tone of having been practiced ahead of time—a retort aimed for the president’s ears via Tucker Carlson’s show that night. The insult showed up almost instantly in her fundraising appeals, and her campaign offered T-shirts for sale with a slightly altered version of the quote—“You’re a liberal hack, buddy”—raising the possibility that they were printed ahead of time and McSally had flubbed her script.

McSally’s other memorable oratorical fragment happened behind closed doors in a GOP House conference meeting on May 4, 2017, in the midst of a debate about a Trump health care bill that was going nowhere. After spending weeks dodging questions from constituents about whether she wanted to dump Obamacare, she stood up and told her colleagues, “Let’s get this fucking thing done.” With that, she signaled she was ready to pull the plug on crucial provisions in the Affordable Care Act, including the prohibition against charging higher premiums for preexisting conditions. The statement was immediately leaked to an Associated Press reporter, likely on the presumption that it would endear her to Republican voters. But her damn-the-torpedoes moment has come back to haunt her, especially in light of her continuing ambiguity on where she stands on health coverage. One of her ads in June promised: “Of course, I will always protect those with preexisting conditions. Always.” Few people in Arizona believed her, and with good reason.

McSally has certainly succeeded in staving off a primary challenge from the right. The August 4 Republican primary gave her no trouble: She crushed the ill-prepared cosmetic company founder Daniel McCarthy by 50 points. But her general election prospects aren’t good. She has not been able to broaden her appeal among Trump-weary swing voters, especially those in the behemoth of Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix and its traditionally Republican suburbs to the east. One of her key missteps may have been failing to buy a house near Phoenix, where her name recognition is still weak. “She tells a great American story with warts and flaws and successes, but she hasn’t told that story to Maricopa County,” said Sam Stone, one of her former aides. “When you see her off the stage, she’s a warm person, and she clearly cares. It kills me that most people in Arizona don’t know that person. The military coldness doesn’t work well for a lot of folks.” 

Like other politicians, McSally has seldom been seen during the pandemic—but this is only an extension of her longtime allergy to public events. She has a penchant for kicking small-town reporters out of community gatherings at which she is a speaker, and she stays away even from the friendly precincts of right-wing media. “She is uniquely scared of her own shadow for someone in politics,” said one popular radio host in Phoenix, who asked for anonymity for fear of alienating her. “This is odd, for someone with a military background. She’s afraid of her own base.” 

The can-do fighter pilot seems unable to lock in on a target. When beloved former University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson went into hospice care on August 25, two days before his death, McSally misspelled his name in a consolatory tweet: “My prayers are with Luke Olson and his family tonight.” Either this longtime resident of Tucson didn’t know the name of one of its most famous citizens, or she had assigned the tweeting—and maybe even the praying—to a hapless staffer. 

Cindy McCain, the widow of longtime Arizona Senator John McCain, has said she has “no interest” in supporting McSally.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With no ground game, McSally has tried the distinctly Trumpian strategy of linking Kelly to the anti-China xenophobia surrounding the coronavirus. Kelly, the former commander of the NASA space shuttle Endeavour, met his wife during a Young Leaders Forum trip to China in 2003. He also co-founded a space tourism company called World View Enterprises that initially proposed to take customers up to the stratosphere in a giant helium balloon but now focuses on research; the company accepted a $15 million cash infusion that included money from the Chinese tech giant Tencent, which has come under suspicion for playing a role in that nation’s extensive surveillance and censorship program. But Kelly is no longer with the company (he retains an investment stake), and a negative National Republican Senatorial Committee ad attacking his alleged soft spot for China didn’t seem to make a dent.   

McSally has also tried to insert herself in the fight over the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, positioning herself as a sure vote for Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. “Come on, this is why I’m in the Senate,” she reportedly said. Just 15 minutes after she sent out a one-sentence tweet in memory of Ginsburg on the afternoon of her death, she added: “This U.S. Senate should vote on President Trump’s next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.” 

Another thwarted GOP line of attack against Kelly is his co-founding of the gun safety group that used to be called Americans for Responsible Solutions (it is now simply called Giffords, after his wife). While Kelly has not called for any gun-registration measures that a majority of Arizonans don’t support, it used to be that even the whiff of anti-firearm sentiment was enough to hang a statewide candidate. No longer: A January poll from Global Strategy Group showed that voters were in favor of stronger gun safety regulations by an eight-to-one margin, with 57 percent saying they would never support a candidate who stood in the way of background checks on all gun sales. Kelly is a gun owner himself and, as a former combat pilot, never projected “that weak lib feel,” in the words of Marson, the GOP consultant.

The increasing willingness of Arizona voters to consider a Democrat like Kelly can also be chalked up to demographic factors. Since the days of the Indian Wars, Arizona has relied heavily on military spending as economic subsidy. The population boom of the 1950s gradually ushered out the copper-sheathed Democratic coalition of labor and big business and created an optimistic Sunbelt Republicanism oriented toward personal liberties, low taxes, limited services, real estate growth, and entrepreneurialism. But internal migration has now been blowing in a different partisan direction. New residents fleeing high home prices and traffic—especially from Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle—have been streaming into Maricopa County, bringing their liberal-to-centrist politics with them. “I would bet we’re not polling 5 percent from those people moving in from California or Illinois,” lamented Stone, McSally’s former aide. 

While Republicans still enjoy a thin registration advantage of about 1.4 million to 1.3 million voters, the momentum is clearly on the side of the Democrats, who are enjoying a 16 percent jump from two years ago. Meanwhile, polls show a four-point lead for Joe Biden, and the number of early mail-in ballots received in the Democratic primary in August broke records. On average, about a quarter of registered voters participate in primaries here; this time it was more than a third. Revulsion for Trump has Democrats running for state legislature—and they’ve made steady inroads into the once-dependable GOP heartlands of Ahwatukee, Paradise Valley, and Chandler. “These wealthy middle-class districts are now willing to give Democrats a chance,” said Robbie Sherwood, the communications director for the Democrats in the Arizona House of Representatives. “The anti-science dogma is driving people away.”

But in supposedly safe districts, Republicans are making even heavier bets on Trumpism as a forever strategy. One of the most reliable far-right immigration-bashers at the state Capitol, Sylvia Allen, lost her reelection in the August 4 primary to Wendy Rogers. (Rogers’s occupation? Retired fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force.)

Latinos make up 24 percent of Arizona’s eligible voters, and the Biden campaign is courting them as a key liberal-leaning demographic. Trump won the state by 3.4 points in 2016, but even then changes were afoot: That same year, voters in Maricopa County turned out immigration hard-liner and longtime embarrassment Sheriff Joe Arpaio, after a lengthy federal discrimination lawsuit. State prosecutors accused him of systemically targeting Latinos for arrest; Arpaio was also convicted of contempt of court for failing to obey a judge’s order. (He was pardoned by Trump at the end of it all, in August 2017.) The anti-immigrant demagoguery that once cast a hypnotic spell over Arizonans seems not to work anymore: The indefatigable Arpaio, at age 88, narrowly lost this year’s August primary in a bid to reclaim his old office. 

The Republican brand remains powerful in rural Arizona, especially the country around the Mogollon Rim and the strip along the Colorado River that is poised to send hard-line pro-life and pro-gun Representative Paul Gosar to a presumptive sixth term. But the demographic slippage in Phoenix and Tucson, combined with McSally’s sputtering campaign, may be enough to hand the statewide race to Kelly.

Only adding to the trouble is a festering schism within the Republican statewide apparatus, epitomized by the controversy swirling around state party Chairwoman Kelli Ward—an ardent supporter of Trump who once complained on Facebook that John McCain had deliberately timed the announcement of his impending death just to hurt her chances in her losing 2018 campaign Senate primary bid against McSally (and Arpaio, who was a candidate in that race as well).

Ward represents the unapologetically paranoid and conspiracy-minded wing of the party, to the occasional mortification of the old-line Phoenix business and philanthropic establishment that provides the bulk of funding for most state races. “The Republican Party here is in one sense like a club with rules,” said longtime lobbyist Kevin DeMenna. “They have county chairs that represent the subset who are really driving policy and making large donations. That money stopped when Kelli Ward became chairwoman. Nobody invests in the message for Arizona that Kelli Ward represents.” 

This helps explain McSally’s $10 million cash-on-hand disadvantage against Mark Kelly as of July, in addition to Kelly’s ability to tap national liberal sources developed through his gun safety group. Scrambling to make up lost ground, McSally pleaded with supporters in August for more money in near-religious terms: “I’m not ashamed to ask, to invest. If you can give $1, $5, if you can fast a meal and give what that would be.” After the comment was widely mocked for its desperation, her campaign said it was a “joke.”

The GOP’s problems in Arizona all go back to Trump. One of McSally’s longtime top advisers, Jeff Roe, most famous for helming Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, praised the “maddening brilliance” of Donald Trump in a 2018 op-ed in The New York Times and advised candidates to “fix bayonets and storm to the front with him,” despite whatever personal misgivings they might harbor. Those who have dared to stand up to him have paid the price—even if their resistance was mostly on stylistic grounds, as was the case with the once-popular Jeff Flake. Unquestioning fealty to Trump was the apparent motivation for McSally’s double-tongued approach to health care and her verbal sucker-punch to Manu Raju. “You flew your Warthog to the dark side,” Arizona Daily Star cartoonist and former admirer David Fitzsimmons told her in a column.

And this was before Trump’s disastrous response to the coronavirus encouraged a small but influential anti-mask campaign in Arizona. It was also prior to the spectacle of Governor Ducey telling people, in late May, that “it’s safe out there.” The resulting infection rate for Arizona in June was triple that of the rest of the country. A national poll deemed Ducey the least popular governor in the country for his pandemic response, with just 32 percent of state residents approving of his cavalier approach. But instead of even mildly criticizing her party’s shortcomings at the state and federal levels, McSally went jingoistic, blaming China’s “disgusting and inhumane and deadly practices in these wet markets, where they have live and dead animals gutted, and it’s just disgusting, their practices.”

“When Trump had his radicalizing effect, Republicans had to go along with it if they wanted to survive,” observed Peter Aleshire, the former editor of the Payson Roundup, a small-town newspaper serving the Mogollon Rim country. “It was enough to get McSally the nomination. But the ghost of John McCain haunts Arizona. And now McSally is up against a fighter pilot–astronaut.”   

In many ways, the Trump campaign found its voice in Arizona back in the transformative summer of 2015. His packed rally at the Phoenix Convention Center, in which he sharpened calls for a border wall and denounced the political norms in Washington, was the first televised performance that convinced observers that he was something more than a joke candidate. “This has become a movement because people don’t know what’s happening,” he said then. But they know now.