How metro Phoenix's suburbs doomed Martha McSally's bid for Arizona's Senate seat

On paper, and in the campaign war rooms of Washington, D.C., Martha McSally appeared to be an ideal U.S. Senate candidate for Arizona Republicans.

The nation’s first female combat pilot, she represented an evenly divided district based in Tucson for two terms in the House of Representatives and put gender equality at the center of her personal and political identity. Her groundbreaking biography seemed to have it all.

Even after McSally lost the 2018 Senate race to Kyrsten Sinema, the GOP's confidence appeared unshaken. Gov. Doug Ducey appointed her to fill the vacancy created by the death of Sen. John McCain, positioning her to run again in two years.

“With her experience and long record of service, Martha is uniquely qualified to step up and fight for Arizona’s interests in the U.S. Senate,” Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said.

But in a state that was moving to the political left and amid the political turbulence of the President Donald Trump era, McSally could not in two attempts overcome a well-funded, centrist Democrat. She was defeated this year by Mark Kelly in the special election for the Senate seat.

McSally now prepares to exit the Senate, becoming the only candidate to lose both of Arizona’s Senate seats in consecutive cycles in the modern era.

This week, she delivered her farewell address on the floor of the chamber and wished Kelly well.

McSally unable to break through in Maricopa County

Unofficial election results laid bare the factors that led to McSally’s defeat in one of the most expensive races in state history: She lost Maricopa County as independents and moderate Republicans split their tickets, as they had in her 2018 loss. These voters cast ballots for Democrats at the top of the ticket this year, while voting for Republicans down ballot.

These are some of the same voters — some in the same precincts — who cast ballots for Sinema in the 2018 Senate race, while voting for Ducey in the governor’s race.

Outside Maricopa County, McSally and Kelly roughly split the rest of the state, but McSally’s inability to break through in the state’s most populous county was her undoing.

That said, McSally performed slightly better in Maricopa County than she did against Sinema. This cycle, she lost the county 50.9% to 47.1% compared with 50.9% to 46.7% in 2018.

Precincts in the suburbs of metro Phoenix provided Kelly with his path to become the second Arizona Democrat to win a Senate race in two years. With his win, Arizona has a pair of Democratic senators for the first time since 1953.

Opponent Kelly had built-in advantages

Kelly ultimately won Maricopa County by capturing 89% of the precincts with more independent voters, winning 100% of the precincts with more Democratic voters, and taking 20% of the precincts where a majority of voters are Republicans, an Arizona Republic analysis found.

Republican pollster Paul Bentz said Kelly had built-in advantages despite being a challenger: lots of money, a good biography, and name recognition as husband to former U.S. Rep Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 just outside Tucson.

McSally, meanwhile, faced challenges navigating a dynamic in which the Republican base was ever-more devoted to Trump — but not fully supportive of her — while the state's population center was growing less conservative.

“She kind of had trouble on both ends: both the swing voters that Trump lost and then his base of most-conservative voters that she never was really able to get," Bentz said.

For years, the left hammered McSally for votes in the House of Representatives to end the Affordable Care Act, particularly its protections for preexisting medical conditions.

Voters in the political center frowned on her unwillingness to condemn the president’s more vitriolic rhetoric, including his many attacks on McCain, a six-term senator who sometimes bucked his party.

Still, some on the right continued to be wary of her for keeping Trump at arm’s length during the 2016 presidential race, and for other conservative heresies, such as voicing support to consider measures to temporarily restrict access to firearms for gun buyers deemed to be a danger.

McSally linked her identity with Trump's

Political analysts say that McSally failed over the past year and a half to forge an identity independent of Trump’s, even as she sought to represent a state where half the electorate was renouncing his brand of politics and the other half deemed her to be too liberal.

Geoff Garin, president of the Democratic-aligned polling firm Hart Research Associates, said McSally got off to a bad start with Arizona voters during the 2018 Senate race, and could not overcome voters’ hardened sentiments about her this cycle.

He said during her time in the Senate, McSally failed to “do the unexpected in a way that made her interesting” to a state with a long history of favoring senators who break the mold instead of fit it.

“Martha McSally was always desperate to fit into a mold,” Garin said. “In her efforts to convince Trump voters that she was one of them, she seemed awkward, inauthentic, and often excessively harsh.”

Starting with her race against Sinema, he said, McSally decided she had to prove herself to the right-wing of the GOP, alienating in the process a large part of the state’s electorate.

“That’s just not where the center of gravity is for the Arizona general electorate,” he said.

Trump appeared to sense McSally was headed to another loss when he disrespected her in front of a crowd of cheering conservatives during his final swing through battleground Arizona.

McSally criticized as 'yes-woman'

McSally received fewer votes than Trump in most Maricopa County precincts, and got more votes than the president in only 28% of precincts.

Kelly ran ahead of Biden, receiving more votes than the now-president elect in 84% of precincts.

Kelly may have outpaced Biden because he was a very good candidate, while Biden was a candidate many people settled on as a vote against Trump, Bentz said. That means some people were voting for Kelly and not against McSally, he said.

McSally had a hard time breaking through in areas that went for Biden. She took only three precincts that he won. Meanwhile, Kelly won 26 precincts that were captured by Trump.

Kelly, who courted swing voters with a vow to be an independent decision-maker, appealed to tens of thousands of voters in the East Valley, in Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa, outperforming Sinema's 2018 tallies in many areas.

Priscila Hinkle, 39, of Gilbert, a registered independent, said she despises Trump.

As the four years of his administration unfolded, she paid close attention to members of Congress whom she saw enabled him, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Regarding McSally, Hinkle said she was "disgusted with the way that she completely turned into a 'Trumpy yes-woman.'"

“She already got there without being voted in. She got her spot by luck, not by deserving it, and then she didn’t honor the privilege she was given by Gov. Ducey.”

Hinkle voted for Sinema over McSally in 2018’s Senate contest. Two years before that, she voted for McCain, saying his willingness to buck his party in the face of withering criticism demonstrated an allegiance to the people of Arizona, not party politics.

Hinkle said she was willing to give McSally a chance after Ducey appointed her to McCain’s old seat. Given her professional record in the Air Force of speaking out against military practices she disagreed with, Hinkle hoped McSally would speak out against Trump’s more divisive rhetoric and policies.

“She just seemed to have turned into the girl who will do anything and everything to be popular,” she said. “She has so much to run on, personally. The things that she has done are impressive. And I hope that if she decides to stay in politics, that she'll take a hard look in the mirror and not be that person anymore, that she will actually stand up for the people she aims to represent.”

Suzanne Lunt, a conservative Republican from Gilbert, said she is troubled by the changes in the Republican Party and could not bring herself to vote for McSally because of her allegiance to the president. 

“She sided with Trump like 95% of the time,” she said. “I didn’t want more of Trump and I didn’t want a yes-man or a yes-woman. I wanted someone who seemed to be able to reach across the aisle and work together to do the things that are best for our country, and I got a better sense of that with Mark Kelly.”

Health care record was a deal breaker

McSally’s voting record on the Affordable Care Act while she was in the House of Representatives was a deal breaker for Democrat Don Spencer, a retired city worker.

“She wasn’t honest about what she represented,” he said. “She talked about how she was for health care, but when you go back and look at her voting record and what she supported, she didn’t.”

In Goodyear, where Spencer lives, Kelly performed better than Sinema and improved his margins in Goodyear, Litchfield Park and other areas near Luke Air Force base over the 2018 race.

Bentz said many of the people who work at Luke Air Force live south of the base in Goodyear and Litchfield Park. Those areas have higher wages, which might explain why they voted for Biden and Kelly, like other independents and slightly Republican-leaning areas of Maricopa County with higher educational attainment.

The areas north of Interstate 10 and south of the base are more well off than other parts of the southwest Valley, he said — areas that went for Biden and Kelly and where Kelly outperformed the 2018 race. 

McSally outperformed her 2018 race in several traditionally Republican precincts along the Loop 101 in North Phoenix and Scottsdale that Biden flipped against Trump.

McSally also performed better and won several precincts between Peoria Avenue and Union Hills Drive — winning most of the precincts in the area west of Interstate 17.

McSally flipped more precincts in 2020 than Kelly did. McSally flipped 10 precincts, all in areas around the Loop 101 freeway north of West Peoria Avenue and East Shea Boulevard.

Kelly's ad blitz cited in McSally's loss

Heather Burner, a Peoria Republican, was among the thousands of voters in those precincts who cast a vote for McSally. Burner supported McSally’s positions on issues ranging from the economy to abortion to border security and illegal immigration.

“I think she was really a strong candidate, and that she supported many of the policies that we felt strongly about,” said Burner, a registered nurse and nonprofit director.

She attributed Kelly’s win in part to the surge in TV advertisements: “It was overwhelming. And I think he's probably a good man and I have nothing against him. And I think, hopefully he will be a strong leader.”

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Kelly flipped six precincts in Buckeye, Goodyear, Ahwatukee Foothills and Mesa.

McSally outperformed her 2018 results in 68% of precincts around Maricopa County, while Kelly outperformed Sinema’s 2018 results in only 41% of precincts.

Bentz theorized that Kelly may have run behind Sinema's percentages due to the fact that he is male and she is female.

"We've seen females do a few points better in races across the board compared to men ... in the last two cycles," Bentz said.

Turnout in 2020 far outstripped turnout in the 2018 Senate race, which occurred in a midterm without the driving power of Trump, who turned out voters on all sides.

Betty Ramirez, 58, a pro-Trump Republican, voted for McSally in both of her Senate bids.

Ramirez, a small-business owner from Mexico who lives in Chandler, said McSally supported economic policies that benefit minority women. She cited in particular the paycheck protection loan program approved by Congress that has helped to keep businesses afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She worked very hard on this PPP loan — she worked with a lot of small businesses to help them during this time,” she said. 

Ramirez attributed McSally’s loss to the financial advantage Kelly maintained since entering the race in 2019, helping him blitz the airwaves with ads.

“Money talks,” she said. “This is the truth: She did a lot of good things, but unfortunately not too many people know about them.”

Ron Ober, a Democratic campaign consultant, said McCain’s legacy loomed large over the race, two years after his death.

“If you looked at the two candidates this time and you said, 'Which one reminds you more of John McCain?' it would have been Mark Kelly,” Ober said. “Just the way he carried himself, the way he acted, the way he talked about reaching across the aisle, it was more in the legacy of John McCain than the way that Martha McSally carried herself.”

Republic reporters Ronald J. Hansen and Caitlin McGlade contributed to this article.

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