The Senate battle between Martha McSally and Mark Kelly shows just how much Arizona is changing

Key Points
  • In Arizona, shifting demographics and President Trump's divisive style helped Democrat Mark Kelly open up a polling lead over GOP Sen. Martha McSally.
  • This race is an especially pivotal one for Senate Republicans, who are trying to hold on to their majority amid what both Republican and Democratic strategists predict could be a "blue wave."
  • "The first thing in this race we need to talk about is that Kelly is the best Senate candidate in the country running as a Democrat," said a longtime Republican political strategist in Arizona.
Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Democratic challenger Mark Kelly at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 6, 2020.
Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A little over two years ago, Arizona was represented in the U.S. Senate by two Republicans, it had a Republican governor and Republicans held majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

If current polling holds, two weeks from now all that will be left of decades of GOP dominance will be Doug Ducey, an unpopular governor who is term-limited out of office in two years. 

It is across this rapidly shifting political landscape that one of the most consequential Senate races of 2020 is being run, between Republican incumbent Martha McSally and her Democratic challenger, former Navy captain and astronaut Mark Kelly. Ducey appointed McSally to her role in December 2018 after she lost the race for the state's other Senate seat to another Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema. 

Recent polls show Kelly leading McSally by an average of 8 points. The lead reflects, in part, the shifting demographics of the state, which have helped to tilt electoral outcomes there toward Democrats for the past several cycles.

Kelly's strength also stems from voter disapproval of Republican President Donald Trump, whose platform and positions McSally has wholeheartedly supported in Washington.

This race is an especially pivotal one for Senate Republicans, who are trying to hold on to their majority amid what both Republican and Democratic strategists predict could be a "blue wave" of Democratic victories at the polls on Nov. 3.

But it is not just McSally's Senate seat that may be slipping out of reach for Republicans in Arizona. If current polling trends continue, voters there are poised to hand control of the state House to Democrats, and to split the state Senate down the middle, giving each party 15 seats and ending decades of Republican majority.  

Former astronaut Mark Kelly running for Senate in Arizona
Former astronaut Mark Kelly running for Senate in Arizona

There's more. After breaking for Trump by 4 points in 2016, Arizona voters tell pollsters this year that they plan to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, shifting Arizona's 11 Electoral College votes from Trump's column into Biden's. 

A recent CNBC/Change Research poll showed Biden leading Trump in Arizona by 6 points, a stunning reversal in a state that has only once gone to a Democratic presidential nominee in the past 72 years.

Comparing the candidates

Arizona is a red state that's turning blue before our very eyes, and it is Kelly, who is spearheading that shift.

"The first thing in this race we need to talk about is that Kelly is the best Senate candidate in the country running as a Democrat," said Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican political strategist in Arizona. 

In addition to his career in the Navy and with NASA, the 56-year-old Kelly is the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived a gunshot to the head in 2011. Giffords went on to become a leader of the gun violence prevention movement, and she and Kelly founded the nonprofit Americans for Responsible Solutions. 

Ever since Kelly retired from the Navy in 2011, Democrats have been encouraging him to run for office. But it was only after Trump was elected in 2016, and two years after that, when beloved GOP Sen. John McCain died of glioblastoma, that the pathway to a Senate seat became clear enough to persuade Kelly to run.

McSally, 54, also has a military background, having served for more than 25 years in the Air Force, where she became the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat. 

A moderate Republican who represented a swing district in Congress, McSally was appointed by Ducey to fill McCain's seat following his death in 2018. At the time, she seemed like a good choice to help keep the seat in Republican hands. 

But Trump's divisive record and his insistence that Republicans in Congress mirror his positions on every issue have made it much more difficult for moderate Republicans to build winning coalitions of voters.

McSally's response has been to fashion herself as "a loyal foot soldier for Trump," said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist in Washington. 

"When I first met her, she was a very different candidate, back when she was running for the House [in 2012], much more middle of the road." said Heye. Her near total embrace of Trump eight years later "understandably creates a question of authenticity" in voters' minds.

But like many vulnerable Republicans this year, McSally decided to run as closely as possible to Trump. Despite Trump's polarizing stances, her campaign wagered that enthusiasm among the president's staunchest supporters, coupled with the GOP's historic advantage among registered voters, could power her and Trump to victory.

On Monday, McSally spoke at her second Trump rally in as many weeks, telling a red-hat-wearing crowd in Prescott that Arizona is "ground zero" in the 2020 election.

"The country is relying on us. This state will decide to send President Trump back for four more years. This state will decide the Senate majority and stopping the radical left in my race," she said.

As if to underscore her Trump bona fides, McSally told the crowd that she would be flying back to Washington on Monday night with Trump aboard Air Force One.

Overall, it's hard to tell how much, if any, of McSally's 8-point deficit with voters is tied to Trump's tough reelection fight. Especially since Trump is currently outperforming McSally in CNBC polls by 2 points, and in several other polls by an even greater margin.

Mark Kelly, U.S. Democratic Senate candidate, and his wife Gabby Giffords, former U.S. Representative from Arizona, speak with an attendee during a roundtable discussion with Latino small business owners in Tucson, Arizona, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.
Cheney Orr | Bloomberg | Getty Images

"The Trump people can smell that [McSally] is not really a dyed-in-the-wool Trumper, so she has an enthusiasm problem on the right," said Coughlin, the GOP strategist. "And she's a Republican, so she has a problem on the left." 

CNBC reached out to McSally's campaign staff and asked them to respond to Heye and Coughlin's critiques, but they did not reply. Neither did Kelly's campaign.

The base and bipartisanship

In an election defined so far by record levels of voter enthusiasm, Kelly appears to be reaping the benefits of voter outrage at Trump.

As of Oct. 1, Kelly's Senate campaign had raised a staggering $83 million, nearly half of it, $39 million coming in just between July and September. According to Open Secrets data, 80% of Kelly's individual donations in the race have come from outside of Arizona.

McSally raised $23 million during the third quarter, with around 70% of her donations coming from outside the state.

A key difference, however, is that Kelly has raised these huge amounts while doing practically nothing as a candidate to court his party's most enthusiastic donors: the base.

On the contrary, the former naval officer has run his race as an independent, taking every opportunity to stress that as a senator he'll bring "independent leadership" to Washington and he'll work across the aisle with Republicans (including Trump) on shared priorities.

In keeping with his strategy to insulate his campaign from the left wing of the Democratic Party, Kelly rarely does TV interviews, and he almost never goes on cable news shows.

U.S. President Donald Trump points at the wall as he talks with U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott while touring a section of recently constructed U.S.-Mexico border wall in San Luis, Arizona, U.S., June 23, 2020.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

Kelly did, however, appear on ABC's "The View" in September, where he held up both McCain and another Arizona Republican, the late senator and archconservative Barry Goldwater, as models of bipartisanship.

"I think Arizonans really like independent leadership, folks that are willing to work across the aisle to get things done for Arizona and the American people. I mean, your Dad did that, Barry Goldwater, there are lots of examples," Kelly told co-host Meghan McCain, daughter of the late senator.

Kelly also dodged a question about Arizona's shift from red to blue, something most Democratic candidates would jump at the chance to talk about. "I don't know who hands out the colors, there must be someone in Washington, D.C., who does that," Kelly said.

Whether or not Kelly wants to talk about it, the reality on the ground is unmistakable: The demographic profile of Arizona voters is changing, and it has been for several years. And the implications for Republicans and Democrats extend well beyond 2020 contests. 

Arizona is changing

"There's a lot that's going into the way the state is changing this cycle and the past few cycles," said Coughlin. "It's an activation of the Hispanic youth vote, the California influx is part of it, the booming economy, aerospace, defense jobs and military bases are factors, too. In a lot of ways, Arizona is like a cheap Silicon Valley." 

The growth in Hispanic voters is happening nationwide, but it has been especially pronounced in Arizona in recent years. 

In the state's largest county, Maricopa, 31% of residents are Latino and in the past four years, twice as many voters in Maricopa County have registered as Democrats than as Republicans. 

Another 100,000 Latino voters have turned 18 in the past two years and become eligible to vote, although young voters are notoriously difficult to mobilize. 

There has also been a major influx of newcomers to the state, making Arizona as a whole and Maricopa County in particular among the fastest growing areas in the United States.

Since 2016, the number of people who have moved to Arizona is estimated at 300,000, and fully a quarter of the newcomers hail from California, the nation's most politically liberal state.

Many of the newcomers have settled in the Phoenix suburbs, where they've helped to expand the total geographic area in which Democratic candidates win more votes than Republicans do.

To be sure, most of the state's rural counties remain solidly Republican. But these sparsely populated areas are no match for the sheer number of people in Maricopa County, around 60% of the state's entire population.

This dominance extends to politics. In 2016, Maricopa County accounted for 53% of all the votes cast statewide.

But experts say it's far too early to count the Republican Party out in the Grand Canyon State. For one thing, Republicans still outnumber Democrats statewide.

"The proportions of registered Republicans and Democrats in Arizona have remained remarkably stable: Registered Republicans solidly outnumber registered Democrats," Samara Klar and Christopher Weber of the University of Arizona wrote in The New York Times.

Klar and Weber argue that what's driving Democrats' polling advantage this year isn't merely the addition of more Democrats, it's a loss of Republican support for McSally and Trump.

Experts say this shift away from the top of the ticket has also been hastened by the outsized impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on Arizona, where more than 5,000 people have died from Covid-19.

Trump, McSally and Ducey have all seen their approval ratings fall this year among Arizona voters, a majority of whom say getting the pandemic under control should be the government's top priority.

Against the backdrop of these trends, Kelly and his message of bipartisanship and independence seem perfectly tuned to offer disaffected 2016 Trump voters an appealing alternative.

In Kelly's anti-partisan pitch, Arizona's wandering Republicans and Arizona's committed Democrats can find something upon which they agree: Washington is broken.

As Kelly put it in his recent debate with McSally, "Partisan politics has made this crisis worse, and partisan politics and partisan politicians are not going to get us out of it."