Mark Kelly defeats Martha McSally in Arizona's U.S. Senate race, giving Democrats a key pick-up
Democrat Mark Kelly has unseated Republican incumbent Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona's special election, flipping a longtime GOP seat blue and giving Arizonans their first pair of Democratic senators to represent the state since the 1950s.
On Wednesday afternoon, Kelly claimed a decisive victory and said he was honored to follow in the footsteps of a seat won six times by the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
“I am deeply honored that Arizonans have trusted me to be their next United States Senator and to serve in this seat once held by Senator McCain," Kelly said in a written statement. "We woke up today still facing a pandemic, a struggling economy, and deep division in our country.
“While elections officials continue the important work of ensuring every vote is counted, I am preparing for the job of being an independent voice for all Arizonans, regardless of who they voted for," he continued. "We need to slow the spread of the virus, get our economy back on track, and defend health care protections for people with preexisting conditions.
"And I know that together, we can.”
The Associated Press called Arizona's closely watched race for Kelly at 12:51 a.m. Arizona time on Wednesday.
Through McSally has not conceded and her campaign was waiting for all ballots to be counted, Kelly's focus has shifted to transitioning to the Senate.
Kelly will join the Senate when it returns from recess for its post-election, lame-duck session and would help to narrow Republicans’ 53-47 majority in the chamber. He would have a vote on any potential legislation, which could include another coronavirus stimulus package, judicial nominees and action on government funding.
Don Ritchie, the Senate’s former historian, said congressional staffers would work quickly to move McSally out of her office in the Russell Senate Office Building, which Kelly would likely occupy, at least for a time.
“They're out of there right away. I mean, they're vacated almost immediately,” he said. “Between the Election Day and the day in which the new senator was sworn in, they would have to clear everything out as well as her staff. … There are people who work at the Senate who do a lot of work redoing offices and office space” to reconfigure how the new senator wants the space used.
Political analysts in Arizona anticipate he will draw from the tight-knit team of advisers who have worked with his campaign and his wife’s campaigns and congressional office.
Kelly, a first-time candidate, retired NASA astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., won on a message of partisan independence, science-based decision-making, affordable health care and insurance coverage for preexisting medical conditions against the backdrop of a lethal pandemic.
Because it was a special election to fill the remainder of a term won by McCain, Kelly is expected to be sworn in as soon as election results are certified, which falls on Nov. 30, barring a prolonged legal battle.
Early results show Kelly carried the state’s two major metro areas of Maricopa County and Pima County, while McSally won most of the rural areas of the state.
Kelly’s win accelerated the upheaval in the state’s political landscape, which has rapidly shifted from dependably red, to purple in 2018, to blue this cycle.
In the span of two years, Arizona went from being represented by two Republican senators, McCain and Jeff Flake, to two Democratic senators.
Since 2018, McSally has lost each of the state's two Senate seats, in consecutive cycles.
Kelly, a former Navy combat pilot, will represent Arizona alongside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who beat McSally during her first run for the state’s other Senate seat in 2018. She campaigned for Kelly in the closing weeks of the race.
Sinema called Kelly by phone to congratulate him on his win Wednesday morning. In a written statement, she said she was proud that Kelly rejected running a campaign of "petty politics of name-calling and false personal attacks," a reference to the strategy employed by McSally.
"I look forward to partnering with him to cut through Washington dysfunction to deliver for everyday Arizonans, and I thank Martha McSally for her service," Sinema said.
The early election-night results were consistent with polls conducted in the months and weeks before the election, which showed Kelly leading McSally.
On election night, a McSally campaign spokesperson signaled after the race was called that McSally was not giving up on the race.
"Hundreds of thousands of votes have still not been counted," Caroline Anderegg said in a written statement. "Every Arizonan deserves to have their voice heard and vote counted. We continue to monitor returns. The voters of Arizona decide this election, not media outlets."
McSally's campaign did not elaborate on how much, or how little, it saw the remainder of outstanding votes affecting the final outcome.
SEE THE WINNERS: Arizona election results
During his 13-minute remarks to supporters on election night, Kelly thanked his deceased parents, both of whom were police officers, and his family.
He called for the Senate to get busy working on the needs of Arizonans who are still struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kelly also pledged to be a senator for the entire state in the mold of McCain.
"This mission does not end when the last vote is counted. It is only the beginning," Kelly said, comparing it with the preparation for space during his time as an astronaut for NASA. "Now the work starts."
The 2020 race pitted two retired combat pilots from Tucson against each other.
McSally trailed Kelly in 41 out of 42 publicly released polls conducted this year and he held a strong fundraising advantage, pulling in $82 million to McSally’s $50 million this cycle.
But Kelly largely shelved traditional campaign operations since last spring as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the battleground state.
McSally, a Trump loyalist who rarely broke from the GOP party line during her time in the Senate, deemed those polls as “fake,” telling voters the race was instead a dead heat.
Tuesday’s early results underscored just how torn the once reliably red state was about their two choices for the seat.
McSally, who was appointed to the seat by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey after McCain’s death, sought redemption by voters who had already rejected her in 2018.
Her election bid came at a time of deep political unrest under President Donald Trump, whose presidency injected hope among Democrats that they could have two Democrats in the state’s two Senate seats for the first time since the 1950s.
In Kelly, a first-time candidate for office, Democrats saw a star recruit.
His message of partisan independence, science-based decision-making, affordable health care and insurance coverage for preexisting medical conditions against the backdrop of a lethal pandemic, gave him a polling advantage that McSally sought to chip away by attacking his self-styled moderate political brand, his business record that included ties to China, and his work as a gun-control activist following the shooting of Giffords.
Since launching his bid in February 2019, he built a coalition of Democrats, independent voters, disaffected Republicans, suburban women, Latinos, seniors, and others.
Kelly forged a national profile as a NASA astronaut, Giffords’ husband, and a gun-control activist after the mass shooting, which killed six and wounded 13 near Tucson.
In the final stretch of the race, McSally took aim at Kelly’s gun-restriction advocacy through an organization he founded with his wife. She sought to convince voters that Kelly, a gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment, would strip away their gun rights.
Kelly has called for universal background checks and the prevention of mass shootings through red-flag gun laws to try to prevent people deemed a threat from getting firearms.
McSally built a coalition of conservative voters, rural voters, faith-based voters, and pro-Trump supporters who sought to prevent a Democratic takeover of the Senate.
McSally blistered Kelly every chance she could to invoke his wealth and indirect business ties to China through a Tucson business he co-founded.
McSally, a reliable vote for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also warned Arizonans that Kelly would be a rubber-stamp for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, should Democrats win the chamber.
She lambasted Kelly for refusing to tell voters whether he would vote for Schumer as leader, or where he stood on calls to eliminate the legislative filibuster, should he win. She cast herself as the only figure standing between economic opportunity and economic devastation.
Kelly ran largely as a centrist candidate who would make decisions independent of the Democratic Party.
He questioned whether McSally’s alliance with Trump and McConnell were in the best interests of her political career, or Arizonans.
Kelly put front-and-center of his campaign McSally’s years-long opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which protected those with preexisting coverage. He elevated that issue, more than any other, throughout his campaign, leaving her on the defensive.
Also at the heart of his campaign was management of the COVID-19 crisis by Trump and McSally, as well as their stalled efforts to address the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Kelly emphasized to voters about his support of the 2010 Affordable Care Act even as he reminded voters about McSally’s past votes to undo the ACA. He said McSally was part of the partisan gridlock gripping Congress that prevented timely passage of another federal stimulus bill to help families, schools, local governments, tribal communities, and small businesses.
Crystal Mercado, 22, of west Phoenix, said her vote for Kelly was an easy one. She viewed McSally as not doing enough to oppose to Trump's agenda, from the separation of children at the border from their parents to his rollbacks of environmental policies.
"I've got to be honest, on the Senate race, it was an obvious choice for me," said Mercado, a home mortgage consultant. "I wasn't going to vote for Martha McSally."
Jim Rhodes, 85, of Scottsdale, said he cast an early ballot for McSally about a week before election day because he wants her and Republicans to maintain control of the border and support law enforcement.
For him, Republican control of the chamber was crucial. In Democratic candidates like Kelly, he worries about higher taxes and and a sputtering economy.
Republic reporters Ronald J. Hansen, Rafael Carranza and José-Ignacio Castañeda Perez contributed to this article.
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