Want to see two heroes do battle in 2020? Skip the presidential contest and turn your eyes to Arizona instead, where a former astronaut will take on an Air Force pilot for the final two years of John McCain’s term in the Senate. Democrats have drafted Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, to challenge Martha McSally, who got appointed to the seat after losing the state’s other seat to Kyrsten Sinema:
Retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who rocketed to the national spotlight when his Congresswoman wife Gabrielle Giffords was shot in a failed assassination attempt, announced Tuesday he’s running to finish John McCain’s last term in the U.S. Senate.
Kelly is a top Democratic recruit to take on Republican Martha McSally in one of the most closely contested Senate races of the 2020 election.
Kelly launched (sorry!) his campaign on Twitter this morning:
— Mark Kelly (@ShuttleCDRKelly) February 12, 2019
That’s a better campaign video than those produced by either Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren. Kelly’s already got money behind this effort, but it’s not all clear skies for Kelly yet. Despite his obvious assets in name recognition and with Giffords at his side, he may still face competition for the nomination:
U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Phoenix is also considering a Senate run, which would likely set up a tough fight for the Democratic nomination.
Gallego might want to wait for the next gubernatorial election instead. Kelly’s national prominence would make this even more of a spotlight race for Democrats, and it’s a windfall to their gun-control lobby. Gallego likely would carve out a similar policy path as Kelly, but would be less likely to unseat an incumbent — although that may not be as tough with McSally, who lost statewide in November already.
Kelly gives Democrats a number of advantages. In a state that’s already tilting purple, Kelly makes for an easier transition for independents and non-Trump-supporting Republicans — certainly easier than Sinema, who won anyway. He’ll be well-received as a pioneer and hero for his work in the space program, and rightly so. Arizonans will remember well why Giffords had to leave Congress and will see a return via Kelly as a form of cosmic justice. The video explicitly evokes that dynamic, although it doesn’t dwell on it for too long.
With Kelly in the race, Democrats can expect to get a big funding boost from Michael Bloomberg and Everytown’s gun-control advocates. Kelly and Giffords have been the most effective public-relations team for that agenda since Sarah and Jim Brady. Putting Kelly in the US Senate will be a crowning achievement for Bloomberg, unless he decides to run for president in the same cycle.
That brings is to McSally. Unfortunately, she was already one of the GOP’s weaker incumbents heading into a tough 2020 cycle. Two years in office might strengthen her hand a bit, but Arizona has been tough for Team Trump, onto which McSally signed in order to get out of the primary last year. I warned in a column last year that the GOP’s efforts to drive base turnout rather than expand the party meaningfully had put the state at risk. Kelly might be well positioned to push the state firmly into the blue column, at least in the Senate in 2020. And the fall of Arizona will make it much more difficult to keep control of the upper chamber:
Besides having to defend an appointee in Arizona after a stunning pickup by Sinema, they will also need to re-elect Cory Gardner in Colorado, which has also trended Democratic over the last few election cycles. Susan Collins will face a slightly Democratic electorate in Maine, which may not appreciate her full-throated support for Brett Kavanaugh. Joni Ernst will try for her first re-election in Iowa, where two Republican House incumbents lost to Democrats last week. Thom Tillis barely won his last re-election bid in North Carolina and can expect another stiff challenge. The only real bright spot for the GOP in 2020 will be in Alabama, where Doug Jones can expect his unlikely run as senator to end if Republicans nominate anyone besides Roy Moore.
McSally was a good choice for the appointment to this seat, but the GOP had better hope that she’s expanded at least her reach with Arizona voters. With Trump at the top of the ticket, McSally might be looking at two losses in a row, especially with all of the money that will flood into Arizona to support Kelly. Or maybe she’d better hope that Gallego can somehow derail Kelly first.