McSally takes hard line on immigration in Arizona primary

McSally takes hard line on immigration in Arizona primary
© Greg Nash

Arizona’s Senate GOP primary is pushing Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyElection Countdown: Calls to abolish ICE test Dem candidates | First round of House GOP 'Young Guns' | How Tester is handling Trump's Montana visit | Dem candidate won't back Schumer as leader | Super PACs ramp up Missouri ad buys GOP Senate candidate’s husband spreads conspiracy theories online: report Ariz. GOP Senate hopeful touts her backing of Trump, border security MORE (R) to the right on immigration as she juggles the hot-button issue with the pressure of battling hard-right primary opponents.

McSally, who has represented a Tucson-area swing seat since 2015, has cast herself as an immigration hawk, most notably by removing her co-sponsorship of a more moderate immigration bill last month. She has endured criticism for her shift to the right from her top GOP rival, Kelli Ward, as well as Democrats looking to seize on the move ahead of November.

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The dynamic is on display now that the House will vote Thursday on two immigration bills that address the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the emerging drama over family separation at the southern border. And Republicans believe this could be a defining moment for McSally to crystallize her bona fides as a border security hard-liner, while Democrats ready their
attacks.

“It presents an opportunity for her to solidify her position on immigration with primary voters,” a Republican political consultant in Arizona told The Hill. “If she handles it well, it’s a very good opportunity. If she doesn’t, it could be a real problem for her.”

McSally, a former combat fighter pilot who’s considered one of Republicans’ top recruits this cycle, had carved out a more moderate profile over the years, particularly on immigration.

In 2015, the congresswoman opposed defunding DACA. And McSally previously backed the Recognizing America’s Children Act, a GOP bill that would offer a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrats’ likely nominee in the Senate race, is the only member of her party who has co-sponsored the bill.

But McSally withdrew her name from that bill in May. And earlier this month, her office deleted a YouTube video where she called for a “practical” and “compassionate” fix to protections for Dreamers.

McSally has also kindled a closer relationship with President TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE. She said she wants to pursue the president’s signature promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Part of McSally’s district lines up with the border.

Democrats have pounced, with some pejoratively referring to her as “McShifty.” They highlight these moves as helpful both as they hope to blunt her standing in the primary and as they try to define her ahead of a likely general election.

McSally’s campaign pushed back on the notion that her positions have shifted since running for Senate. The congresswoman has pointed out that she helped craft a more conservative immigration bill sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteFormer FBI lawyer Lisa Page gets closed-door grilling from House Republicans 5 takeaways from wild hearing with controversial FBI agent GOP lawmaker asks FBI agent about lying to wife over affair MORE (R-Va.) back in September, prior to Arizona Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP senator: Senate should be 'disgusted' by Helsinki summit Flake to introduce resolution countering Trump's Russia summit rhetoric Senate GOP poised to break record on Trump's court picks MORE’s (R) retirement announcement in late October.

Goodlatte’s bill — the Securing America’s Future Act — limits legal immigration and provides funding for a border wall. The measure doesn’t offer a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, instead giving temporary protections. In a statement about family separation, McSally said this bill remedies the problem, “allowing children to stay with their parents as they undergo due process.”

The Goodlatte bill is one of two immigration bills that will be up for a House vote Thursday, along with a compromise measure brokered by leadership. Trump indicated in a closed-door meeting Tuesday night that he supports both measures, and the vote will be under the magnifying glass considering the outcry over the administration’s policy to separate children from their families illegally crossing the border. Trump on Wednesday signed an order ending the practice.

McSally’s campaign defended her decision to remove her name from the centrist immigration bill, saying that it was a “way to clarify” her full-throated support for the Goodlatte bill, which she has been a co-sponsor of since January.

“Martha has been a consistent leader fighting in Congress for more border security,” said Torunn Sinclair, McSally’s spokeswoman. “The bill fully funds the wall, closes immigration loopholes, addresses family separation, and DACA.”

Ward, a former state senator running to the right of McSally, has mounted a pressure campaign on her opponent, whom she has dubbed “McAmnesty” for being soft on border security. Ward has also cast herself as a loyal Trump ally who has made attacks against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Overnight Defense: Washington reeling from Trump, Putin press conference Feehery: The long game MORE (R-Ky.) a prominent part of her campaign. She has said that if leadership’s compromise bill were to pass, she’d urge Trump to veto it.

Ward has accused McSally of not being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative and compared her to Flake, who is unpopular among base voters. Ward’s ad highlights McSally’s past skepticism about the border wall and accuses her of not supporting Trump in 2016.

“Now, McSally is pretending to be conservative to move up in D.C. and satisfy her own ambition. I’m a real conservative, exactly what Arizona needs in the U.S. Senate,” Ward says in the ad.

But Ward faces her own complicated path to the GOP nomination in the Aug. 28 primary. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s decision to jump in shook up the race. Arpaio, too, is an immigration hard-liner and will likely siphon away some of Ward’s conservative base.

The latest primary poll from Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights has McSally surging into first place with nearly 40 percent of the vote, with Ward trailing behind at 24.5 percent and Arpaio further behind at almost 14 percent. That’s a big shift since its poll from April, which had Ward in the lead.

GOP pollster Mike Noble said McSally is not only benefiting from Ward and Arpaio splitting the conservative vote, but also from the congresswoman’s dash to the right.

“Also it’s because she is embracing the fight against illegal immigration, throwing that red meat to the base,” said Noble.

McSally also has ample resources from both her own campaign and outside groups. She has a huge fundraising edge, raising $3.3 million, and has $2.5 million on hand. Ward, who’s been in the race since late 2016, raised about $1 million less, but has much less in the bank: $432,000.

McConnell’s allies have recently come to McSally’s defense on immigration. One Nation, an issue advocacy group, launched an ad touting McSally’s vow on border security and quoting her saying that a wall needs to be built — without mentioning her Senate campaign.

Democrats, meanwhile, see Arizona as one of only a few Senate seats this cycle they have a good shot at flipping. Trump won the state by less than 5 points in 2016.

While Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in Arizona since 1988, Sinema benefits from avoiding a bruising primary and has been able to stockpile money, with $6.7 million in the bank.

But immigration will also be tricky for her to navigate. Sinema has co-sponsored the Keep Families Together Act, a bill that aims to prevent family separation. It's been backed by every Democratic senator and House member. Republicans argue that the bill is too broad.

The late August primary doesn’t give the eventual GOP nominee much time to pivot to the general election, especially with mail ballots dropping about a month out from the November election. But Republicans argue her shift to the right on immigration won’t hurt McSally in a general given the red-tinged nature of the state and its proximity to the border.

“Being tough on immigration is not a controversial position in Arizona,” the GOP strategist said. “She’s not running any real risk of losing voters that she wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Ben Kamisar contributed. Updated at 11:55 a.m.