Meet the GOP's unconventional new star

As the nation’s first female combat pilot, Rep. Martha McSally has always been one to cast aside convention.

Now that she’s a member of Congress, the Arizona Republican is showing no signs of changing. 

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After winning a recount against Democratic incumbent Rep. Ron BarberRonald (Ron) Sylvester BarberKavanaugh nomination a make or break moment to repeal Citizens United Latina Leaders to Watch 2018 Principles and actions mean more than Jeff Flake’s words MORE by just 167 votes, McSally didn’t get in line and keep quiet like other freshman. She began aggressively lobbying Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and won herself a subcommittee gavel and a platform to hold hearings.

The Republican hired former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s top spokesman as her district director — part of a broader push to reach out to Democratic, independent and minority voters she’ll need to win reelection in her southern Arizona district, one of the most competitive in the country.

The retired Air Force colonel and squadron commander also isn’t afraid to admonish fellow House Republicans. In a 30-minute interview with The Hill last week, she warned against GOP messaging bills that fire up the base but won’t pass the Senate.

“Don’t do stupid stuff,” she said.

“You don’t need to be handing hundreds of millions of dollars of ammo to the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] for no reason,” said McSally, seeming to reference recent bills on immigration and abortion. “It’s one thing to take a hard vote and say, ‘Oh, this is going to hurt, but it’s the right thing to do.’ But if it’s like, let’s just light ourselves on fire just for the sake of it?

“I’ve been trying to be a reasonable governing voice,” she added. “I’m concerned about actually making an impact and getting the issue fixed so people I represent actually see the change — not voting on something, putting out a press release and claiming victory.”

She stands just 5 feet 3 inches, but McSally has never run from a fight. In 2001, she won a lawsuit against then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, overturning a policy requiring U.S. servicewomen to wear Muslim garb and cover up when traveling off base in Saudi Arabia.

Now she’s taking on the Pentagon once again.

Her top mission in Congress so far: Save the A-10 Warthog, which sits on the budget chopping block but is the economic engine of her Tucson-based district.

In congressional hearings, TV interviews and a New York Times op-ed on Monday, McSally has been sounding the alarm: Shelving the A-10 would mean “American troops will die.” Compared to its rivals, the aircraft can “loiter” over the battlefield for longer periods without refueling; is more lethal, carrying 1,174 rounds of ammunition; and can better survive an attack.

She would know. McSally became the first female pilot to fly in combat in 1995, flying the A-10 on missions over Iraq and Kuwait. Nearly a decade later, she would make history once again. At Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, McSally took charge of an A-10 squadron, making her the first woman in the Air Force to command a fighter squadron.

Asked if there was any political risk in focusing too much on the A-10, McSally quickly shot down the idea.

“Dude, have you seen what I’ve been doing for the last 101 days? … We’ve been doing a million issues,” McSally said, rattling off her legislative efforts to combat drug cartel “spotters” and improve care for military vets amid a Veterans Affairs scandal. She also hosted 20 House lawmakers in her district to get a first-hand look at the border with Mexico.

“I am not a one-issue congresswoman. It’s just that this issue is so important and I am the person who has the first-hand experience. They can’t pull the wool over my eyes with their responses.”

Earlier this month, Barber, who succeeded Giffords after she nearly lost her life in the 2011 Tucson mass shooting, said he would not seek a rematch in 2016. McSally also had a good fundraising haul in her first three months in Congress, pulling in $640,000 from donors.

But don’t ask her if she’s feeling comfortable about her reelection chances.

“With my 167-vote landslide victory?” she quipped. 

Democrats, McSally said, have been plotting her political demise since Dec. 18 — the day after a judge ruled that she had been elected in a recount by a razor-thin margin.

No one has declared a challenge to McSally, but state Rep. Bruce Wheeler and former Rep. Matt Heinz are reportedly taking a look at the race. State Sen. Steve Farley is another potential Democratic challenger.

After a long, divisive and expensive campaign against Barber, McSally maintains she’s taking a break from the “trench warfare.” But even her efforts to bring the community together could be seen as politically shrewd and strategic in a district that is evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents.

In January, McSally hired C.J. Karamargin, who had been serving as Giffords’s communications director, when the congresswoman was shot through the head by a deranged gunman four years ago, killing six and wounding others, including Barber Giffords’ allies were irked by Karamargin’s decision to switch teams, but his personal relationships in the district will be an important asset for McSally, as she continues to make inroads with Democrats and independents.  

At McSally’s first State of the Union address in January, she didn’t join other Republicans who invited a guest to make a political statement. Instead, she invited 17-year-old Gilbert Valenzuela, a member of the Tucson Boys & Girls Club. 

“We’ve got a strong Hispanic community, so that spoke to them where my heart is as opposed to $10 million worth of attack ads that mischaracterized me,” she said.

And on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, McSally attended services at a local African-American church before marching and speaking at a rally in Tucson.

“I want to make sure the people who didn’t vote for me know I represent them,” McSally said in the interview. “You’re not going to please everybody in such a diverse community but I’m going to listen to everybody.”