Giffords looms large in Arizona's Senate showdown

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The most vulnerable Republican running to keep her seat in the U.S. Senate faces a well-funded opponent with a clear shot at the Democratic nomination.
 
But in its early days, something more hangs over the race between Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyArizona Democrats push Sinema censure vote off until January Pence taps former DHS spokeswoman as his new press secretary Arizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema MORE (R) and retired astronaut and Navy aviator Mark Kelly (D): Kelly's wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), whose political career was cut short when she survived an assassination attempt in 2011 that killed six people.
 
A decade ago, Democrats saw Giffords as their best chance at breaking through in what had long been a solidly red state.
 
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She won a swing seat long held by Republican Jim Kolbe, and she seemed poised to make a bid for statewide office.
 
But the attempt on her life and her long, painful and public recovery stalled those hopes.
 
Instead, Giffords and Kelly launched what has become one of the nation's leading gun safety organizations. The group, Giffords, spent millions on candidates and campaigns in 2018.
 
Kelly may seem an unlikely Democratic candidate. As recently as 2012, he voted in the Republican presidential primary in Texas.
 
But Giffords, who starred prominently in Kelly's video announcing his candidacy, stands as a powerful proxy for her husband, a signal to Democrats that he is one of them.
 
"His wife is loved. Quite frankly, she has always done things right," said Eric Kurland, a teacher in Scottsdale who ran for the state legislature last year. Her presence "will get him into many different circles that he wouldn't have otherwise."
 
The Kelly campaign declined to comment on the race, though a source pointed to the fact that Kelly routinely speaks about his wife, and the attempt on her life, on the campaign trail.
 
Kelly says he cannot imagine having gone through Giffords's recovery process had she not had good health care, using it as a way to connect with voters on an issue with which he has little public policy experience.
 
As Kelly makes himself known around the state, some Democrats had hoped Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben Gallego2020 Democrats raise alarm about China's intellectual property theft Harris picks up endorsement from influential lawmaker as support slips Democratic lawmaker: Russia, China benefitting from continued US troop presence in Afghanistan MORE (D), who has a much deeper relationship with the progressive community, would join the race. But Gallego said earlier this week he would not run.
 
"Mark Kelly's kind of unknown. You can factor in a lot from his wife's politics, but we don't have the meat yet," said Deedra Abboud, the vice chair of the state Democratic Party who ran for a Senate seat in the 2018 primary. "It seems like national is pushing Kelly," she said, referring to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
 
McSally, who won Giffords's old House seat three years after she left office, also pointed to the national Democratic Party's influence clearing Kelly's way.
 
"This doesn't surprise me, though. The Democrat elite, [Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer, Pelosi push Trump to back universal background check bill Sinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden blasts Trump, demands he release transcript of call with foreign leader Pelosi wants to change law to allow a sitting president to be indicted Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Walmart to stop selling e-cigarettes | Senators press FDA to pull most e-cigarettes immediately | House panel tees up e-cig hearing for next week MORE (D-Calif.)], they usually try to pick and anoint someone and not allow the opportunity for Democrat primary voters to have a choice," McSally said Tuesday in an interview with KTAR News 92.3 FM.
 
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Gallego said this week he had not felt pressure from Schumer to stay out of the race. 
 
"We talked to Schumer early. They were staying out of the race. I didn't see their fingerprints anywhere," Gallego told reporters this week. "Look, I just jumped in too late. In order for me to really get ahead, it would have had to have been a very bitter primary, and then I'm just not going to engage in a bitter primary — not this year. I'll be a senator someday. It's just not going to be today."
 
McSally lost a contentious race against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) in 2018. Some Republicans chafed when Gov. Doug Ducey (R) appointed her to fill the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainAmerica's newest comedy troupe: House GOP Michelle Malkin knocks Cokie Roberts shortly after her death: 'One of the first guilty culprits of fake news' Arizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema MORE's old seat, fearing the appearance of a backroom deal.
 
McSally's advisers declined to comment for this story. But in the interview Tuesday, McSally said she was throwing herself into the Senate.
 
"For crying out loud, the last election is barely over. I'm focused on doing my job and being an effective senator for Arizona," McSally said. "The best thing I can do right now is be a hardworking, effective senator for Arizona, and that's what I've hit the ground running doing."
 
If history is any indication, President TrumpDonald John TrumpJulián Castro: It's time for House Democrats to 'do something' about Trump Warren: Congress is 'complicit' with Trump 'by failing to act' Sanders to join teachers, auto workers striking in Midwest MORE will be a factor in McSally's bid. Facing a tough Republican primary, McSally embraced Trump last year and stuck by the president even after winning the GOP nod. Trump carried the state by nearly 4 points in 2016.
 
"Everybody in Arizona loves President Trump, including Sen. McSally and including me," said Kelli Ward, the chairwoman of the state Republican Party who challenged McSally from the right in 2018. "I really want the people of Arizona to get to know her, the true version of Martha McSally."
 
Ward acknowledged that McSally faces a difficult path to winning the final two years of McCain's term.
 
"She's got the toughest race in the country ahead of her. She's got two years to prepare for a race that most people have six years to prepare for," Ward said.
 
Kelly, a political neophyte, bolted to a strong start in February when his campaign pulled in more than $1 million in the two days after he announced he would run.
 
Kelly's team said this week that it had already raised $3 million — an amount that will make some Democratic presidential candidates jealous — with a week left to go before the fundraising quarter ends.
 
McSally ended the year with about $923,000 in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
 
Mike Lillis contributed to this report.