GOP nerves on edge after Sinema takes lead over McSally

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) has taken a narrow lead over Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyProgressive group to spend as much as M to turn out young voters This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' MORE (R) in a hotly contested race for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona after a wave of ballots from Maricopa County broke heavily toward the Democrat on Thursday night.

Now, with about half a million votes left to count, Republicans are nervous that the votes left to be counted will favor Sinema. 

Sinema leads McSally by just 9,163 votes out of nearly two million cast, a margin of just 0.48 percentage points. Angela Green, the Green Party nominee, has 43,958 votes.

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Publicly, McSally’s campaign says it is confident that the remaining ballots will break their way. McSally's team has told allies that the ballots counted on Thursday are likely to have come from the final early votes cast before Election Day, voters that are most likely to favor Democrats.

The remaining votes to count, McSally's campaign believes, will come from Republican voters who turn out regularly, who dropped their ballot off at polling places on Election Day. Those voters, McSally's team hopes, will put them back in front.

“With half a million ballots left to count, we remain confident that as votes continue to come in from counties across the state, Martha McSally will be elected Arizona's next senator,” McSally campaign chief Jim Bognet said in a statement.

But privately, half a dozen Republican strategists, party officials and state legislators on Thursday and Friday all said they worried a Senate seat was about to slip away. They are closely watching the next tranche of results, due to be released by Maricopa County officials Friday afternoon.

“It goes without saying that if Sinema gains significantly again in Maricopa County today, the race is over,” one party strategist who asked for anonymity to offer a candid assessment told The Hill. “Sinema's jump in the numbers last night defied expectations and all logic.”

Several Arizona political experts said they expected Sinema's lead to grow Friday, when the last of the early votes are counted, and for McSally to begin cutting into Sinema's lead on Sunday, when ballots turned in on Election Day are counted.

“It's highly likely you're going to see Sinema make a small gain today. However, with the Election Day voters, you'd expect Martha to probably claw back a little,” said Mike Noble, a Republican pollster in Phoenix. “It will tighten back up again, but is there enough to swing back?”

A McSally spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

In their own statement released Friday morning, Sinema's campaign said it was confident she would hold her lead.

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The vast majority of the remaining ballots to be counted are in Maricopa County, the state's largest, where elections officials are working through about 345,000 uncounted votes. The county is closely divided; Sinema holds just a 2.5 percentage point lead over McSally.

But the next-largest chunk of uncounted ballots, 80,000, comes from Pima County, the more liberal home of Tucson, where Sinema leads by 13 percentage points so far.

The largest pool of votes likely to favor McSally will come from Pinal County, where an estimated 30,000 votes remain uncounted. There, McSally leads by 14 percentage points.

There are 10,000 votes left to be counted in Coconino County, a heavily Democratic bastion based around Flagstaff, and a combined 15,000 votes are left to count in three small rural counties where McSally leads, according to Garrett Archer, a data expert who closely studies Arizona politics.

Election administrators in several counties, including Maricopa, are calling voters whose signatures appear not to match those on file, to verify whether those voters actually cast votes. Republican Party organizations from four counties sued Thursday to try to force a uniform set of procedures across the state, one that would either shut down the process in Maricopa County or force other, smaller counties to engage in their own so-called ballot rehabilitation process.

A Maricopa County judge ruled that counties should continue tallying votes, though he set a follow-up hearing on Friday.

If Sinema does pull off the comeback, McSally still has a path to the Senate. Several Republicans said that Gov. Doug Ducey (R) could appoint McSally to the seat held by Sen. Jon Kyl (R), who was appointed himself to replace the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainConservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters Donald Trump's 2020 election economic gamble MORE (R) earlier this year. Kyl has made clear he does not want to stay in the Senate beyond the end of this year.

If McSally and Sinema were to serve together, they would not be the only pair of senators who had run against each other before. 

Sens. Angus KingAngus KingOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows by six members Senators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing MORE (I-Maine) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Progressive group to spend as much as M to turn out young voters Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (R-Maine) faced each other in a race for governor (King won). Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenBottom Line Poll: McConnell is most unpopular senator McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal MORE (R) beat Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (D) when they ran to become governor of North Dakota in 2000. And Sen. Mike EnziMichael (Mike) Bradley EnziEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Senate committee advances budget reform plan Bipartisan Enzi-Whitehouse budget bill a very bad fix for deficits MORE (R) beat out Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoCentrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid GOP senators discuss impeachment with Trump after House vote MORE (R) for the Republican nomination for his Senate seat in 1996, a decade before Barrasso himself got to the Senate.

Republicans have already secured the Senate majority, with wins in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. But if they lose Arizona, they could be governing in a small majority again.

Arizona isn't the only uncalled race, with the Florida Senate race between Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonBottom Line Bottom Line Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R) likely headed to a recount. And Republicans are looking to defend Mississippi, where they are highly favored to win a special election runoff on Nov. 27.

Lisa Hagen contributed.