GOP nerves on edge after Sinema takes lead over McSally

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) has taken a narrow lead over Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSally The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation McSally knocks Arizona GOP official's call for supporters to stop Mark Kelly 'dead in his tracks' Top Arizona GOP official asks supporters to help stop 'gun grabber' Mark Kelly 'dead in his tracks' 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 McCain The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Biden's debate performance renews questions of health At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR 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 Stanley KingOvernight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine Democrats grill Army, Air Force nominees on military funding for border wall Bipartisan panel to issue recommendations for defending US against cyberattacks early next year MORE (I-Maine) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret Collins The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Congress passes bill to begin scenic byways renaissance Senators say Trump open to expanding background checks 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 EnziLiz Cheney and Rand Paul extend war of words The Hill's Morning Report - 2020 Democrats set for Lone Star showdown Pressure rises on Cheney to make decision MORE (R) beat out Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoHouse votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge Lobbying World Meet the Democratic senator trying to negotiate gun control with Trump 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 NelsonAl Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Democrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups 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.