TUCSON, Ariz. — The Democratic path to a majority in the Senate is narrow and fraught, and if it exists at all, it runs through Arizona, a conservative state that last sent a Democrat to the upper chamber 30 years ago.
But in a year when Democrats have a substantial advantage, Republicans worry their hold on a once-safe seat is in jeopardy — and their standard-bearer, Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Business groups, sensing victory, keep up pressure over tax hikes Kelly raises million in third quarter MORE (R), is warning that her campaign may be the last chance to prevent a Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Forced deadline spurs drastic tactic in Congress Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-N.Y.).
“If there is any chance for them to be in charge, it goes through Arizona,” McSally told supporters at a local Republican club recently. “I am the firewall.”
McSally is the embodiment of an evolving Republican Party, one in which populist fans of President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE are superseding traditional conservatives who are no fans of the president.
She once distanced herself from Trump during the 2016 campaign, when she said she was “appalled” by Trump’s comments on an “Access Hollywood” audio tape with former NBC host Billy Bush, which she called “disgusting.”
Now, she has embraced Trump — and the issues that motivate his voters, like what she says is a rise in crime fueled by illegal immigration.
At the event with Republican activists, McSally mentioned Trump by name at least four times. She did not mention the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden's year two won't be about bipartisanship Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE (R) or the retiring Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeCruz to get Nord Stream 2 vote as part of deal on Biden nominees Democrats threaten to play hardball over Cruz's blockade Rubio vows to slow-walk Biden's China, Spain ambassador nominees MORE (R), whom she hopes to replace in the Senate.
“Do you feel better off and more optimistic than you did two years ago?” McSally asked Republican activists in Tucson. “Or do you want to spend the next two years in impeachment hearings and obstruction?”
The shift, political observers say, is evidence of the complex calculus Republicans face in this midterm election year. In many cases, the benefits of embracing Trump, which they hope turns out voters, outweighs the liability of a president with lousy approval ratings among moderate and independent voters.
“Republicans are tied at the hips to Trump,” said Mike Noble, a Republican pollster based in Phoenix. “Either way you have to hug him, because otherwise you lose your base and then it’s game over.”
That calculus is all the more difficult in Arizona, a state that has added a million new voters — both younger voters with a heavy Hispanic influence and older snowbirds from northern states — in just the last decade.
“Our state is a very independent state that cares deeply about our community and our country, but we have often been skeptical of our government and are really interested in just living our lives as free as possible,” Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the Democratic candidate, said in an interview.
Voters “are looking for a senator who will solve their problems and get stuff done, who can break through the chaos and dysfunction.”
Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' No Hillary — the 'Third Way' is the wrong way MORE came within 3.5 percentage points of winning the state’s electoral votes in 2016, the best performance by any Democratic presidential candidate since her husband, former President Clinton, won the state in 1996.
Democrats appear likely to win McSally’s seat in Congress this year, which would give them a majority in the state’s House delegation for just the third time since the Lyndon Johnson administration.
And Trump’s approval rating is underwater, never a good sign for a party in power that hopes to hold a seat.
“Our polling has shown that Democrats are unified in their dislike for Trump [and] Republicans,” said Noble, whose most recent survey had McSally ahead by 3 points. “Republicans are less united, and the all-important independents are favoring Democrats over Republicans.”
Public polls show the race relatively close; each candidate has led in two of the four polls conducted since the late-August primary. The most recent survey, conducted by SSRS for CNN, showed Sinema ahead by a 7-point margin among both registered and likely voters.
It also showed Trump’s approval rating at just 39 percent among likely voters.
Even McSally acknowledged the asymmetry of voter enthusiasm: “The left is pretty energized right now. They’re on fire,” she said.
McSally needs to even that enthusiasm gap. Her advertisements have focused heavily on her military service — she was the first woman to fly combat missions for the Air Force — in contrast with Sinema, who led protests against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One advertisement in heavy rotation shows Sinema at a protest in a pink tutu.
“I know the price of freedom. While we were in harm’s way in uniform, Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu and denigrating our service,” McSally says in one ad.
Sinema has focused her paid messaging on her own record, highlighting votes to raise military salaries and spending. She rarely mentions Trump, though she rails against Washington as a barely veiled proxy.
“What people bring up to me, number one, is health care, so they’re really worried about some of the proposed changes that have come up in Congress,” she said. “What they’re not worried about is the chaos and dysfunction in D.C.”
“If Martha has decided to run a negative campaign that’s filled with lies, that’s her choice. But it appears that she’s doing this to avoid talking about the real issues that Arizonans care about,” Sinema said.