Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate

In 2018, Arizona got a taste of what it was like to be a battleground state. Never before in modern Senate campaigns had two candidates put up such an expensive and nasty fight.

The U.S. Senate race in Arizona saw a Grand Canyon-size investment in Republican 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 and eventual winner Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

In 2020, all signs point to investors digging deeper to support fighter pilot-turned-appointed U.S. Senator McSally and astronaut-turned-candidate Mark Kelly.

ADVERTISEMENT

Fifteen months away from Election Day, polling and financial data point to a close match-up that could determine control of the next Senate. Kelly leads fundraising efforts so far, propelled by his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). But McSally, now with the power of incumbency, is gaining ground.

Money and candidates aside, maybe the most important factor in Arizona will be the two presidential candidates who top the ticket. Tracking polls conducted by OH Predictive Insights (OHPI) show Joe BidenJoe BidenUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' Warren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll MORE is the strongest Democrat in the field of nearly two dozen. Biden beats President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE in our latest poll. No other top contender for the Democratic nod fares as well, with the likes of Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll Iowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Warren avoids attacks while building momentum MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Sanders unveils plan to eliminate Americans' medical debt MORE (I-Vt.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWarren overtakes Biden in Iowa for first time: poll The polls are asking the wrong question Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding MORE falling short in these surveys.

In these early looks, it’s clear a Democratic wave could materialize in Arizona with the former vice president at the top of the ticket. Other Democrats who could be painted with the socialist brush face greater obstacles.

But have no doubt: The McSally-Kelly race will be among the closest-watched across the country.

McSally narrowly lost her 2018 race to Sinema. McSally was not able to hold on to the suburbs that ring the Phoenix metropolitan area that are crucial to GOP victories.

ADVERTISEMENT

A comparison of the 2016 and 2018 elections shows McSally failed to hold Trump voters and independents. McSally lost 118 precincts that Trump won in 2016. By comparison, Sinema lost just two precincts that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonUkrainian official denies Trump pressured president The Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam Missing piece to the Ukraine puzzle: State Department's overture to Rudy Giuliani MORE won two years earlier. Sinema turned red areas to blue, and McSally could not catch fire in a similar way.

McSally’s challenge in 2020 will be to recapture the suburban vote in the traditionally Republican-friendly cities of Peoria, Glendale, Gilbert and Chandler.

As Trump continues to push immigration to the forefront, Arizona voters respond. Arizona’s position on the front lines has long pushed GOP politicians to respond with increasingly draconian measures to combat federal ineffectiveness. S.B. 1070 famously roiled the entire nation in an immigration debate. Much of the law, however, was blocked by the courts. The federal government has yet to deal with the issue, including the repeated pledges to build the wall.

Two policy areas that are likely to create significant debate in the race are gun control and climate change.

As Arizona continues to swelter in 110-plus-degree temperatures for weeks on end, a majority of voters believe climate change is real. According to a May OHPI poll, that belief is evident among every age group, Democrats, independents and even 51 percent of Republicans. Kelly is backed by environmental groups that want action, such as the Green New Deal.

ADVERTISEMENT

And in the gun-friendly west, an even split of 49 percent of households own a gun and 49 percent do not. Kelly, after the near assassination of his wife, has been a staunch supporter of gun restrictions. Kelly’s association with gun control advocates could hurt him in nearly half the homes in the state where there is a gun owner.

Last year, Arizona became a $100 million state when we elected our first female senator. Gov. Doug Ducey (R) appointed McSally to fill 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 seat. McSally hued close to Trump, viciously hammered Sinema over her associations with anti-war groups and then came up just short. McSally has made some campaign changes and now runs as an incumbent looking to hold on in 2020.

The McSally-Kelly matchup promises to be more expensive and, depending on the national mood, could determine control of the U.S. Senate in 2021.

Mike Noble is chief of research and managing partner at OH Predictive Insights, a Phoenix-based market research and public polling company.