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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 McSallyDemocrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Mark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego 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.

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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 BidenDemocrats warn GOP will regret Barrett confirmation Trump campaign eyes election night party at his sold-out DC hotel Harris blasts GOP for confirming Amy Coney Barrett: 'We won't forget this' MORE is the strongest Democrat in the field of nearly two dozen. Biden beats President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE in our latest poll. No other top contender for the Democratic nod fares as well, with the likes of Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris blasts GOP for confirming Amy Coney Barrett: 'We won't forget this' GOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg The painstaking, state-by-state fight to protect abortion access MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersObama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions Americans have a choice: Socialized medicine or health care freedom Ocasio-Cortez says Democrats must focus on winning White House for Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 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.

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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 ClintonHouse Judiciary Republicans mockingly tweet 'Happy Birthday' to Hillary Clinton after Barrett confirmation Hillary Clinton tweets 'vote them out' after Senate GOP confirm Barrett CNN: Kayleigh McEnany praised Biden as 'man of the people' in 2015 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.

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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 McCainObama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions Mark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego More than 300 military family members endorse Biden 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.