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 McSallyKelly raises million in third quarter Ruben Gallego is left's favorite to take on Sinema Texas not hiring private contractor for election audit 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 KellyMark KellyDemocratic incumbents bolster fundraising advantage in key Senate races Warnock raises .5 million in third quarter Anti-Trump Republicans endorsing vulnerable Democrats to prevent GOP takeover MORE.
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 BidenPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks State school board leaves national association saying they called parents domestic terrorists Sunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases MORE is the strongest Democrat in the field of nearly two dozen. Biden beats President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE in our latest poll. No other top contender for the Democratic nod fares as well, with the likes of Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' Democrats' reconciliation bill breaks Biden's middle class tax pledge We have a presidential leadership crisis — and it's only going to get worse MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (I-Vt.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows preview: Supply chain crisis threaten holiday sales; uncertainty over whether US can sustain nationwide downward trend in COVID-19 cases Buttigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by The Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations - US opens to vaccinated visitors as FDA panel discusses boosters 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.
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 ClintonTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Jan. 6 panel flexes its muscle 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.
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 McCainProgressives say go big and make life hard for GOP The Biden-Harris train wreck may have its savior: 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump Kelly raises million in third quarter 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.