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 McSallyHealth care group launches M ad campaign hitting Trump in battleground states Senate outlook slides for GOP ACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants 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 BidenTucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Joe Biden wins New Jersey primary Biden wins Delaware primary MORE is the strongest Democrat in the field of nearly two dozen. Biden beats President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Jersey incumbents steamroll progressive challengers in primaries Tucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' Trump on Confederate flag: 'It's freedom of speech' MORE in our latest poll. No other top contender for the Democratic nod fares as well, with the likes of Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTammy Duckworth hits back at Tucker Carlson: 'Walk a mile in my legs' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump wants schools to reopen, challenged on 'harmless' COVID-19 remark Judd Gregg: The coming Biden coup MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden wins New Jersey primary Biden wins Delaware primary Military madness in the age of COVID-19 MORE (I-Vt.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBiden hires top aides for Pennsylvania Democratic lawmakers call for expanding, enshrining LGBTQ rights Democrats debate Biden effort to expand map against Trump 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 ClintonSusan Collins signals she won't campaign against Biden Cuccinelli says rule forcing international students to return home will 'encourage schools to reopen' Clinton labels ICE decision on international students 'cruel' and 'unnecessary' 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 McCain Senate outlook slides for GOP Juan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Democrats lead in three battleground Senate races: poll 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.