Trumpism Ate Martha McSally’s Brain

Trumpism Ate Martha McSally’s Brain

The most prominent statue outside the Capitol building in
Phoenix represents an icon who touches a nerve deep in the cultural
consciousness of Arizona: a fighter pilot. Frank Luke Jr., a local boy bronzed
in a leather jacket and cap, was an ace who came second only to Eddie
Rickenbacker in the number of confirmed kills by an American pilot during World
War I. No protesters have tried to rip down Luke’s statue, nor has there been any
interruption in Arizona’s habit of elevating its pilots to the realm of
government. Though Luke had an air base named for him, he isn’t the most
revered fighter pilot in state political lore: That honor goes, of course, to John
McCain, the Vietnam War veteran who held one of Arizona’s U.S. Senate seats for
six terms.

The race for McCain’s old seat this November now features a
matchup between two retired military pilots who are both playing up their bona
fides in the armed services. The contest between Republican Air Force Colonel Martha McSally and Democratic Navy Captain Mark Kelly shouldn’t
be close. “It used to be that a well-funded Republican not prone to gaffes
would run away with a statewide office,” said GOP consultant Barrett Marson. And
if that candidate was a fighter pilot to boot, loyal to an incumbent Republican
president? That would have been a dream candidate in Frank Luke’s twentieth-century

But this is no ordinary time in a restive state, battered by
a runaway coronavirus pandemic and leaning toward voting Democratic in a
presidential race for only the second time since Harry Truman’s win here in
1948. Now Arizona is also poised to send two Democratic senators to Washington
for the first time in almost as long, possibly helping tip control of the upper
chamber to the Democrats.

Kelly has consistently led in polls since the spring. At the
end of July, one survey showed him up by a dominant 18 points. Many weather patterns
are involved: unhappiness over Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s inept response
to the Covid-19 pandemic; rising anti-Trump sentiment in the Phoenix suburbs;
renewed Latino registration efforts; and Democrat-friendly shifts in the

But there are also fundamental problems that stem from McSally
herself—particularly her calculated, if ham-fisted, embrace of the president’s
toxic brand of politics. At times, her fighter pilot credentials seem like her
only political asset. Her flailing campaign, as well as her
embarrassment-riddled stint as McCain’s appointed successor in the Senate, are
further evidence of the terminal decline that has gripped Donald Trump’s
Republican Party, which has no answers to the problems plaguing Arizona specifically
and America more broadly. McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, has gone so far as to endorse
Joe Biden for president. When asked if she would support McSally, she
responded, “I have no interest in it.”

That McSally could very well be wiped out in November should
inspire existential panic in the GOP. And that Arizona is being written
off as the price of doing business with Trump is proof that the party has all
but given up interest in actually governing.

McSally, 54, retired from Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force
Base in 2010 after a genuinely impressive career, in which she flew combat
patrols over Iraq and became the first woman to command a fighter squadron. She
won a seat in Congress four years later—a district that covered the same Tucson
suburbs that used to be represented by Kelly’s wife, Gabrielle Giffords, who
had been gravely wounded in 2011 in a mass shooting outside a supermarket near
Tucson. (Disclosure: I used to work for Giffords as a field organizer and
speechwriter.) McSally’s victory in a historically Democratic district, where the
sympathetic shadow of the popular Giffords continued to loom large, signaled
both the electoral troubles Democrats faced as Barack Obama’s second term came
to a close and McSally’s own image as an establishment Republican who could win
competitive elections. 

But McSally did not distinguish herself in the House. The
highlight of her tenure was the pork she delivered back home, most notably her
effort to save the local air base’s fleet of A-10 Warthogs—her old aircraft,
which she once called “a badass airplane with a big gun on it”—from being
scrapped by the Pentagon.

McSally (far right), pictured here welcoming Trump to Yuma, Arizona, in August, has been at the vanguard of the GOP’s decline in Arizona during the Trump years.


Despite her lack of a discernible record, she ran for Senate
in the 2018 cycle to replace Senator Jeff Flake, who had committed the
unpardonable sin of suggesting the Republican Party brand should not be built
on racism and extremist rhetoric. He said so in a book titled Conscience of a Conservative (an
explicit paean to Arizona’s own Barry Goldwater) that Trump took as a personal
insult, making his displeasure known through tweets calling Flake “toxic” and
“weak.” That was enough to endanger Flake’s reelection bid, and he decided not
to run the gauntlet of a Republican primary, becoming a powerful cautionary
tale for any Republican senator who dared challenge the president.

McSally absorbed the lesson. She turned the dial to Full
Trump in her campaign against Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, even accusing her of “treason”
in their sole televised debate. She ultimately lost by two points, mainly due
to her weakness in the Phoenix suburbs—a bright red flag for the GOP that went

McSally took office in the upper chamber anyway—as a
gubernatorial appointee to McCain’s seat after he died of brain cancer.
This may have been Ducey’s second-greatest political mistake, next to his
overeager push to reopen Arizona’s economy amid the pandemic, in defiance of the
warnings of the state’s top scientists. It had been assumed—mainly by Washington
strategists and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—that McSally would be a
powerful female antidote to charges of Republican misogyny in the #MeToo era.
She would presumably come into the Senate armed with a broad base of
preexisting support and fundraising tools that would allow her to defend the
seat on short notice.

Instead, McSally has been a disaster. In an attempt to win
over the far-right wing of the GOP, McSally cast her lot with Trump and now
finds it impossible to disentangle herself. She became best known across
Arizona not for her previous image as a moderate but for making two salty statements.
One came during the run-up to Trump’s Senate impeachment trials in January, when
CNN reporter Manu Raju asked McSally an innocuous question in the hallway of
the Dirksen Senate Office Building about the case. “I’m not talking to you,”
she said with airy contempt. “You’re a liberal hack.” 

Beyond its childish flippancy, the dismissal carried the
tone of having been practiced ahead of time—a retort aimed for the president’s
ears via Tucker Carlson’s show that night. The insult showed up almost instantly
in her fundraising appeals, and her campaign offered T-shirts for sale with a
slightly altered version of the quote—“You’re a liberal hack, buddy”—raising
the possibility that they were printed ahead of time and McSally had flubbed
her script.

McSally’s other memorable oratorical fragment happened
behind closed doors in a GOP House conference meeting on May 4, 2017, in the
midst of a debate about a Trump health care bill that was going nowhere. After
spending weeks dodging questions from constituents about whether she wanted to
dump Obamacare, she stood up and told her colleagues, “Let’s get this fucking
thing done.” With that, she signaled she was ready to pull the plug on crucial
provisions in the Affordable Care Act, including the prohibition against
charging higher premiums for preexisting conditions. The statement was
immediately leaked to an Associated Press reporter, likely on the presumption
that it would endear her to Republican voters. But her damn-the-torpedoes moment
has come back to haunt her, especially in light of her continuing ambiguity on
where she stands on health coverage. One of her ads in June promised: “Of
course, I will always protect those with preexisting conditions. Always.” Few
people in Arizona believed her, and with good reason.

McSally has certainly succeeded in staving off a primary
challenge from the right. The August 4 Republican primary gave her no trouble:
She crushed the ill-prepared cosmetic company founder Daniel McCarthy by 50
points. But her general election prospects aren’t good. She has not been able
to broaden her appeal among Trump-weary swing voters, especially those in the
behemoth of Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix and its traditionally
Republican suburbs to the east. One of her key missteps may have been failing
to buy a house near Phoenix, where her name recognition is still weak. “She
tells a great American story with warts and flaws and successes, but she hasn’t
told that story to Maricopa County,” said Sam Stone, one of her former aides.
“When you see her off the stage, she’s a warm person, and she clearly cares. It
kills me that most people in Arizona don’t know that person. The military
coldness doesn’t work well for a lot of folks.” 

Like other politicians, McSally has seldom been seen during
the pandemic—but this is only an extension of her longtime allergy to public events. She has a penchant for kicking small-town reporters out of
community gatherings at which she is a speaker, and she stays away even from
the friendly precincts of right-wing media. “She is uniquely scared of her own
shadow for someone in politics,” said one popular radio host in Phoenix, who
asked for anonymity for fear of alienating her. “This is odd, for someone with
a military background. She’s afraid of her own base.” 

The can-do fighter
pilot seems unable to lock in on a target. When beloved former University of
Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson went into hospice care on August 25, two
days before his death, McSally misspelled his name in a consolatory tweet: “My
prayers are with Luke Olson and his family tonight.” Either this longtime
resident of Tucson didn’t know the name of one of its most famous citizens, or
she had assigned the tweeting—and maybe even the praying—to a hapless staffer. 

Cindy McCain, the widow of longtime Arizona Senator John McCain, has said she has “no interest” in supporting McSally.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With no ground game, McSally has tried the distinctly
Trumpian strategy of linking Kelly to the anti-China xenophobia surrounding the
coronavirus. Kelly, the former commander of the NASA space shuttle Endeavour, met his wife during a Young
Leaders Forum trip to China in 2003. He also co-founded a space tourism company
called World View Enterprises that initially proposed to take customers up to
the stratosphere in a giant helium balloon but now focuses on research; the company
accepted a $15 million cash infusion that included money from the Chinese tech
giant Tencent, which has come under suspicion for playing a role in that
nation’s extensive surveillance and censorship program. But Kelly is no longer
with the company (he retains an investment stake), and a negative National
Republican Senatorial Committee ad attacking his alleged soft spot for China didn’t
seem to make a dent.   

McSally has also tried to insert herself in the fight over
the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, positioning herself
as a sure vote for Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. “Come on, this is why I’m
in the Senate,” she reportedly said. Just 15 minutes after she sent
out a one-sentence tweet in memory of Ginsburg on the afternoon of her death,
she added: “This U.S. Senate should vote on President Trump’s next nominee for
the U.S. Supreme Court.” 

Another thwarted GOP line of attack against Kelly is his
co-founding of the gun safety group that used to be called Americans for
Responsible Solutions (it is now simply called Giffords, after his wife). While
Kelly has not called for any gun-registration measures that a majority of
Arizonans don’t support, it used to be that even the whiff of anti-firearm
sentiment was enough to hang a statewide candidate. No longer: A January poll
from Global Strategy Group showed that voters were in favor of stronger gun
safety regulations by an eight-to-one margin, with 57 percent saying they would
never support a candidate who stood in the way of background checks on all gun
sales. Kelly is a gun owner himself and, as a former combat pilot, never
projected “that weak lib feel,” in the words of Marson, the GOP consultant.

The increasing willingness of Arizona voters to consider a
Democrat like Kelly can also be chalked up to demographic factors. Since the
days of the Indian Wars, Arizona has relied heavily on military spending as
economic subsidy. The population boom of the 1950s gradually ushered out the
copper-sheathed Democratic coalition of labor and big business and created an
optimistic Sunbelt Republicanism oriented toward personal liberties, low taxes,
limited services, real estate growth, and entrepreneurialism. But internal
migration has now been blowing in a different partisan direction. New residents
fleeing high home prices and traffic—especially from Los Angeles, Chicago, and
Seattle—have been streaming into Maricopa County, bringing their liberal-to-centrist
politics with them. “I would bet we’re not polling 5 percent from those
people moving in from California or Illinois,” lamented Stone, McSally’s former

While Republicans still enjoy a thin registration advantage
of about 1.4 million to 1.3 million voters, the momentum is clearly on the side
of the Democrats, who are enjoying a 16 percent jump from two years ago. Meanwhile,
polls show a four-point lead for Joe Biden, and the number of early mail-in
ballots received in the Democratic primary in August broke records. On average,
about a quarter of registered voters participate in primaries here; this time
it was more than a third. Revulsion for Trump has Democrats running for state
legislature—and they’ve made steady inroads into the once-dependable GOP
heartlands of Ahwatukee, Paradise Valley, and Chandler. “These wealthy middle-class
districts are now willing to give Democrats a chance,” said Robbie Sherwood,
the communications director for the Democrats in the Arizona House of
Representatives. “The anti-science dogma is driving people away.”

But in supposedly safe districts, Republicans are making
even heavier bets on Trumpism as a forever strategy. One of the most reliable
far-right immigration-bashers at the state Capitol, Sylvia Allen, lost her
reelection in the August 4 primary to Wendy Rogers. (Rogers’s occupation?
Retired fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force.)

Latinos make up 24 percent of Arizona’s eligible voters, and
the Biden campaign is courting them as a key liberal-leaning demographic. Trump
won the state by 3.4 points in 2016, but even then changes were afoot: That
same year, voters in Maricopa County turned out immigration hard-liner and
longtime embarrassment Sheriff Joe Arpaio, after a lengthy federal
discrimination lawsuit. State prosecutors accused him of systemically targeting
Latinos for arrest; Arpaio was also convicted of contempt of court for failing
to obey a judge’s order. (He was pardoned by Trump at the end of it all, in August 2017.) The anti-immigrant demagoguery that once cast a hypnotic spell over
Arizonans seems not to work anymore: The indefatigable Arpaio, at age 88, narrowly
lost this year’s August primary in a bid to reclaim his old office. 

The Republican brand remains powerful in rural Arizona,
especially the country around the Mogollon Rim and the strip along the Colorado
River that is poised to send hard-line pro-life and pro-gun Representative Paul
Gosar to a presumptive sixth term. But the demographic slippage in Phoenix and
Tucson, combined with McSally’s sputtering campaign, may be enough to hand the statewide
race to Kelly.

Only adding to the trouble is a festering schism within the Republican
statewide apparatus, epitomized by the controversy swirling around state party Chairwoman
Kelli Ward—an ardent supporter of Trump who once complained on Facebook that
John McCain had deliberately timed the announcement of his impending death just
to hurt her chances in her losing 2018 campaign Senate primary bid against
McSally (and Arpaio, who was a candidate in that race as well).

Ward represents the unapologetically paranoid and
conspiracy-minded wing of the party, to the occasional mortification of the
old-line Phoenix business and philanthropic establishment that provides the
bulk of funding for most state races. “The Republican Party here is in one
sense like a club with rules,” said longtime lobbyist Kevin DeMenna. “They have
county chairs that represent the subset who are really driving policy and making
large donations. That money stopped when Kelli Ward became chairwoman. Nobody
invests in the message for Arizona that Kelli Ward represents.” 

This helps explain McSally’s $10 million cash-on-hand
disadvantage against Mark Kelly as of July, in addition to Kelly’s ability to tap
national liberal sources developed through his gun safety group. Scrambling to
make up lost ground, McSally pleaded with supporters in August for more money in near-religious terms: “I’m not
ashamed to ask, to invest. If you can give $1, $5, if you can fast a meal and
give what that would be.” After the comment was widely mocked for its
desperation, her campaign said it was a “joke.”

The GOP’s problems in Arizona all go back to Trump. One of McSally’s
longtime top advisers, Jeff Roe, most famous for helming Ted Cruz’s 2016
presidential campaign, praised the “maddening brilliance” of Donald Trump in a
2018 op-ed in The New York Times and
advised candidates to “fix
bayonets and storm to the front with him,” despite whatever personal misgivings
they might harbor. Those who have dared to stand up to him have paid the
price—even if their resistance was mostly on stylistic grounds, as was the case
with the once-popular Jeff Flake. Unquestioning fealty to Trump was the apparent
motivation for McSally’s double-tongued approach to health care and her verbal
sucker-punch to Manu Raju. “You flew your Warthog to the dark side,” Arizona Daily Star cartoonist and former
admirer David Fitzsimmons told her in a column.

And this was before Trump’s disastrous response to the
coronavirus encouraged a small but influential anti-mask campaign in Arizona. It
was also prior to the spectacle of Governor Ducey telling people, in late May,
that “it’s safe out there.” The resulting infection rate for Arizona in June was
triple that of the rest of the country. A national poll deemed Ducey the least
popular governor in the country for his pandemic response, with just 32 percent
of state residents approving of his cavalier approach. But instead of even mildly
criticizing her party’s shortcomings at the state and federal levels, McSally went
jingoistic, blaming China’s “disgusting
and inhumane and deadly practices in these wet markets, where they have live
and dead animals gutted, and it’s just disgusting, their practices.”

“When Trump had his radicalizing effect, Republicans had to
go along with it if they wanted to survive,” observed Peter Aleshire, the
former editor of the Payson Roundup, a small-town newspaper serving the
Mogollon Rim country. “It was enough to get McSally the nomination. But the
ghost of John McCain haunts Arizona. And now McSally is up against a fighter

In many ways, the Trump campaign found its voice in Arizona
back in the transformative summer of 2015. His packed rally at the Phoenix
Convention Center, in which he sharpened calls for a border wall and denounced the
political norms in Washington, was the first televised performance that convinced
observers that he was something more than a joke candidate. “This has become a movement because people
don’t know what’s happening,” he said then. But they know now.

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