Coin Flip

Bill WymanNovember 2018
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In less than four weeks’ time, Krysten Sinema or Martha McSally will be Arizona’s first female U.S. senator. We look inside the most critical political race in Arizona history.

When you are running for political office, this is how it goes.

One minute you’re on a panel at Arizona State University discussing space debris, and the next you’re in a dusty corner of Chandler, talking to burly guys who make cinderblocks.

On a hot day in August, U.S. Representative Martha McSally grins good-naturedly at the several dozen assembled employees at CRH Materials, which cranks out material for the state’s construction industry. They’re hard-hatted and tattooed almost to a man, and dwarf the U.S. Senate hopeful, who is surprisingly petite for a trailblazing combat veteran – the first woman, in fact, to see war action as a U.S. Air Force pilot.  

You can sense her military bearing, but she has a quick, goofy laugh, too, and can’t help projecting the air of a friendly next-door neighbor. “The D.C. world is a political theater,” she tells them earnestly. “They lose sight of the fact that there are people like you back home working really hard.”

It’s an agreeable sentiment that plays well to the potential voters assembled around her, but the impromptu stump session takes a tricky turn when a Hispanic man asks about the border: “Is it that you’re not going to be able to cross the border, except legally?” He’s seemingly affronted by the fact. Another hard hat, in more blustery fashion, opines that parent-child separations at the border are no morally different than family separations experienced by any American who is arrested for a crime.

As someone who piloted a low-flying A-10 Warthog, McSally is used to dodging flack, and she weaves through this minor skirmish with confidence, trying to couch her answers in a tone of common sense and agreement: “We need to secure our borders, right? We can’t incentivize illegal activity!” It’s an illustrative moment, one that graphically demonstrates the spectrum of politics in Arizona right now – a spectrum that has exposed unfamiliar hues with McSally and her opponent, U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema, as they vie for Jeff Flake’s soon-to-be vacant U.S. Senate seat.

McSally with her A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft; Photo Courtesy U.S. Air ForceHave the candidates shown their true colors – Sinema, the play-it-safe centrist; McSally, the no-apologies Trumpist conservative – on the campaign trail these past three months, as they enter the home stretch of the 2018 election? Or are they working the crowd, executing game plans designed to lift them into the U.S. Congress’ vaunted upper chamber? The stakes are high. As Arizona’s first female senator, the winner will make instant history by breaking the last meaningful glass ceiling in state politics, but – perhaps more critically – she’ll also be the new de facto face of Arizona. Technically, she’ll be taking over for Flake, but she’ll be the successor in spirit to the late John McCain, whose term is currently being ridden out until 2020 by formerly retired appointee Jon Kyl.

In two years’ time, one of these two women will be Arizona’s senior senator. Possibly, like McCain, for multiple decades. So what do we really know? Because the political deck in America has been reshuffled, and the card Arizona voters pick could have lasting consequences for generations.

Remarkably, there have only been 11 senators from Arizona in the state’s 106-year history – all white men and all multiple term-holders, with the exception of hapless Grand Canyon profiteer Ralph H. Cameron (1921-1927) and, of course, Flake. Handsome, conservative and descended from Mormon royalty, he seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of Barry Goldwater (five terms), Kyl (three terms) and McCain (five-plus terms). But once he crossed swords with President Donald Trump, the Mesa conservative’s hard-right Republican base deserted him, and he decided to retire after just one term in office.

As a template for a political career, McCain obviously offers the far more appealing long-term outcome – at least as things stand in 2018 – and both McSally and Sinema have at times courted comparisons to the late “maverick” lawmaker.

McSally, of course, has the common background as an ex-military pilot and Republican. And as a swing-district lawmaker who represented parts of Tucson and points south and east in Congress for the last four years, she’s also cultivated a McCain-esque reputation as a moderate, even refusing to say whether she’d voted for Trump in 2016. But that stance shifted sharply in 2018, as McSally fended off right-wing flank attacks from Tea Party candidates Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio en route to the nomination in late August. In one of two interviews with PHOENIX before the primary, she explicitly rejected the label “center-right candidate”: “You know, I hate the labels. I’d describe myself as… a get-the-mission-done candidate.”

Sinema at a state senate Immigration enforcement hearing in 2010; Photo Courtesy AP ImagesReminded that both Flake and McCain criticized and resisted Trump as Arizona’s representatives in the Senate, she doubled down on the chief executive, defending her newly amicable relationship with the Oval Office: “I’m often invited over there as we work through issues, and if I have something of concern, I say it to his face. We have that kind of relationship. My sense is that Arizonans, whether Republican, Democrat or independent – we hear this on the campaign trail – they like that I have that kind of relationship with the White House, that I’m at the table.”

The subtext: McSally is not prepared to inflame the Republican, pro-Trump base, which is critical to her election hopes – more critical, perhaps, than the Arizona moderates who sustained McCain’s multiple re-elections.

If McSally’s 2018 pivot could be described as a darting, tactical maneuver, then Sinema’s career could be described as a long, sweeping bank that has almost completely transformed her as a political personality, from card-carrying Green Party operative and self-described “Prada socialist” in the early 2000s – a period of her life lampooned in ubiquitous, McSally-supported TV attack ads, with real-life footage of Sinema looking ridiculous in a pink tutu while protesting the war in Iraq – to today’s Blue Dog Democrat, who sometimes votes more conservatively than conservatives.

Sinema’s enthusiasm for party-blind politics – she was ranked the third-most bipartisan member of the House of Representatives in a Georgetown University study – could be viewed as fulfilling the maverick legacy of McCain, who bucked his party on numerous occasions throughout his career.

But Sinema’s persona on the 2018 campaign trail has been anything but iconoclastic – in truth, it’s been pretty milquetoast, and decidedly nonissues based, focused more on her impoverished upbringing and survivor bona fides than any particular political issue.

During a short interview following an August campaign appearance in the Valley, she refuses to engage on the issue of possible obstructive behavior on the part of the Trump administration, or the Robert Mueller investigation of Russian election meddling – the most hot-button issue in America before the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process pushed it out of people’s news feeds.

“We have systems in place, checks and balances, to right the wrongs and keep the ship moving forward,” she says. “My job is to ensure that Robert Mueller has the independence and freedom he needs to finish his investigation.” She never mentions the president’s name.

Ironically, her overarching campaign strategy seems to precisely mirror that of McSally’s: say and do nothing to inflame the Republican right wing. For both candidates, it will be easier said than done.

Back in Chandler, McSally takes pictures with the plant workers and then takes a short break for an interview.

McSally grew up in Rhode Island, the youngest of five children, and lost her attorney father when she was 12 – a sudden, painful ordeal in which the family “was literally playing on the beach” during the day before gathering by his bedside at the hospital that night after he suffered a sudden heart attack. “He told me to make him proud,” McSally recollects. “And then he had another heart attack the next morning. And passed away.”

She has also spoken of being sexually abused by a high school coach – two traumas in relatively rapid succession that she admits could have spun her life in a different direction. “I’ve always been a rebellious spirit, sort of a change agent, sort of a questioning agent,” she says. “But a little bit of grief during the teenage years, and you can channel that in one of two directions, right? So that, factored with the rough circumstances [of sex abuse], led to [the military].”

McSally at a Veterans conference in August; Photo by Carrie Evans
Sinema with a volunteer at a service project at St. Mary’s Food Bank in August; Courtesy Sinema Campaign

McSally at a Veterans conference in August, left; Sinema with a volunteer at a service project at St. Mary’s Food Bank in August; Photos by Carrie Evans, left; Courtesy Sinema Campaign, right

It was in the military that she first became acquainted with Arizona, arriving at Williams Air Force Base in the summer of 1990 for pilot training. “And I fell in love with Arizona, even though it was August and 150 degrees.” Over the course of four training deployments to the Grand Canyon State, she became a resident, buying her first house in Tucson, which she still owns today.

She ultimately achieved the rank of colonel in the Air Force and amassed graduate degrees from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Air War College. But she was hardly a plug-and-play compliant soldier. Frustrated with being forced to wear an abaya (a loose overgarment) while off-base in Saudi Arabia during the Iraq War, she successfully sued Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to end the policy. This and her groundbreaking role in the Air Force, she says, gives her credibility on women’s issues.

“For me, I would ask people to look at my entire life, and what I did with the grief, and the struggle and [the sex abuse] and being propelled to fight for others, and especially propelled to fight for women and girls,” she says

In the late 1990s, she was married, briefly, but the marriage was quietly annulled outside Tucson a few months later. “I’m Arizona’s most eligible bachelorette,” she says today. After leaving the military in the late 2000s, she cashed in her connections (having worked for Kyl as a legislative fellow) and entered politics, winning Gabrielle Giffords’ former House seat in 2014 after a razor-thin vote and recount. She won re-election with little opposition in 2016, but chose to run for Senate rather than face a biennial dogfight for her legislative district, which is more than 25 percent Hispanic and saw Hillary Clinton beat Trump by five points in 2016.

In a short conversation after the meeting with CRH workers, McSally launched a few verbal missiles to kick off her campaign against Sinema: “She comes from an extreme past and has gone through a political makeover.”

Later, in a one-on-one interview, she balks at the suggestion that Sinema would be “transformational” as the nation’s first openly bisexual senator: “I thought you meant she transformed herself politically, from extreme, extreme left wing, proud socialist… But when it really matters, she’s not with small business, she’s not with securing our borders, she shows her true colors.”

Asked about her own positions, however, McSally evinces some combativeness and frustration. She dismisses queries about gay marriage and gay adoption, characterizing them as a “state’s issue” despite the 2015 Supreme Court ruling protecting same-sex marriage. Similarly, she waves away Mueller’s Russia investigation. “There’s clearly no collusion,” she says, parroting the Trump administration’s talking point. She downplays attacks on the American electoral process – confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security and other U.S. intelligence agencies – as propaganda. “The Russians [always] meddle in elections,” she says.

She Said, She Said - Comparing the candidates’ positions on hot-button issues.Most surprisingly, when asked if she is satisfied with the Trump administration’s actions to fight election meddling, she implies that it’s not a national security issue, but something more along the lines of health care. “Not everything is the government’s responsibility,” she replies. “We need to protect our election integrity as far as hacking in to our systems. The Department of Homeland Security has done a lot. [But] this is what the Russians do, they do propaganda. We as American citizens shouldn’t take the bait.”

Sinema arrives on time for her interview with assistants in tow – campaign staff for campaign events, congressional staff for official appearances. She and her team radiate crispness and efficiency. The session concludes when it is supposed to, and after three or four minutes of no-doubt scheduled-in small talk, Sinema departs.

To McSally’s point, the last decade has certainly been transformational for Sinema. She hardly resembles the tyro lawmaker who canvassed historical neighborhoods in Phoenix for signatures to back her state senate run. She’s still ebullient, but much more disciplined in interviews – more on-point, more cautious. She’s also physically leaner, the result of her triathlon training, and the bipartisan spin class she teaches on Capitol Hill on Wednesday mornings.

Described as “the most ambitious person I’ve ever met” by a Democrat who served with her in the state Legislature, Sinema has ridden her escalating election successes like a talented surfer, adjusting her balance and positioning to suit the swell beneath her.

While McSally spent most of August and September reasserting her Trump bona fides and making fun of Sinema’s tutu, Sinema leveraged her superior fundraising mechanism and went positive, plying through $10 million in campaign cash to buy TV ads. The ads were opponent-free and positive. They all reinforced plot points in the political narrative she’s been cultivating for years: that of the onetime doctrinaire liberal – indeed, a Ralph Nader supporter – who realized the error of her ways and has since become a moderate who doggedly searches for points of compromise with her political opponents, with special attention paid to vets and senior citizens. She even wrote a book on the subject, Unite and Conquer, back in 2009.

The clever thing about this narrative is that it acknowledges her political evolution and turns it into a story of personal growth, not opportunism. “She’s the most talented politician in Arizona” says Valley GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin. “She’s had weeks to paint a picture of herself and she’s done a masterful job of it.”

Central to the narrative is her childhood story, which she unveiled in a YouTube video last year while announcing her candidacy. She grew up in Tucson, the beginning of a daunting childhood. Her father, a lawyer, went bankrupt. Her mother moved the kids to Florida, where she remarried, but the family lived in an abandoned gas station for three years, which Sinema has said had no running water or electricity.

Sinema, raised as a Mormon, was a brilliant and precocious student, graduating from Brigham Young University at the age of 18. (Though she subsequently left the church, describing herself as a “Mormon apostate” in a PHOENIX interview in 2010, she has recently struck conciliatory tones, acknowledging its role in helping her family as a child.) She subsequently earned a master’s degree in social work, a law degree and a Ph.D. in justice studies, all from ASU. “I get up every single day and think, ‘What can I do for Arizona today?’” she says. “And I just get things done. It’s not ideological, it’s not partisan. My job is to find a problem and then solve it. There’s not a party for that!”

It’s all unfailingly positive and optimistic, but it’s also a gamble, treating Trump’s name like “Voldemort” and letting third-party PACs do the trashing of McSally. Sinema carried a double-digit lead over McSally in most polls leading up to the primary, but the margin shrank precipitously in September. As of press time, the three most recent reputable polls had Sinema with a 3- to 7-point advantage. Several earlier polls actually had McSally ahead. The race is largely regarded as a toss-up.

And there were signs Sinema’s reliance on her personal life story might be a liability. Sinema has never made her father, mother or stepfather available for interviews, and a September story in The New York Times openly questioned the veracity of her account of childhood homelessness, producing city records indicating the family did have running water and electricity.

“I’ve shared what I remember from my childhood. I know what I lived through,” she told the newspaper, when asked if she knowingly embellished details from her childhood.

Still, with the race entering its final few weeks, Sinema is unlikely to change her tactics in her quest to become Arizona’s first Democratic senator since Dennis DeConcini (1977-1995). The campaign feels its base is safe and will not throw red meat at it, allowing her to bring independent voters to her side. Thus far, there has been little pushback from the left. Says Raúl Grijalva, probably the state’s most liberal U.S. Representative: “For me, irrespective of what differences there may be, I’m going to support [Sinema].”

McSally has the thankless job of signaling her allegiance to Trump even as the president’s metastasizing legal problems and outlandish statements continue to alienate independents. Asked about the advice he would give to McSally, GOP strategist Coughlin said it should be all about the story the candidate tells to voters. “She’s got to narrate her own candidacy in line with what Arizona expects. She has to narrate it around the economy, national defense and immigration.”

Whether in the end the president will help or hinder McSally remains to be seen. Here’s a trenchant example. In an interview in August, Coughlin presciently forecast that the president would come up with a new NAFTA deal with Mexico. McSally, he predicted, could use that to great benefit in her campaign. He was correct – except that the president announced it on the day before the August primary election, smack in the middle of a week of uproar about his grudging recognition of the death of McCain.

The last few weeks of the campaign will be fraught. Voter turnout in the primary broke records – fully 30 percent higher than the record for an off-year election. There was ominous news in those figures for Republicans, however. Data from the Arizona Secretary of State’s office suggests that most new voters leaned toward the Democratic party – including 15 points higher in highly populated Maricopa County. Meanwhile, a KTAR poll last July found Trump’s approval rating in the state at 43 percent, with 48 percent unfavorable. That’s in keeping with national averages – itself a blinking red light for the GOP in Arizona, where a Republican president is more popular than the national average.

Indeed, all signs point to a terrifically contentious, close finish. With any luck, we’ll even get to see Sinema and McSally in the same room together. As of press time, the two camps were squabbling over what might or might not turn into a pair of debates in mid-October.

It would be a rare opportunity to get them off-script – and our last, best hope of finding out what they really think about the important issues they’re generally not talking about.

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