How extreme triumph and tragedy launched Mark Kelly into political orbit around a critical U.S. Senate seat.
One of Mark Kelly’s earliest ambitions in life was to be the first human to walk on Mars. “I just failed miserably at it. It just did not work out for me,” he says. “But there is a kid walking around today, somewhere in our country, that will be the first person.”
Kelly shares this after a short but sweltering walk from outside the Arizona Science Center to the shaded patio in front of Pizzeria Bianco at Heritage Square in Downtown Phoenix, where he’s been posing for photos after making the rounds at local television studios.
It’s the morning following the August primary election, in which Kelly ran uncontested on the Democratic ticket for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Martha McSally, who also won her primary handily. To be sure, Kelly’s goal of reaching Capitol Hill looks in better shape than his Mars ambitions. Kelly led McSally by an average 7.4 spread across 25 polls posted in mid-August by data aggregator RealClearPolitics, including a FOX News poll showing Kelly with a 13-point edge.
There’s a reason Kelly was leading most polls before he even started formally campaigning: He’s a formidable candidate. That statement is not as subjective as it sounds. As a telegenic and amiable former astronaut, military veteran, son of two police officers and loyal husband to a high-profile survivor of gun violence, Kelly at times seems like he was cooked up in a DNC lab, a center-left foil customized for a state that still slightly leans red – and where Democratic candidates still need to moderate their positions to win statewide office, à la Senator Kyrsten Sinema.
To be sure, Kelly’s candidacy – announced via video in February 2019 – must have felt like a cruel joke to McSally, at the time just four months removed from a general election loss to the seemingly vulnerable Sinema (bisexual, ex-Green Party, etc.). Later appointed by Governor Doug Ducey to replace the late John McCain, McSally finally got her Senate seat, only to discover a few weeks later that she’d be forced to defend it against Kelly – like her, an aviator and military veteran with “American hero” bona fides, but one who also happened to be an astronaut. And Gabby Giffords’ husband.
“That’s a big adjustment, because one of the fun parts about running a statewide race is, you get to travel around the state, you get to meet people and hear their stories in person. It’s a little bit different when you do this over a computer or over the phone.”
But will Kelly’s early lead hold up in this, the most turbulent U.S. election cycle in modern memory? Hiding from the sun on the Pizzeria Bianco patio, wearing a black face mask and dressed in a light blue button-down shirt with long sleeves, black dress pants and black dress shoes with a pristine shine that gives away his military background, the candidate doesn’t seem unduly concerned. In fact, he’s the only person within eyeshot not yet covered in sweat.
Carefully taking position 6 feet away from his assorted staff and lunch companions, Kelly politely asks to remove his mask and begins ruminating on the nuances of campaigning. Kelly has never run for office before, but the art of the stump is something he understands from watching his wife, Giffords, who successfully campaigned in elections for the Arizona State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives before a deranged gunman ended her career – and nearly her life – in 2011.
It’s been strange campaigning during the coronavirus pandemic, he says. His street staff stopped knocking on doors and doing any in-person events in March. He’s adapted with a series of online events and fundraisers via Zoom and Facebook. “That’s a big adjustment, because one of the fun parts about running a statewide race is, you get to travel around the state, you get to meet people and hear their stories in person,” Kelly says. “It’s a little bit different when you do this over a computer or over the phone.”
He comes across as confident but not arrogant; polished but unpretentious. When he pulls a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo for Tucson’s MotoSonora Brewing Co. off his bald head and looks down at it to see the inner rim covered with a ring of rust-colored stage makeup, he says, matter-of-factly (as he says most things), “I’ve been wearing a lot of makeup lately. Look at this, Maria.” He holds the hat up for his press secretary, Maria Claudia Hurtado, to see.
His diverse CV notwithstanding, Kelly says he never imagined running for political office – at least, not before January 8, 2011. That was the day Giffords and 18 others were shot by Jared Lee Loughner outside a Safeway store near Tucson during one of her Congress on Your Corner events. Giffords suffered a grievous brain injury in the attack, and resigned her seat in Congress a year later in the midst of a long and difficult recovery.
Meanwhile, the tragedy bonded Kelly to Arizona in ways both personal and political. Living primarily in Houston at the time, he moved to Tucson to manage his wife’s care and help her navigate her post-political life. Within a few years, he had also taken up her political mantle. He freely admits he would not be running for political office in Arizona had Giffords emerged from that day unscathed.
Now, he’ll play a critical role in Democrats’ efforts to flip the Senate this November, and both parties know it, which is why such an awesome deluge of campaign money has flowed into the state – more than a combined $105 million since the start of the cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission. Nationally, the Kelly and McSally campaigns ranked Nos. 1 and 2 for fundraising among Senate candidates by mid-August, with $45 million to $30 million, respectively.
By comparison, the Senate candidates in Alabama – also regarded as a tight race – raised a combined $19 million.
Kelly wants to continue what Giffords started, not just in terms of legislation to better the lives of Arizonans, he says, but by championing bipartisan cooperation. Even Giffords’ erstwhile political opponents concede she had a knack for reaching across the aisle. A Republican until switching to the Democratic party in 2000, she was reliably moderate representing a diverse Tucson district.
“Gabby taught me how to use public policy to improve people’s lives, and just watching her service in Congress was inspiring. She’s an incredibly hard worker, but also so optimistic about our country and the future,” Kelly says. “And she taught me the ability to work with people that don’t agree with you. She was somebody in the middle, moderate and independent from her political party. We need more of that in the U.S. Senate and in Congress.”
Kelly had an injury-prone childhood. As a baby, he broke his jaw falling out of the crib he shared with his twin brother, Scott. (Mark is older by six minutes.) He subsequently got hit by a car, stepped on a broken glass jar full of worms, got shot in the face with a pellet gun by a cousin and broke his knuckles during one of his many fights.
“I guess I had a habit of coming out swinging in part because I was the son of a hard-charging, hard-drinking, hardworking Jersey detective,” Kelly wrote in the 2011 book he coauthored with Giffords, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.
Kelly was born in Orange, New Jersey, and raised in suburban West Orange. His parents were both police officers, which gives him an appreciation for law enforcement. Still, he supports police reform. “I value the job that police officers do. They’re critical to a safe society,” Kelly says. “But we have to do better. For black Americans, there has been inequity and social injustice, and it’s been too long. We clearly need to reform this system. There needs to be more transparency, more oversight, independent investigations and other positive steps we could clearly take.”
After graduating from high school in 1982, Kelly earned a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering and nautical science from the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He became a Navy pilot the following year, flying 39 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm. In 1994, he received a Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
In 1996, NASA selected Kelly and his brother, also a Navy aviator, to be space shuttle pilots. His first trip into space was as the pilot of the Endeavour, which lifted off on December 5, 2001 – the first of four space missions for the elder Kelly.
Being an astronaut taught him how to handle immense amounts of stress. He describes landing a space shuttle: “After two weeks in space, you’re dehydrated and you’re tired. You haven’t slept well. You’ve got issues with your neural vestibular system. If you move your head a little bit, things start to spin,” Kelly says.
“Now you have one chance to land this $2 billion spacecraft on a runway with no engines. And if you don’t do it the first time, not only do you lose the $2 billion spacecraft, but everybody on board, including you, dies. So, there’s a big intimidation factor, a little bit of pressure.”
Kelly met Giffords in 2003, in the heart of his space career, during a trip to China as part of a trade mission sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. It was a platonic connection. At the time, Kelly was married to his first wife and the mother of his two daughters, Claudia and Claire (then 8 and 5), but his family life was troubled, and the couple divorced the next year.
A year passed with no contact between Giffords and Kelly, until the next National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, which Giffords volunteered to host in Arizona. Kelly impressed Giffords by being the only member of their group who managed to lasso a calf – two, in fact – on a tour of a Tucson ranch. When Kelly returned to Houston, they maintained a long-distance friendship that grew into a romantic courtship. But Kelly continued to live in Houston near his job and children and Giffords stayed in her hometown of Tucson. Theirs was the classic long-distance relationship.
Their first date was to the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. “Gabby’s kind of your ultimate multitasker. I wanted to go on the date; I had to go with her to work,” Kelly recalls. “And on that day, she was going to the prison.”
Kelly recalls the experience in Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope. “And then we got to Death Row, where Gabby asked detailed, intelligent questions and I behaved like a tourist, asking to step inside the gas chamber. I sat down and pulled the door closed. I just wanted to see what that might feel like,” Kelly wrote. “I wasn’t sure what Gabby thought of me, sitting there in the gas chamber, in contemplation, a slight grin on my face. But she liked me enough to suggest we go out to dinner after our prison tour.”
On November 10, 2007, Kelly and Giffords married in a ceremony on the Agua Linda Farm, 35 miles south of Tucson. Consumed with their careers at the time, they postponed their honeymoon indefinitely. Even after the wedding, they maintained their separate residences for the sake of their work.
On January 8, 2011, Kelly was at home in Houston. It was late on a Saturday morning.
“I had just gotten off the phone with Gabby, maybe 30 minutes earlier. I knew she was going to this Congress on Your Corner event. I’d been to those with her before,” Kelly recalls. “I’d just seen her a couple of days before in Washington, D.C., where she was sworn into her third term in the U.S. House, and now she was back in Tucson and she called me. I knew she was going to this thing. And then about 30 minutes later, I got a call from her chief of staff, who told me that Gabby had been shot. And then about 15 minutes later, she called me back and told me she was shot in the head.”
Loughner, now serving a life sentence in a Minnesota facility for inmates with mental health issues, fired a 9 mm pistol into the crowd, killing six people and injuring 13 others, including Giffords. The bullet entered the left side of her head but did not cross the midline of her brain.
More than nine years after the attack, Giffords has regained much of her ability to walk, speak, read and write. Her address at the Democratic National Convention in August provided a powerful snapshot of her recovery. After playing part of “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee)” on a French horn, Giffords says, “I’ve known the darkest of days. Days of pain and uncertain recovery. But confronted with despair, I’ve summoned hope. Confronted by paralysis and aphasia, I responded with grit and determination. I put one foot in front of the other. I found one word and then another. My recovery is a daily fight but fighting makes me stronger. Words once came easily. Today I struggle to speak. But I have not lost my voice.”
Kelly retired from the U.S. Navy and NASA that October, citing Giffords’ ongoing recovery, and moved to Tucson. Even before the shooting, Kelly knew his time at NASA was finite – the space shuttle program was coming to an end with Endeavour’s final mission in 2011, and he didn’t see himself “suited for a desk job in the astronaut office.” All told, Kelly traveled more than 5 million miles and orbited the Earth 202 times spanning 12 days and 18 hours. He served as commander on the last two of his four missions.
On Kelly’s last mission, in June 2011, he recorded a message from the International Space Station for Giffords. Kelly introduced U2 playing one of her favorite songs, “Beautiful Day,” on the opening night of the Glastonbury Festival in England. He ended his message with a quote from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”: “I’m looking forward to coming home. Tell my wife I love her very much. She knows.”
Of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate, 35 will be contested this November. The McSally-Kelly race is one of roughly a dozen battleground races – close enough that it could potentially go either way.
The stakes are high, and the margins slim. To hold the Senate, Republicans can afford to lose no more than two seats – or three, if President Donald Trump wins reelection and Vice President Mike Pence retains his formal tie-breaking vote.
In verbalizing his motivations and rationale for running, Kelly circles back hard and often to Giffords. He confides that Giffords had considered running for the U.S. Senate in 2012 if Senator Jon Kyl retired, which he did. (Republican Jeff Flake ultimately won the seat, defeating former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.) She had also mulled over skipping that race to run for Arizona governor in 2014.
As a legislator, Giffords saw herself as a bridge between the fractious extremes of both parties. While in office, she was a member of bipartisan caucuses including the Children’s Caucus and the Congressional Motorcycle Safety Caucus (which she co-founded). Even after leaving office, she remains a political force. Her advocacy was key in garnering congressional support for the Background Checks Act of 2019, which would enact new background check requirements for the transfer of firearms. It passed by a vote of 228-198 in the House and awaits vote in the Senate.
Kelly says Giffords’ diplomacy inspires him – and reminds him of a certain former U.S. senator from Arizona. “I was an independent until 2018, and I think we need more folks to represent the state like Senator McCain did,” Kelly says. “Work across the aisle and not be partisan. He had a great relationship, from what I understand, with [Senator] Joe Lieberman, as an example, and they’d work on stuff together that really helps our country.”
J. Charles “Chuck” Coughlin, president and CEO of public affairs consultants Arizona Higher Ground, has worked closely for more than three decades alongside high-profile Arizona Republicans like Jan Brewer, Fife Symington, Grant Woods and McCain. He says “it’s critically important to establish electoral coalitions” that cross party lines – and that was one of Giffords’ abilities. He says she possessed a lot of the same qualities McCain had.
“Gabby had it originally. I always assumed Gabby was going to be the person who was going to be the next U.S. senator,” Coughlin says. “I remember watching her during the State of the Union speech, and she was sitting between [Democratic Congressman] Raul Grijalva and [former Republican Congressman and Senator] Jeff Flake. And they were both smiling at her. They both enjoyed her company. She was one of those people down at the state Legislature who was working with Republicans, Democrats, Independents – and then doing so in Congress. I always thought that she would evolve into this [Senate] position.”
Coughlin says he can’t speak to Kelly’s fitness as a senator (“That’s up to the voters”), but Kelly’s repeated campaign vows to work with all parties for the betterment of Arizona – and his close connection to a popular congresswoman with a strong centrist track record – could resonate with voters. “It’s ironic and strange that her husband is now going to fulfill that role on her behalf, or has the opportunity to fulfill that role on her behalf,” Coughlin says. “Because Gabby was always one of those people that did exactly what Mark’s talking about, but she had a record of doing it.”
Kelly’s political platform could be viewed as moderate, even on the issue of gun control. Giffords was also a moderate on the issue before the shooting. In 2013, Giffords and Kelly started a political action committee called Americans for Responsible Solutions to promote gun control legislation. That organization merged with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in 2016 to become known as simply Giffords.
“I’m a gun owner. I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment. I think it’s very important that responsible individuals be able to exercise their Second Amendment rights for whatever purpose – protection, target shooting, hunting,” Kelly says.
“But at the same time, we’ve got a system that makes it very easy for felons, domestic abusers, people who are dangerously mentally ill, to get access to firearms,” he continues. “And it just doesn’t make any sense. The things I support, like background checks for all gun sales, stronger domestic violence legislation – these are common-sense things, and in places that have these in place at the state level, there’s less gun violence.”
Another issue important to Kelly is the environment – which stems from orbiting the planet in a spaceship. “I can’t speak for all astronauts, but I would say I’m comfortable to say that most astronauts become very concerned about the environment when they come back from their first mission,” Kelly says. “And one of the reasons is, as you look down at the planet from Earth orbit, you see this big, round ball – let me say this again to all your readers – round ball, and you also notice that our atmosphere is incredibly thin. It looks like the contact lens on an eyeball over our planet. It looks like it could be blown away by some cosmic wind.”
He also recalls flying over the Amazon on his first mission and seeing the Amazon River – “a pretty incredible river, like no other river on the planet,” he says – and then on his fourth and final mission 10 years later, flying over the same part of the planet. “I didn’t notice the river, but the deforestation on a massive scale. We’ve gone from about 250 parts per million of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, pre-Industrial Revolution, to about 415 today. And it keeps going up… so, we’ve got to transition to a renewable energy economy. We can do that, especially here in our state with solar energy, but also in other places with wind energy, hydroelectric and other renewables.”
Kelly’s campaign ads have focused primarily on his promises to not take any corporate PAC money for his campaign, to “be a senator for Arizona” and to work on bipartisan solutions to the state’s problems. “You can’t dismiss ideas based on the politics of the person offering them,” he states in one ad.
McSally’s ads have alleged that Kelly “owns hundreds of thousands of dollars in Chinese investments” and that he “pocketed $15 million of our money for his business [near-space exploration and technology company World View].”
According to his campaign staff, all of Kelly’s shares in various funds that have investments in Chinese companies were sold in late 2019 and early 2020. Kelly left his position as co-founder and strategic adviser at World View in February 2019.
As for the $15 million, his campaign says, “No one pocketed any money. Pima County constructed a building [at a cost of $15 million] and leased it to World View.”
Another McSally ad alleges Kelly “criticized Martha’s PPP [Paycheck Protection Program].” Kelly’s campaign says he’s always “supported relief for small businesses and wants to ensure it gets where it’s needed most, which is why he has called for oversight and held conversations with Local First Arizona and with Fuerza Local and the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.”
A McSally-Kelly debate is scheduled for October 6 in Phoenix. Details on the time and format of the debate were not available as this issue went to press, but the debate will be live on Arizona PBS, KJZZ, AZPM and azcentral.com. It could be the first of seven debates McSally is seeking. She told The Arizona Republic in August she was challenging Kelly to so many debates because “Our race will decide the Senate majority and the direction of the country.”
What it won’t do: provide the winner with job security. Be it Senator McSally or Senator Kelly, the incumbent will have to campaign for the job again in 2022, when McCain’s original six-year team expires.
Kelly is finally starting to sweat. It’s 98 degrees in the shade on the patio at Pizzeria Bianco. He’s asked what his plans are if he does not win the election. For the first time all morning, he looks a little lost. “Oh, I don’t have any,” he says.
“Let me just say, I’m not one of those politicians to say, ‘When I win…’” Kelly adds. “I don’t know if I’m going to win. We’re going to work hard. We want to run a really good campaign. We want it to be very positive. We want it to be about the issues. My thing, as the guy who used to be the commander of the space shuttle is, it’s OK to make some mistakes. Let’s just not make the big mistakes. And then I think we have a path to win.”
He could always fall back on his newfound career as an author. He and Giffords co-authored a second book, Enough: Our Fight to Keep America Safe from Gun Violence, in 2014. Kelly’s first children’s book, Mousetronaut: Based on a (Partially) True Story, spent some time on the New York Times bestseller list in 2012. (A sequel, Mousetronaut Goes to Mars, was released two years later.) He’s also co-written two fictional books for young adults called the Astrotwins series, concerning the adventures of twin astronauts named… you guessed it, Mark and Scott.
And there’s still Mars. “If I get into my 70s and I retire from the Senate, and then NASA decides they need to send a veteran to Mars to study the effects of radiation and figure out ways to mitigate radiation, they could send a healthy 75-year-old with experience,” Kelly says, his eyes lighting up. “That could be me in 20 years.”
He’s clearly not just waxing poetic. Why give up on a lifelong goal just because it’s to walk on the surface of a planet that’s 52 million miles from Earth? Kelly laughs. “Somebody reminded me – and I didn’t realize this – but I generally don’t do things that are easy.”
Fewer professions look more impressive on a candidate’s qualification sheet than “astronaut.” But not every campaign achieves escape velocity.
One of the seven Mercury astronauts immortalized in The Right Stuff, the freespirited Oklahoman was vigorously recruited to run for Senate in that state as a Democrat in 1964 – the first astronaut to flirt with the idea of a political career. He declined to run.
After a failed 1970 campaign, the test-pilot legend and first American to orbit the Earth was elected to the Senate in 1974 as an Ohio Democrat, achieving another milestone – the first astronaut to go to Washington.
In 1976, the Apollo 17 moonwalker won his campaign to represent New Mexico in the Senate as a Republican. He served one term before getting ousted in 1982.
Having narrowly averted an untimely demise on the fated Apollo 13 mission, Swigert successfully ran for Senate as a Colorado Republican in 1982. Sadly, he succumbed to bone cancer a week before taking office. Later, he was portrayed by Kevin Bacon in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).
Jose M. Hernandez
The California native rode Space Shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station in 2009, becoming the first person to use the Spanish language in space, via text. He ran unsuccessfully to represent the state’s 10th District as a Democrat in 2012.