McSally's DACA Flip Lays Bare AZ Senate Race Dynamics
How do you compete in a Republican primary for a border state Senate seat? Martha McSally is offering one clue.
The Arizona congresswoman took to the House floor last week to ask unanimous consent to remove her name from a bill that would provide legal status and an eventual path to citizenship to some children of undocumented immigrants. Until then, McSally was one of 34 Republicans to co-sponsor the Recognizing America's Children Act, seen as a new and conservative version of the DREAM Act. The only Democrat to sponsor the bill is fellow Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, whom McSally hopes to take on in the fall in the race to succeed Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.
But in order to face Sinema, McSally must first survive a long and likely bitter battle against physician Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by President Trump last year after being convicted of criminal contempt for violating an immigration-related court order. Voters in Arizona won't select their GOP nominee until Aug. 28, giving the victor little time to pivot toward a general election position in a red state that shows signs of turning purple.
McSally's attempt to distance herself from one piece of DACA legislation in favor of a stricter measure backed by immigration hard-liners signals where Arizona’s GOP voters are on the issue, and how it figures to play a decisive role in the primary and perhaps beyond.
McSally likely had her current constituents in mind when she agreed to sponsor the first measure. Arizona's 2nd Congressional District, which extends southeast from Tucson and shares a border with Mexico, tends to swing between Democrats and Republicans. Gabby Giffords once represented the area, and her aide Ron Barber took over not long after she was shot in the head during a constituent service event in Tucson. McSally unseated Barber in a 2014 race so close it ended in a recount. Hillary Clinton won the district by nearly five percentage points even as McSally won re-election there by nearly 14 points.
Co-sponsoring an immigration bill like HR 1468 seemed to make political sense then. The bill's lead sponsor is Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents a district Clinton won by over 16 points. Several other co-sponsors hail from similar districts that also make them vulnerable to defeat in November. (Curbello and other Republicans have filed a discharge petition to bring the legislation to the House floor for a vote, but the group has so far fallen short of the requisite majority signatures needed.)
But that kind of politics doesn't appear to work statewide in Arizona, at least not in a Republican primary. Flake, who co-sponsored the last comprehensive immigration reform package and is a top critic of President Trump, acknowledged as much in choosing to retire rather than seek re-election. McSally, who was the first female U.S. fighter pilot to fly a combat mission, has since endeared herself to Trump and echoed his tough stance on immigration. In a video announcing her Senate campaign, she highlighted border security as a top priority and said she was "tired of PC politicians." She also included a clip of Trump referring to "my friend Martha McSally: She's the real deal. She's tough."
And she pinned to her Twitter feed a video of herself in a meeting with Trump and other lawmakers at the White House, sitting to his right and talking about what to do with DACA recipients. "I also made this clear: we won't let the Dems hold our troops hostage in negotiations over DACA. We won’t play politics w/America’s safety & military funding," she wrote. McSally is also now co-sponsoring a stricter DACA measure proposed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte that would make cuts to legal immigration. And she was recently endorsed by former Gov. Jan Brewer, who stirred national controversy by signing one of the broadest and toughest immigration policies into state law in 2010.
Meanwhile, Ward has embraced Trump's "Drain the Swamp" mantra as her own and lists "Build the Wall" as her top policy passion. Her presence in the race is adding pressure for McSally, who is backed by GOP leadership, to move rightward. Arpaio's presence in the contest might divide far right support and thus provide a path for McSally to win the nomination. But the congresswoman's move on the immigration bill suggests it won't be that easy.
It's not unusual for Arizona Republicans running for Senate to take tough stances on immigration. In fending off a primary challenge in 2010, Sen. John McCain released a now infamous ad in which he promised to "compete the danged fence." But McCain and Flake both co-sponsored the so-called Gang of Eight immigration bill that passed the Senate but was anathema among conservatives, particularly those in the House. Since then, Trump's aggressive posture on the issue became a centerpiece of his election campaign. At an Arizona rally in 2016, he hardened his position and pledged to deport immigrants in the country illegally.
But he won the Grand Canyon State by just three points four years after Mitt Romney had taken it by 10. Additionally, a narrow special election victory last month in a district Trump won by 20 points has Republicans on edge about keeping the Senate seat in November.
Republicans in the state worry that even if McSally secures the nomination, she will have been forced to take positions that would could alienate the moderate voters she will need in the general election against Sinema. "The future of Arizona's economy is going to be based on north and south trade and the ability to create a legal trade relationship between Mexico and states in the U.S., particularly Arizona," state GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin told RCP last month. "Everybody here gets that. ... There's a deep sympathy here for people who have been part of this economy for a long time to be legalized."