PHOENIX -- Martha McSally seems relaxed – almost curiously so for a first-term appointed senator facing voters again after just two years on the job and trailing her opponent in every public poll conducted over the last month.
It’s a mid-October afternoon, less than a month before Election Day. Early voting is underway, and tens of millions of dollars are pouring into the Arizona Senate race pitting McSally, 54, the first female U.S. military pilot to fly in combat, against Mark Kelly, a former NASA astronaut who commanded the second-to-last space shuttle mission. He’s also the husband of former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was grievously wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson.
The clash of the former flight titans is a familiar narrative in this critical race – one of a handful across the nation that will determine control of the Senate. Turn on the local news and the air war can’t be missed. Each side is savaging the other in back-to-back ads in the formerly red but trending purple state that voted for Donald Trump by a 3.5 percentage points in 2016.
Kelly is accusing McSally of cozying up to the insurance companies over her votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he said would be devastating to millions amid the pandemic.
McSally, who was appointed to serve out Sen. John McCain’s term after he died in August 2018, is hitting Kelly for getting rich from lucrative contracts and investments from Chinese firms and corporate interests, including one marketing gig that featured Kelly posing with two attractive female flight attendants in short skirts.
Mike Pence was campaigning in the area that day, as were Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, with the two sides lobbing attack after attack at each other from across the sprawling suburbs that make up the Phoenix metro area.
It’s late afternoon inside McSally’s nearly empty air-conditioned campaign office near the city’s iconic Camelback Mountain. There’s no sign of the heated political rhetoric other than the numerous McSally-for-Senate posters papering over the windows and a poster of President Trump walking alongside her underneath a Trump pull-quote: “This one is tough as hell.”
The senator offers a half-apology for not dressing up for the interview. Clad in well-worn jeans, tennis shoes and a loose gray cardigan, she’s shed the skirt and heels she wore to greet Pence on the tarmac and to an event earlier that day honoring ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller, a native Arizonan and aid worker murdered in 2015.
McSally is fresh off her only televised debate with Kelly the night before. She won high marks from conservatives for going on the offensive, slapping a new nickname, “Counterfeit Kelly,” on her challenger and casting him as a left-wing radical who would undermine Arizonans’ personal freedoms. She said Kelly favors new restrictions on gun owners and more blanket COVID restrictions on businesses already struggling to stay afloat.
“It’s been a really difficult year for everyone, but what we don’t need is another lockdown, and that’s what would happen if Joe Biden and Mark Kelly are in charge,” McSally argued.
“It didn’t take long for the senator to attack my patriotism,” Kelly countered, referring to her repeated blows to his ties to Chinese businesses. “She did that last election cycle with Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema. I thought after two years we’d see a different Sen. McSally. But the same Sen. McSally has shown up.”
'I Don’t Sweat. I Never Really Have.'
Far from attack mode in her office, McSally playfully cuddles her beloved golden retriever, Boomer, who keeps putting his paws up on the conference room table where she’s seated, socially distanced from me and her press secretary.
Boomer sat beside her on the couch nearly two years ago when she conceded a hard-fought race against her Democratic opponent, now-Sen. Sinema. She’s working to avoid the same fate next month but also seems to realize she can only control so much in such an unprecedented, tumultuous year.
Others in the room are commenting about the 103-degree day, lamenting having to spend hours outside at political events in the stifling heat.
“I’m sorry,” she offers, before adding, almost by way of explanation for her casual demeanor in the middle of one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country. “I don’t sweat. I never really have.”
It’s a valuable trait for a pioneering female fighter pilot, the first to command a squadron. After graduating from the Air Force Academy, McSally broke the ultimate military glass ceiling and became an A-10 Warthog pilot who was involved in enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq in the 1990s and helped execute the early air campaign in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
During her vaunted 26-year Air Force career – she retired in 2010 as a colonel — she didn’t just ruffle feathers; she broke cultural norms, most publicly when she sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over a policy that required women officers stationed in Saudi Arabia to wear a head-to-toe covering. The policy was altered, although the Pentagon claimed that decision wasn’t forced by the lawsuit. McSally then took her case to Congress and persuaded lawmakers to end the policy.
Female fighter pilots weren’t welcomed into the elite, testosterone-fueled male club, and she describes the atmosphere as openly hostile. Last year, McSally also revealed during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual abuse in the military that she was assaulted by a superior officer but didn’t report it.
She thought about quitting the military but didn’t. When she sought advice during her service about how to speak publicly about the incident and others, the Air Force decided to investigate her behavior instead of that of her alleged offenders. She described those difficult experiences in her book, “Dare to Fly: Simple Lessons in Never Giving Up.” Last year she authored a landmark bill aimed at curbing military sexual assault and improving the investigation and judicial process. Seventeen of the 18 provisions she fought for to combat sexual assault in the military made it into the defense authorization bill and became law.
McSally is ranked as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress and tied for the most bills passed into law, including several land exchanges aimed at giving more local control to Arizonans and one expanding veteran treatment courts across the nation. It provides assistance to veterans struggling with addiction and behavioral problems.
Early on in her Air Force career, McSally recalls how she found a Bible verse that speaks to her -- Esther 4:14: “Can it be that you were put in this position for such a time as this?”
“Every time I’ve had to make a hard decision – do you stand up to against, you know, Goliath – the secretary of defense or the next big challenge? – I’m sitting in bed thinking, ‘What am I going to do about this?’” she recalls. “I just think this isn’t about me. I’m not the only one who has faced this.”
It’s the same message she’s been telling herself when responding to the pandemic that’s upended the country and the once-soaring economy. When the coronavirus first hit, McSally recalls going house to house in her close-knit neighborhood, checking on her neighbors, including an elderly woman whose disabled veteran husband is in an assisted living facility. She said she wanted to make sure everyone around her could have their groceries delivered and wanted to know how the small businesses were doing amid the lockdowns.
“I just walked up and down my street, and like my neighbors, I’m watching the economic floor fall out from underneath us . . . so getting the CARES Act out there was very personal for me. I knew that holding out a few more days [in the negotiations], playing games with it was infuriating because I’m looking at the faces and remembering all of the names of the people I’ve been in contact with.”
Her 58-year-old older brother, Martin McSally, died suddenly in July. It was not COVID-related, but she still remembers having to leave her then-85-year-old mother alone with the terrible news that evening because coronavirus precautions prevented her from remaining overnight with her. “It’s such a cruel virus – I felt that cruelty,” she said, her voice breaking up. “We’ve got to find ways to allow people to be around their loves ones in a sensible way during these difficult times.”
“I’m going to continue to fight for his kids because he’s not here anymore, you know?” she says, apologizing for pausing to collect herself because she is still grieving his death. “In my own life, it’s things like this -- things that through the grace of God got me out of bed the next day with a deeper resolve to fight. Things that make me say, ‘You know what? We’re going to defeat this virus. We’re going to allow people to be around their loved ones again. We’re going to fight for this country.’”
Handing Out Grocery Gift Cards
The CARES Act, which stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, provided $2 trillion to hospitals state and local governments, tribes and small businesses impacted by the stay-at-home orders. It included $349 billion in Paycheck Protection Program funds to small businesses and nonprofits to help them maintain their workforce and stay afloat. Caseworkers in her office went to work trying to ensure constituents got the funds as quickly as possible.
In recent weeks, as Republican Senate leaders have rejected House Democrats’ latest massive coronavirus relief package and Trump has sent conflicting messages about it, McSally has supported additional targeted relief rather than one big package. She and other senators in tough election contests recently signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging continuation of the Payroll Support Program, which helps the aviation industry pay its workers and stave off massive layoffs.
McSally stressed that she tried to demonstrate a personal commitment to fighting the virus early on in the pandemic. She suspended campaign fundraising for two weeks in April, raising more than $200,000 for the Salvation Army of Arizona and said she would donate her Senate paycheck for the month to help people impacted by the coronavirus. One way she used her Senate salary, she told me, was handing out grocery gift cards to people who needed them, including the store clerk she bought them from who said he, too, was struggling to afford food.
'Fake Polls' Out There
Like Trump, McSally complains about her treatment by the news media, saying it often doesn’t reflect her work, but she stops short of labeling any outlets fake news, though she takes aim at the results of many of their polls on the race.
“Don’t be fooled by the fake polls out there,” she tells RCP. “Our internals show this race is a dead heat. The outside groups wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars if they were writing this off, right?”
“Arizona is right of center – a little purple, but we’re still right of center,” she adds.
In the divisive Trump era, McSally has tried to strike the right balance in supporting the president while demonstrating a stubborn independent streak Arizonans still celebrate. Trump wasn’t on the ballot when she lost to Sinema in 2018 – and if he manages to pull off a win in Arizona, his coattails could help carry her to victory. If he fails, the reverse would be true -- he could drag her down with him.
Kelly has used the 2018 Sinema playbook in his efforts to tie McSally to Trump and woo centrist and swing voters. During last week’s debate, he accused McSally and Trump of failing to lead through the coronavirus outbreak and the economic fallout, and for leaving people suffering by sending conflicting signals about the latest coronavirus relief package.
“Senator, you understand this as a pilot: You guys did Step One of the emergency procedure, and then you didn’t do anything else,” he said. “And that’s a colossal failure.”
Kelly has also hit McSally over her votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he said would leave people with preexisting conditions facing high costs in the middle of the pandemic. Like Trump, McSally counters that Republicans would never strip away insurance protections for people with pre-existing conditions. She disagrees with the Affordable Care Act’s mandates that people obtain insurance, especially because she says the premiums are often too high for them to pay.
“In Arizona, we had 152,000 [people] who paid a fine because they couldn’t afford the unaffordable health insurance,” she said.
While serving four years in the House, McSally recalls spending many late nights as part of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus trying to forge an alternative to Obamacare that would offer more options to the insurance market, similar to association health plans that would allow more people in related businesses to join together to buy coverage as a larger group. She wasn’t successful but doesn’t regret spending the time trying to produce a bipartisan compromise.
After Republicans got pummeled in the 2018 midterms over health care, Trump has struggled to find his footing, issuing a health care plan last month that promotes price transparency – a plan to bring down health care costs by forcing hospitals and medical providers to disclose the prices of their services ahead of treatment. McSally says she supports price transparency, too. Democrats have criticized it and other parts of Trump’s plan as too incremental and modest amid a push from the party’s left flank for a Medicare-for-all plan that would eliminate private health insurance for millions of Americans who have it.
Sinema used the Trump strategy and McSally’s votes to repeal Obamacare to eke out a win by 2.4 percentage points over McSally in 2018. When McCain passed away just two months earlier, Arizona GOP Gov. Doug Ducey called former Sen. Jon Kyl out of retirement to serve as the interim senator. McSally had once worked with Kyl in the Senate and considers him her political mentor. But Kyl was just a placeholder, leaving when Ducey turned to McSally and tapped her for the seat.
During last week’s debate, McSally repeatedly declined to say she’s proud of her support for Trump given his penchant for personal attacks and aggressive behavior. This hedge drew immediate headlines. There was no such hesitation a day later during my interview with her.
Asked about the high-profile endorsement of Biden by McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, and the ads running across the nation driving that message home, McSally isn’t defensive.
“It’s a free country so I respect her choice,” she says. “I just have a different view. I’m working with President Trump because we are at a crossroads here. And this is about everything I’ve put my life on the line for. . . all of it. It’s all at stake. And so I’m with President Trump. She gets to make her own choice. I just disagree with her, but I respect it.”
It would be harder, of course, if Cindy McCain had picked sides in the Senate contest too – but she hasn’t. McSally and John McCain often shared jokes, an ally in Kyl and a fighter pilot kinship that included a penchant for salty language.
'I’m a Fighter Pilot. I Don’t Talk Like You.'
As a teenage cadette at the Air Force Academy, McSally revered McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war who went on to become a senator and a GOP presidential candidate.
When McSally was running for the House of Representatives, Kyl brought McCain to one of her first events in Washington. Kyl later told him about a controversial McSally interview on Fox & Friends when she was running for Giffords’ seat in Congress in 2012. The host asked her what she thought about a derogatory comment then-GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum made about the military easing up rules on women in combat. Santorum, a former GOP senator with whom McCain had tangled over the years, had said that the move had compromised the interests of the mission because of “other types of emotions that are involved.”
McSally didn’t hold back: “I agree with many of the things that Rick Santorum says. But when I heard this I really just wanted to go kick him in the jimmy.”
When the host repeated her phrase, “Kick him in the jimmy?” McSally didn’t back down: “Yeah, he’s totally out of touch. I mean, completely out of touch,” she said. “These are the kind of arguments we heard 20-25 years ago as to why women couldn’t be fighter pilots. It’s an insult to the men and women who are serving overseas, putting their lives on the line and focusing on the mission right now.”
When Kyl, a consummate statesman, warned McSally not to talk like that on television, she pushed back. “I said, I’m not like you, Senator. I’m a fighter pilot. I don’t talk like you,” she recalled.
McCain, known for his straight talk and sometimes churlish commentary, egged her on. McCain loved it. “He thought it was hilarious,” she recounts. “He said, ‘I’ve been looking for a term like that.’” So the first time I met him, he said, ‘Let’s go kick 'em in the jimmy.”
It was a running joke through the rest of their relationship. When McSally first ran for the House seat left open by Giffords' resignation in 2012, the race was so close that she went to the House of Representatives freshmen orientation thinking she had won, only to be told a week and a half later that she had actually lost.
McCain left her a voicemail message that she remembers she saved repeatedly. “He was like, ‘It’s all fine. You’re going to be okay . . . and don’t worry, we’ll go kick 'em in the jimmy.” Two years later, she ran again in another nail-biter. After a recount, she came out ahead, with a razor-thin 167-vote margin. It was the last congressional race to be decided in the country that year.
With a presidential race and her own Senate seat on the line in one of the biggest battlegrounds in the country, she says she’s not as concerned about fraud in Arizona’s mail-in voting system as the president has expressed about many key swing states. Arizona has a GOP governor, legislature and secretary of state. Unlike California and several other Democratic-controlled states, the state isn’t sending ballots to all registered voters. Instead, the secretary of state sends all registered voters a ballot-by-mail request.
“I’ve had a number of close elections, so I’m very familiar with the process,” she tells RCP.
“We have observers and lawyers watching everything afterwards. Ballot harvesting has been outlawed, but it’s difficult to detect. So we’ve got to be vigilant. Trust but verify."
McSally insists she’s not running scared despite a flurry of headlines depicting her as the underdog and polls showing Biden widening a national lead over Trump. In her final pitch, she casts the presidential election and her own campaign as monumental – a decision between keeping the country on a prosperous path that values personal freedom or a radical shift to the left and toward socialism and more government control.
“In this race, we can talk about me versus my opponent, and what I’ve done for Arizona,” she said. “But man, the choice that we have right now is between continuing to have a country where people have opportunity and we have safety and security or fundamental transformation.”
If those are the stakes, she said she’ll focus on what she can control and go down fighting either way.
“That’s the moment that we’re at,” she says. “And I have to do all I can in the position I have.”