Arizona’s already very complicated Senate race, explained

Martha McSally hops into a crowded field.

On Friday, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), the first woman combat pilot in American history, will make a grand entrance into the race for Arizona’s open Senate seat in 2018 by flying a vintage World War II plane over the state.

A conventional conservative Republican with a few years of meaningful political experience under her belt and a great personal story, McSally is the ideal candidate to help the GOP hold on to an open seat from a retiring Republican in a state that Donald Trump won by 3.5 points. It should be an easy win; Democrats have only carried Arizona once since the death of Franklin Roosevelt. But while McSally’s flashy announcement will be hard to beat, her path to the Senate is surprisingly perilous.

The problem is Donald Trump — and not just in the sense that an unpopular incumbent president creates a less favorable political environment for basically every Republican running for anything anywhere.

Trump is at the center of tensions sweeping through the Arizona Republican Party — tensions that have led to both of the state’s current senators strongly criticizing the president. Tensions that explain why the seat is open at all, and that threaten to derail McSally’s effort to even secure the nomination. Tensions that have brought forth a strong Democratic challenger, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a fascinating figure in her own right, on whose shoulders Democrats’ slender but real chances of retaking the Senate majority rest.

There’s more. Arizona’s incumbent Republican governor also looks vulnerable in 2018. And the state’s not-at-all-vulnerable senior senator, John McCain, one of the truly pivotal figures of Trump’s first year in office, was diagnosed last year with a severe form of brain cancer, raising the prospect of two open Senate seats in the state this fall.

Welcome to Arizona, the state that’s at the fulcrum of almost everything happening in American politics right now.

Jeff Flake took on Trump and lost

The current sequence of events was set in motion, roughly speaking, when Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) decided to take the unusual measure of standing by his election-year criticisms of Trump even after Trump won. Last fall, for example, he told the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, that if the GOP becomes “the party of Roy Moore and Donald Trump, we are toast.”

It was common during 2016 for Republican senators to be sharply critical of Trump — Marco Rubio (R-FL) called him a “con artist,” and Ted Cruz (R-TX) called him “totally amoral,” while according to Lindsey Graham (R-SC), “if we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed […] and we will deserve it.”

Some Republicans, like Rubio and Cruz, ultimately came around and endorsed Trump over Hillary Clinton in the general election, but others, like Graham, joined Flake in refusing to endorse either Clinton or Trump. Flake and Graham weren’t alone. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mike Lee (R-UT), Rob Portman (R-OH), Ben Sasse (R-NE), and McCain all refused to endorse Trump as well.

When Trump unexpectedly won the election, these Republican skeptics overwhelmingly swallowed their once-profound doubts and got on the Trump train.

Flake, however, persisted with his criticisms and published a book titled Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, which David Brooks called “a thoughtful defense of traditional conservatism and a thorough assault on the way Donald Trump is betraying it.” Had Trump lost, a book like that would have been part of the inevitable intraparty recriminations game. The title was a deliberate echo of former Sen. Barry Goldwater — attempting to position Flake’s version of politics as the authentic one.

But Trump won, and Flake ended up somewhat marooned. His criticisms of Trump didn’t come from a standpoint of ideological moderation but rather from a stance that Trump is personally intemperate and insufficiently devoted to the pure gospel of free markets, so Flake didn’t join with Democrats to block any noteworthy Republican legislation or significantly obstruct Trump’s nominees. (Flake did block the appointment of an agricultural negotiator to the US Trade Representative’s office, but that didn’t happen until November, after he’d announced his retirement.)

Flake simply alienated Trump, the Trumpist media, and the leadership of his own party. His approval ratings cratered, making his Senate seat vulnerable. Some polls showed him not only very likely to lose to Sinema but also extremely likely to lose a primary challenge to Kelli Ward, a kooky far-right conservative character whom everyone views as a weak choice for Republicans.

So Flake looked at his political future, did the GOP a favor, and announced on October 24 that he wouldn’t run for reelection.

Kelli Ward stepped up for the Trump wing of the GOP

Ward, a former state legislator, challenged McCain in a 2016 primary that was viewed as deeply unwelcome by the Republican establishment. She ended up in legal hot water for reusing a Mitt Romney attack ad from the 2008 primary, rallied behind the Bundy family and chemtrail conspiracy theorists, and defines herself as a hardliner on immigration who believes in “building the wall and stopping illegal immigration,” in contrast to Flake, who she says “believes in open borders and amnesty.”

Ward’s widely rumored run against Flake was welcomed by Trump, but not by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Senate Republican leadership wants to protect its incumbent members and recruit electable, leadership-friendly candidates to ensure its majority. Ward was not that type of candidate.

Flake choosing to step down was, thus, a godsend for McConnell, who was now in position to recruit McSally, a popular Congress member in the state, for the race rather than be stuck with a choice between Flake and Ward.

But McSally was unexpectedly slow to announce her intention to run for the seat. Not because of doubts about her statewide ambitions but rather, according to Arizona political observers, because she wanted to wait and see if McCain would resign from the other seat, opening up an express lane for her to the Senate. McSally’s thinking seems to have changed, and she’s now ready to enter the race as the clear choice of the party establishment and someone with a very solid shot at winning the race.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio complicates things

A further complication arose Tuesday when Joe Arpaio, the infamous former sheriff of Maricopa County (that’s Phoenix and its suburbs), announced that he’s running for Flake’s seat.

Arpaio could easily prove to be a more formidable Trumpist challenger in the primary to McSally than Ward, as he’s better-known and more media-savvy than Ward and has a stronger personal relationship with Trump.

He could also prove to be a disastrous nominee for the GOP if he wins the primary because he managed to lose his sheriff job in the 2016 election by a healthy margin even as Trump narrowly carried Maricopa — one of the few big counties he actually won. If Arpaio and Ward split the anti-establishment vote, McSally will win, but early polling indicates that if Arpaio can consolidate it, he’ll get the nod.

Arpaio became well-known in the state — and nationally — during George W. Bush’s second term, when the federal government began to ramp up immigration enforcement to an unprecedented degree by relying on cooperation with local law enforcement.

Arpaio enthusiastically embraced this challenge, becoming the face of local enforcement of federal immigration law. He called himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and gave celebrity tours of his famous “tent cities” for housing unauthorized immigrants, giving guests commemorative pairs of the pink underwear he forced inmates to wear. He bragged about the results of his “sweeps” — local immigration raids to round up unauthorized immigrants and hand them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

His department faced charges of large-scale illegal racial profiling, resulting in a civil lawsuit filed in 2007 and later bolstered by a 2011 report from the Department of Justice. In the wake of that 2011 report, the judge in the civil case issued an injunction preventing Arpaio from apprehending or detaining anyone purely for being suspected of being an unauthorized immigrant, and from turning such people over to federal agents.

In 2013, Arpaio lost the civil suit. But it also became clear that his department had simply ignored the 2011 injunction. After a series of hearings on the matter, Judge Murray Snow cited Arpaio and some of his deputies for civil contempt of court, and in 2016 Arpaio was charged with criminal contempt of court — a tougher charge that required evidence that he had willfully ignored a court order.

Arpaio was defeated at the ballot box in November 2016 and was convicted on criminal charges in July of last year — but then was pardoned by Trump just a month later, in a move many widely saw as a thank-you for his early backing of the president; Arpaio was the rare elected official to back Trump strongly before he was a proven winner.

Arpaio was very much a proto-Trumpian figure, both in his hardline views on immigration and in his firm conviction that “law and order” politics should come ahead of the rule of law. The men share personal as well as ideological bonds and a taste for racist conspiracy theories.

Trump will surely be tempted to intervene in Arizona on Arpaio’s behalf, though he’s been persuaded in the past to back the party establishment’s pick and may stick with the plan to support McSally.

McCain’s health further complicates things

Meanwhile, Arizona’s other senator is suffering from a serious and aggressive case of brain cancer. In normal times, with such a slim majority, Republicans might have tried to pursue McCain to step down so they could pursue their legislative agenda through reconciliation rules.

But recently, Republicans have indicated they’re just not that interested in pursuing major legislation this year with reconciliation bills that can bypass a filibuster. That means McCain’s availability to cast contentious votes becomes less important this year, putting less pressure on him to step aside rather than serving out his time in the Senate while taking plenty of time off for treatment and recuperation.

Still, it’s possible that his shifting health will cause him to change his mind or even that he’ll take a sudden turn for the worse and pass away while still holding office. Were either to happen, Arizona law directs the governor to make a temporary appointment but then says “the vacancy shall be filled at the next general election.”

If McCain were no longer in the seat, in other words, there would potentially be two Senate elections in Arizona this November. The Arizona vacancy law does not offer any guidance as to what happens if a vacancy arises very close to Election Day. Under a separate legal provision, candidates for federal office must file paperwork with the secretary of state by May 30 in order to appear on the ballot in November.

That could mean that if McCain resigned in June or later, the appointed senator would hold the seat all the way until the general election the following year. The plain text of Arizona’s vacancy law, however, makes no reference to filing deadlines, and as the issue has never arisen in the past, it’s not entirely clear what would happen if the seat became vacant in July or August.

What is clear is that the strongest statewide candidate available to Democrats is already in the race for the Flake seat.

Democrats have the recruit they want: Kyrsten Sinema

The Democratic candidate, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, is one of the more interesting characters in American politics. A native of Arizona and raised as a Mormon, she lived for a time as a child in an abandoned gas station in Florida with no running water or electricity when her mom and stepfather ran into financial hardship. She graduated from Brigham Young University at the age of 18 in 1995, left the church, and then worked on Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000 and ran for Arizona state legislature in 2002 as a Green Party candidate.

Two years later, she got elected to the state House of Representatives as a Democrat, and in 2010 she won election to the Arizona state Senate. During her time in the legislature, the ex-Green remade herself as a business-friendly moderate, and she won a close race for an open US House seat in 2012.

She joined the Blue Dog caucus in the House, got reelected in the rough 2014 midterms, and has generally voted somewhat more conservatively than might be expected from her blue-leaning district in Phoenix and its suburbs. Seemingly, that’s to position herself to run for statewide office in a red-leaning state.

Trump carried Arizona but not overwhelmingly, with about 49 percent of the vote. (Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson picked up more than 4 percent in the state.) Sinema has raised a good deal of money, is a proven effective campaigner, and has the kind of profile that Democrats think will help her pick up voters who didn’t pull the lever for Trump but didn’t want to embrace Clinton either.

Recruiting McSally into the Senate race carries some cost for Republicans. She holds a swing House district; without an incumbent on the ballot, the district is probably considered Democratic-leaning in a year shaping up to be a Democratic wave.

Democrats have several strong candidates in the primary for that House seat, including former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and former Arizona House Minority Whip Matt Heinz. Sinema’s current district, meanwhile, should be a relatively easy win for Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.

Republicans, in an effort to fill Flake’s seat with an establishment-friendly candidate, are potentially opening themselves up to yet another vulnerability in the House.

There’s another potentially vulnerable office for Republicans

There is also a gubernatorial race on the ballot in Arizona in 2018. Though there hasn’t yet been much polling in the race, incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey seems in a potentially weak position. A recent Morning Consult poll found him with a 46 percent approval rating — not great going into a year considered favorable to Democrats. David Garcia, Democrats’ likely nominee, claims to have polling that shows him with a narrow lead.

All of which is to say that Arizona Democrats suddenly find themselves with a plausible shot at picking up a Senate seat, a House seat, and the governor’s mansion in what’s historically been a solidly red state.

Republicans currently have 51 Senate seats, with Dean Heller’s race in Nevada almost certainly Democrats’ best chance to pick one up and the Flake seat in Arizona coming second. The race could, thus, very literally be the pivot point on which control of the Senate (and thus Trump’s ability to continue stocking the judiciary with Republicans) hinges — though, of course, to pull it off, Democrats need to defend a lot of incumbent Democrats in red states.

More broadly, Arizona is at the center of the shifting sands of American politics. In the face of a large and growing Latino population, the state’s Republican Party appears to be shifting away from the Flake/McCain tradition of immigrant-friendly Republicanism and toward the Arpaio/Trump brand of white grievance politics.

McSally, the establishment’s great hope, isn’t firmly anchored in racial resentment like Arpaio is, but she — like Republicans across the country — has happily drifted Trumpward in the wake of his demonstrated mastery over the party base. Flake, who hasn’t, is simply being swept aside by history.

Candidates Sinema and Garcia very much reflect the coalition of ethnic minorities and professional women that Democrats believe will carry them to the electoral promised land nationally.