Could Arizona hold the key to Senate control?

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday the 24th of September, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up: the battle for the U.S. Senate.

Right now, Republicans enjoy a narrow four-seat majority in the Senate. With that upper hand, they’ve confirmed judges, passed tax reforms, and increased military spending. But in November, 35 senate seats are up for grabs. And Republicans are defending most of them: 23 to the Democrats’ 12.

BROWN: A year ago, polls showed it would be an uphill battle for Democrats to win the minimum three seats needed to retake Senate control. But with just weeks until Election Day, those same polls now give them a fighting chance. WORLD’S Sarah Schweinsberg reports now on where the contest is most fierce.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Senate Democrats set their sights on flipping Arizona’s Republican held Senate seat after the 2018 midterms. 

That year, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema beat out Republican candidate Martha McSally for the U.S. Senate. That even though President Trump carried the state in 2016.

But Air Force veteran Martha McSally still ended up going to Washington, D.C, a month later. Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Doucey appointed her to temporarily fill the seat of former Republican Senator John McCain, who died in August.

DOUCEY: Colonel McSally’s service to this country is one for the history books. She was the first woman to fly in combat and the first woman to command a fighter squadron in combat. And she has represented Southern Arizona in Congress since 2015. 

Now, McSally is running in a special election to serve out the rest of McCain’s term that ends in 2022. 

MCSALLY: We will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever. I’m Martha McSally and I approve this message because together we will win this battle.

Her Democratic challenger is Mark Kelly. 

AUDIO: Breaking campaign news: retired astronaut Mark Kelly just announced that he is running for John McCain’s senate seat in Arizona. 

Kelly is also the husband of former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords grabbed national headlines eight years ago when a gunman shot her at a constituent meeting. Together, the couple started a gun-violence prevention foundation. 

Throughout the race, McSally has consistently trailed Kelly in the polls. 

Stan Barnes heads Copper State Consulting Group, a firm that works with Republican candidates in Arizona. He says the state’s political landscape has changed as more and more voters turn independent.

BARNES: Republicans have just over a million registered voters. Democrats have just over a million registered voters and the independent voter electorate has also jumped up to over a million voters. So in other words, all the growth in the last 30 years really has been independent voters. 

Karlyn Bowman is a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. She says changing demographics in the state also play a role. 

BOWMAN: You can tell the state is changing so dramatically. A large Hispanic population, and also a larger white college educated population.

Democratic donors have poured money into the race, giving Mark Kelly $45 million dollars … to Martha McSally’s $30 million. Only one Senate candidate has raised more than Kelly. 

Copper State’s Stan Barnes says the former astronaut and Navy captain is attracting big dollars because Democrats see him as the first step toward taking back the Senate. 

BARNES: Many national Democratic consultants, they think Martha McSally is vulnerable because she was not elected. She was appointed. And they think Mark Kelly is a fantastic candidate. So their calculus is we need so many seats and Arizona is first tier for one of those seats.

And the stakes for this race just got higher with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the political battle over who will fill her seat.

If Mark Kelly wins the race he could be sworn in as early as November 30th—six weeks earlier than other winners. That’s because this is a special election, so different rules apply. 

Political analysts speculate that if Senate Republicans hold a confirmation vote after the November elections and three Republicans defect, Mark Kelly could hold the deciding vote over President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. But he has to win the election first.

Whit Ayres is a political consultant at North Star Opinion Research. He says that’s a lot of ifs.

AYRES: It’s really too early to tell, and you’re really not going to be able to tell until there’s a nominee.

But Republicans could be rallying in the state. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows President Trump taking a 1 point lead in Arizona over Democrat Joe Biden. Other polls show Biden leading by 2 points. 

And while some polls still have Martha McSally down by as much as 8 points, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that deficit has narrowed considerably—to just 1 point.

North Star Opinion’s Whit Ayres says at this point, the race could go either way. 

AYRES: Many of these Senate races look like they could go down to the wire. So I think it will be a long time before we will know who’s going to control the Senate next year.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(AP Photo/Matt York) Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks at a Veterans for Trump campaign rally, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in Litchfield Park, Ariz. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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