With Election Day finally upon us, look to Arizona for the clearest test of President Trump’s tactical decision to mount a closing argument that stokes xenophobia, fear and racism.
That has often been a winning trifecta in Arizona, the state that gave us Sheriff Joe Arpaio and — until the Supreme Court in 2012 struck down some of its key provisions — the most draconian immigration law in the country.
This year, however, that calculus may change. Arizona could do something it has not done in three decades: Elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.
Two of its congresswomen, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally, are locked in a race that is too close to predict. Whoever wins will be the first female U.S. senator in the state’s history.
One big question now is whether Trump’s dire, racially fueled rhetoric about immigration will help or hurt his party in the state. Even Republicans here suggest they are perplexed by some of his more extreme statements, including his declaration that he plans to revoke birthright citizenship — a right most serious scholars say is written into the Constitution — by executive order.
Trump is no doubt revving up the Republican base, but he risks doing the same for those who oppose his policies, particularly suburban women and Latinos.
“There are people who I think will be energized by his commitment to secure the border, and I also think there will be those that say, well, there he goes again,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R) told me. Kyl, who previously served three terms in the Senate, is back there again after being appointed to replace John McCain, who died in August.
Though most polls show Sinema with a slight lead, it would take an enormous blue wave to overcome the traditional advantage that Republicans here have in voter registration and participation. Democrats panicked over their lagging turnout when early voting began in mid-October, but their numbers surged during the final days last week, putting them closer to the Republican total than in any midterm in recent history.
McSally has been clinging to Trump, as she tries to consolidate the GOP base after winning the primary against two more conservative opponents, one of whom was Arpaio. At an Oct. 19 rally with her in Mesa, the president promised that a vote for McSally would be “the second-greatest vote you’ve ever cast. The first-greatest vote was for me.”
Sinema, meanwhile, has kept her focus on health care — an issue she says is at the top of voter concerns.
It is also one where McSally is vulnerable by virtue of her vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a Republican bill that health-care experts say would have weakened guarantees of affordable coverage to people with preexisting conditions. McSally disputes the characterization of the bill’s provisions, but conceded in an interview last month with Fox News’s Sean Hannity: “I’m getting my a-- kicked” for that vote.
There are some striking similarities between the two candidates. Each is a hypercompetitive triathlete. Each is closer to the center than most in her party are. And each has remade herself as political circumstances have demanded.
Sinema often boasts of working across the aisle in the House, and her record makes her arguably the most conservative Democrat in the chamber. But she began her career in politics as a spokeswoman for the Green Party.
Republicans are doing all they can to paint Sinema as too far left for the state. The Democrat is “in the liberal witness protection program right now. She’s continuing to hide,” McSally said Friday night at a Republican barbecue in Phoenix.
One of McSally’s ads contrasts her own post-9/11 service as a combat pilot in Afghanistan with an image of Sinema wearing a pink tutu at an antiwar protest. She has even accused Sinema of having committed treason with a decade-old comment about the Taliban.
McSally, meanwhile, has done some retooling of her own image. Her embrace of Trump is a stark contrast from the style she displayed when she campaigned in the moderate House district once represented by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, who left Congress after a 2011 assassination attempt.
“She got worried, so she went all-in. She went all-in with Trump’s strategy of cranking up the base,” said Grant Woods, a Republican former state attorney general who once served as McCain’s chief of staff. Woods has endorsed Sinema and stars in an ad for her in which he declares that McSally is “dirty and misleading” and “doesn’t belong in the United States Senate.”
As bitter as this race has been, last weekend saw one moment of bipartisanship on a subject that unites just about everyone in the state: Arizona State University football.
At the Sun Devils’ homecoming game against the University of Utah, McSally sang the national anthem; Sinema oversaw the coin toss. And then, in an upset, ASU whipped Utah 38-20.
Democrats are hoping that will not be the biggest surprise in Arizona this fall.