Politics

Kyrsten Sinema Unchallenged While GOP Candidates Fought — But Now It’s Crunch Time

State’s Senate primary presents tricky timeline for Republicans

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., is considered the front-runner in the GOP Senate primary. Whoever wins, Republicans acknowledge they may face a tough race against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has been largely unchallenged on the airwaves in the Arizona Senate race, reaching out to independent voters while Republicans fight amongst themselves. 

And in one week Republicans will have to confront a problem unique to Arizona: how to make up ground among moderate voters in a very short time.   

Next week’s primary will set off a six-week sprint to reach voters before they receive their ballots in October — a key point in a state where a majority of the electorate votes by mail. Republicans raised concerns back in January that a divisive and drawn-out GOP primary could be a “disaster” for the eventual nominee because of that short timeline. 

And even though GOP Rep. Martha McSally has consistently been the favorite to win the primary, the intraparty battle has raged for several months. 

While Republicans have gone after each other, Sinema the likely Democratic nominee, has been reaching out to independent voters with a flurry of ads. Republicans are generally confident they can defeat Sinema, but they acknowledge it will be a tough race.

Long primary

McSally is expected to defeat former state Sen. Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Tuesday. But both Ward and Arpaio claim they have paths to victory. 

OH Predictive Insights and ABC 15 Arizona released a poll last week showing McSally 20 points ahead of Ward, with McSally at 47 percent, Ward at 27 percent, Arpaio at 13 percent, and 12 percent undecided. The poll had a 4 point margin of error.

Arpaio,  pardoned one year ago by President Donald Trump in  a racial profiling case, said in an interview last week that a “silent majority” would propel him to victory.  Trump has not endorsed in the primary, leaving each candidate to argue that he or she is Trump’s strongest ally.

Eric Beach, Ward’s strategist, said their campaign’s internal polling showed Ward behind McSally — but within a few points.

“The reality is we’ve been surging the last six weeks. I think that’s why you see two million dollars spent against us,” Beach said. He referred to last-minute spending from McSally and Defend Arizona, a Super PAC backing McSally that has aimed recent television ads at Ward.

A handful of GOP operatives said the moves are precautionary, not out of legitimate concern that McSally could lose the primary.

“I think this cycle everyone knows you can’t take primaries for granted,” said a GOP strategist involved in Senate races.

McSally spent nearly seven times as much as Ward in the pre-primary reporting period between July 1 and Aug. 8, according to Federal Election Commission documents.

The two-term congresswoman had $1.9 million in cash on hand, compared to Ward’s $257,000. Arpaio’s pre-primary report was not available at the Senate Office of Public Records, but the former sheriff had $292,000 on hand as of June 30. 

The problem is that Sinema was left alone as Republicans fought it out,  one Arizona Republican consultant said.

Sinema launched her first television ad in April, which featured her brother, a Marine veteran and police officer. And she has largely been unchallenged on the airwaves ever since. 

“Move on! It’s really time to take on Sinema,” the consultant said, noting recent polling had shown Sinema ahead of McSally in a general election matchup.

But he’s afraid it may be too late.

“... How do you claw back that lead from someone who’s had four to five months to focus on general election themes?” he asked.

Sprint to October 

Sinema ended the pre-primary reporting period with nearly $2.5 million on hand. So far, she has spent more than $10 million on her campaign, including  nearly $4.1 million in the pre-primary period alone. 

That’s more than 16 times what Democrat Richard Carmona spent in the same pre-primary period the last time there was an open Arizona Senate seat in 2012. Republican Jeff Flake went on to win the Senate race in 2012 by 4 points, and Flake’s decision to retire late last year opened the seat up again.

Sinema still has to defeat attorney Deedra Abboud to win the Democratic nomination, but she is favored to win. The message in Sinema’s ads — that she is independent and works across the aisle — is aimed squarely at moderate and independent voters who could determine the election. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates it as a Toss-Up

So far, Republicans have not been engaging with those independent voters while embroiled in their own primary. But some Republicans say it’s not too late.

“Sinema is already playing to [independent voters], so the question is, has that worked?” said Arizona GOP consultant Brian Murray, who is not working with any of the Senate candidates. “... I think they’re probably still up for grabs because people haven’t been paying attention.”

Murray expected McSally to go negative on Sinema right away, because of the short general election time frame. Many Arizonans vote by mail, and since ballots are sent out on Oct. 10, Republicans say it will be a six-week sprint to communicate to voters after the primary.

“That is plenty of time to define Kirsten Sinema as a liberal who would not be a good fit for Arizona in the Senate,” said Barrett Marson, a spokesman for DefendArizona.

The Super PAC has already reserved $4.9 million in television time for general election ads. Marson did not directly comment on whether DefendArizona would cancel its reservations if McSally did not win next Tuesday. He said public polling showed McSally in the lead and DefendArizona was “moving forward based on that information.” 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is also set to launch television ads the week after the Aug. 28 primary. And McSally has reserved $1.65 million worth of television air time for the general election, according to the Arizona Republic.

Republicans have a state party turnout operation that kicks into high gear after the primary, said former Arizona GOP chairman Robert Graham. Graham said that infrastructure was not in place for Flake’s close race in 2012.

The state Democratic Party has invested in all 15 counties to boost its operation ahead of 2018. Democrats are also optimistic about flipping the Arizona Senate seat since Hillary Clinton only lost the state by 3 points in 2016.  

Sinema has reserved general election air time, as well. Red and Gold, a Democratic Super PAC that has already attacked McSally, is also planning to be engaged in the general election. 

Democrats are gearing up to use McSally’s positions in the primary against her, should she win next week. Those include taking her name off of a an immigration bill amid attacks that she was not conservative on the issue.

McSally supported stricter immigration legislation as well as the GOP “compromise” immigration bill, which both failed in the House. The compromise bill would have provided Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and other who would have qualified for the program with the opportunity to obtain an indefinitely renewable six-year non-immigrant legal status, from which they could apply for a new merit-based visa and eventually citizenship.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein echoed an Arizona Republic column and called McSally “McShifty,” and said she is “out of step with the moderate voters who will decide this race in November.”

Republicans also are ready attack Sinema’s past as a liberal state legislator. She became known as a moderate lawmaker in Congress. She explains that as a result of discovering that compromising was key to getting things done in Congress. 

Republicans have also said that recent history point to a victory in November. Arizonans haven’t elected a statewide Democrat since 2006, and they haven’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. 

Still, Republicans say the race will be a fight.

“Republicans won’t take it for granted and we will not rest on history,” said Marson. “Republicans will defend this seat and will win.”

Watch: No More Blue Wave Metaphors: 2018 Is About Too Many GOP Fires

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report. 

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