One of the most contentious moments of the Arizona Senate debate Monday night involved Republican Martha McSally accusing Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of “treason,” bringing a more predictable back-and-forth to a dramatic end.
Over the course of the hourlong debate — their only scheduled one — the two congresswomen running to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake split over health care, immigration, and the Supreme Court’s newest justice. Sinema stressed that she would be independent of her party, while McSally touted the accomplishments of GOP-controlled government.
But by the end of the debate, McSally was frustrated.
“I can’t believe this is the last question,” she told the debate moderators as they asked the candidates about climate change. “We have to talk about our military, we have to talk about our veterans.”
McSally, an Air Force veteran who was first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, brought up her opponent’s past comments, first reported by CNN, from a 2003 radio discussion.
“You said it was OK for Americans to join the Taliban,” McSally said, looking directly at Sinema and calling on her to apologize to veterans, including herself.
Sinema began to respond by saying, “Martha has chosen to run a campaign like you’re seeing right now …”
“It’s treason,” McSally interrupted.
“… where she’s engaging in ridiculous attacks and smearing my campaign,” Sinema continued. “And she’s just trying to cut, cut, cut and not share the whole picture. But the truth is that I’ve always fought for Arizona. … Arizonans know me and they know my record.”
According to CNN, Sinema appeared on a 2003 radio show before a rally opposing the Iraq War. The show’s host spoke of a hypothetical scenario of him fighting for the Taliban.
“Fine,” Sinema said at the time, “I don’t care if you want to do that, go ahead.”
A Sinema spokeswoman told CNN that her comment at the time was “clearly offhand and an effort to get back on the topic of why she opposed the war.”
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The Arizona seat is a rare pickup opportunity for Senate Democrats, who are largely on defense this cycle.
Sinema and McSally traded barbs throughout Monday’s debate, hosted by Arizona PBS and the Arizona Republic, including over who was more guilty of flip-flopping.
Sinema, who represents the Phoenix-area 9th District, was known for her liberal stances as a state legislator, but shifted to the center after she was elected to Congress in 2012.
“Over the years, I’m proud to say that I have taken the time to learn and grow and occasionally even change my opinion,” she said, while going on to accuse McSally of voting in lockstep with GOP leaders and Trump.
McSally, who’s in her second term representing the Tucson-anchored 2nd District, was asked about her own shifting views on the president. During the 2016 election, she said she was “appalled” by his comments about groping women captured on an Access Hollywood tape. She also said she had concerns about how Trump spoke about veterans, Hispanics and women, telling Tucson Weekly, “That’s just not how leaders carry themselves.”
But she has since come to embrace Trump, and touted her relationship with him on her way to winning a divisive GOP primary.
“I am proud that he has gone to the White House, and he is leading our country in the right direction. … He loves America, and he is fighting for Americans every single day,” McSally said.
Sinema took the opportunity during that exchange to tout her bipartisan credentials, saying she is willing to buck her party’s leadership to do what’s right for Arizona.
In a familiar refrain from other Democrats in Republican-leaning states, Sinema said she would work against the president when his policies hurt Arizona, and with him when he was right.
The pair also divided on expected partisan lines. Sinema noted that she would have opposed Brett M. Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee who faced allegations of sexual assault. She said both parties were responsible for the “circus” surrounding his confirmation, but noted she was uncomfortable with the partisan nature of his testimony and him appearing to lie under oath.
McSally said Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, had clearly experienced trauma, and called the entire process “disgusting.”
“In the end, Arizonans wanted a ‘yes’ vote on Justice Kavanaugh,” she said.
Throughout the debate, Sinema stressed her independence and decried the partisanship in Washington, accusing McSally of backing GOP policy priorities that would harm Arizonans.
The pair sparred over the effects of last year’s GOP attempt to undo much of the 2010 health care law, and whether it would threaten coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Sinema said the Republican proposal would have taken away such protections, which McSally called an “outright lie.”
(The GOP bill technically prohibited insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. But it provided an avenue for states to apply to waive certain regulations under the law, which could have led to higher costs for people with pre-existing conditions, potentially rendering health coverage unaffordable.)
In their closing remarks, both candidates referenced their personal stories in a final pitch to voters.
Sinema recalled how her family had been homeless at a time, saying she learned the value of hard work, which she brought to Congress.
“I’ve been ranked the third-most independent member of Congress because I work across the aisle to get things done,” she said. “Arizonans deserve a leader in the United States Senate who will be a voice for all Arizonans.”
“You know me as a fighter, but I want you to know why I fight,” McSally said. She said losing her father at a young age and being sexually abused by a coach “nearly crushed me,” but she was called to serve.
“I want to keep fighting in the Senate,” McSally said. “And you have a choice: someone who wore the uniform or somebody who protested our troops.”