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In Arizona Senate race, a battle over political evolution

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Yahoo News
Senate candidates Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, and Martha McSally, a Republican, as the two are depicted in a McSally campaign ad.

A pink tutu has become the focus of a critical race for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona.

Since Martha McSally won the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona at the end of August, she has charged out of the gate with a clear attack on Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

McSally, an Air Force veteran who was the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat, aired a TV commercial that touted her own military service after the 9/11 attacks and mocked Sinema for taking part in an anti-war protest while wearing a pink skirt that McSally referred to as a ballet garment.

“While we were in harm’s way in uniform, Kyrsten Sinema was protesting us in a pink tutu and denigrating our service,” McSally said in the ad, which has been knocked by fact checkers as misleading.

Sinema, a 42-year-old congresswoman, is running as an independent-minded centrist and rarely mentions that she is a Democrat. McSally, a 52-year old congresswoman, is intent on reminding Arizona voters of Sinema’s hard left past. Sinema, who has been in Congress since 2013, was an anti-war and Green party activist nearly 20 years ago but is now a moderate centrist Democrat who touts her willingness to work with Republicans.

The two women are competing to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who is retiring after his criticism of President Trump caused his popularity in Arizona to plummet.

The race, which Democrats badly need to win to have any chance of retaking control of the Senate, poses questions such as, “Is there any place in American politics for a happy warrior? Or has the politics of rage and tribalism subsumed everything else?”

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., volunteers at a food pantry in Phoenix in August. (Photo: Matt York/AP)

Sinema is attempting to run a positive campaign and has an authentic story of going from hard left partisan warrior to a bipartisan centrist. McSally, a congresswoman since 2015, has gone negative and dramatically shifted from being moderate on immigration and critical of Trump, to being an enthusiastic supporter of the president. She now takes a hard line in favor of a border wall and against citizenship for minors brought to the United States by undocumented immigrant parents.

If McSally wins, it will demonstrate that Republican voters in red states remain more interested in voting for figures who dig in against the Democrats and double down on Trumpism. If Sinema prevails, it will be because of a huge anti-Trump wave, but it will also signal that voters still want to see politicians work with the other side.

McSally is betting that a Trump-style campaign is the way to win. Yet her attacks on Sinema open the Republican up to questions about her own evolution as a politician.

In the summer of 2016, McSally criticized Trump for his derogatory comments about women, his personal attacks on Khizr Khan, the father of a U.S. Army officer killed in Iraq, and his attack on a federal judge’s “Mexican heritage.” She called his comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape “disgusting.” And McSally declined to endorse Trump and would not say if she voted for him after the election.

On immigration, McSally voted a few times to resolve the fate of children of undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, and at one time she supported the Recognizing America’s Children Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks with ranchers near Arizona’s border with Mexico in August. (Photo: Matt York/AP)

Mot long after Flake announced his retirement in late October 2017, McSally was asked to run for his seat by party leaders who did not have confidence that Kelli Ward, a state senator, or Joe Arpaio, a former sheriff who was convicted in a racial profiling case and then pardoned by Trump, could win a general election if either gained the Republican nomination.

As McSally negotiated with the White House to secure Trump’s endorsement, she began to take a harder line, co-sponsoring the Securing America’s Future Act, which did not provide a path to citizenship and was more focused on money for a border wall. McSally secured Trump’s endorsement and has since stressed that her voting record is 97 percent supportive of the president.

“I have a great relationship with him,” McSally said of Trump on “Fox and Friends” recently.

If allegiance to Trump is the main thing that matters to most Arizona voters, this could work for McSally. And there’s fresh evidence it is working. During the primary, when Sinema did not have a serious challenger in the primary and McSally was fighting two other Republicans for the nomination, Sinema led McSally in head-to-head polling by as much as 11 points.

But the first poll of the fall, conducted last week, showed the race to be a dead heat, with McSally up by one point.

Sinema has so far not responded directly to McSally’s attacks about her past, and she has been knocked in the press for avoiding questions from reporters.

But Sinema may not be able to avoid talking about her evolution from working for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000 to now hailing herself as willing to work with Republicans. The irony is that she has a convincing story to tell.

Nearly a decade ago, in fact, Sinema wrote an entire book explaining her shift away from hard-line politics to centrism. Titled “Unite and Conquer,” it’s a bracing criticism of her own tribe, and a call to look for ways to fight for unity, to work with those who are different, and to find the humanity in one’s political opponents.

“Progressives love to talk about coalitions, but we’re not very good at creating or maintaining them,” Sinema wrote.

She blamed the left’s shortcomings on an “obsession with victimhood” and called on her side to reject “identity politics,” years before one wing of liberalism did so after the 2016 election.

Kyrsten Sinema with Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., before a House Financial Services Committee hearing in June. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sinema was elected to the Arizona legislature in 2004, and in her book she told the story of realizing after her first two years that instead of being a “bomb thrower,” she wanted to help solve problems by working with others.

“A person who chooses to be a bomb thrower in the legislature is choosing to remove himself or herself from the work of the body: negotiating on bills, working to find compromises, and sometimes teaming up with unusual allies to promote or kill legislation,” Sinema wrote.

Her first two years — her time as a “bomb thrower” — were a “miserable” experience for her. “It didn’t fit me,” she wrote. “I do love to give fiery speeches. But I also love people. I love talking with people, working together, and making friends.”

The book recounts Sinema’s attempts to work with Republicans in Arizona, and she counsels her fellow progressives to move away from a focus on specific outcomes and toward a quest to find common values with others that will help them solve problems together.

“I don’t mean that we should all of a sudden abandon our principles and adopt moral relativism. I just mean that we should consider the idea that perhaps people with views different from our own came about those ideas honestly and that those ideas aren’t inherently evil,” she wrote.

Robert Robb, a columnist for the Arizona Republic since 1999, believes Sinema has lived up to that ideal since she published the book in 2009.

“I think her willingness to not make politics a hindrance to working with others was well on exhibit in the Arizona legislature and in Congress. I think that’s sincere,” Robb said. “I have described her as a practitioner of cheerful politics, one of the very few in the state or the country.”

But nonetheless, Robb said that McSally’s “pink tutu” ad was “one of the most effective” political ads he’d ever seen.

Martha McSally, center, in a January 2018 meeting about immigration between President Trump and Republican and Democratic members of Congress. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Robb said that Sinema has so far focused on her biography as a former Mormon whose family fell on hard times during her youth, including a spell in which they were homeless. She is running positive biography ads in which she argues she is focused on solutions for all Arizonans. She has not wanted to talk that much about her political past so far, he said.

“It’s something that she’s not shown an appetite for,” Robb said, but he added that this might be a political miscalculation. “Sinema is going to need a very high turnout by independents and a very large share of them. So it may be that that narrative would appeal to that important voting bloc and she’s just overlooking an opportunity.”

McSally, with her move from moderate to Trump cheerleader, is doing what all career politicians do to one degree or another: adapting to their political environment. But because she’s had less time to do it, it’s been clumsy, to the point that some Republican operatives worry she’s overdone it.

Whether that matters to Arizona voters is an open question.

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