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Martha McSally set for campaign announcement

She may have flown attack jets in the Air Force, but the rollout of Martha McSally's impending U.S. Senate campaign has been more like the slow, methodical preparations for a battle on the ground. That looks to be about to change.

Poised to join the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake is U.S. Rep. McSally, who has scheduled a trio of "special announcement" events across the state on Friday. She and her staff have for months refused to comment on her political plans, but it's been apparent for months that she planned a run.

Already in the Republican primary race are former state legislator Kelli Ward and ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who announced his run Tuesday. On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is facing off with activist Deedra Abboud in the Senate primary.

With Ward and Arpaio potentially dividing the right-wing vote, McSally — who has dithered on formally announcing her campaign — may face a smoother path through the primary.

In November, McSally told her fellow Republicans behind closed doors that she intends to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Flake, but has not yet made a public announcement.

McSally will hold three events Friday — beginning at Tucson International Airport, with a quick stop at a hanger at Sky Harbor in Phoenix and on to the steps of the courthouse in Prescott — the location where U.S. Sen. John McCain has traditionally launched his campaigns.

The second-term Tucson Republican narrowly won election in 2014, and prevailed again in 2016. She faces the potential of another bruising race in Arizona's CD 2, with a bevy of Democrats vying to challenge her. Among them are Ann Kirkpatrick, the former CD 1 congresswoman who lost the U.S. Senate race to John McCain last year; former Assistant Army Secretary Mary Matiella; Matt Heinz, who lost to McSally in November 2016; political newcomer Billy Kovacs; and former state representative Bruce Wheeler.

While McSally won her seat a second time (after losing a 2012 special primary and the 2012 regular general election to former U.S. Rep. Ron Barber) by more votes seen in several previous election cycles in CD 2, the district voted against Donald Trump by a significant margin.

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Lea Marquez Peterson announced her run for Congress last month, with the Republican tossing her hat into a primary ring that's been all but vacated by the congresswoman.

Peterson said she'll bow out of the race if McSally seeks re-election, but said she was assuming that the congresswoman will make a Senate run.

Flake announced in October that he was walking away from a 2018 re-election bid, saying in a speech on the Senate floor that he “will not be complicit or silent” about the ongoing degradation of the political climate.

Flake, despite raising $4 million for his campaign by July, faced a stiff primary challenge from Tea Party favorite Kelli Ward, a former state legislator from western Arizona noted for her right-wing views. Ward, tagged with the nickname "Chemtrail Kelli" after holding a government hearing on the conspiracy fantasy about aircraft emissions, has been endorsed by former White House strategist Steve Bannon.

The announcement of Arpaio, who lost a 2016 re-election bid and was found guilty of criminal contempt in a racial-profiling case before being pardoned by President Donald Trump last year, came after a rift developed last week between Trump (who has often praised his work as sheriff) and Bannon, a former Trump campaign manager and top White House advisor.

Other Republicans who may seek Flake's seat are State Treasurer Jeff DeWit and former Arizona State Republican Chairman Robert Graham. Complicating the political calculus is the state of U.S. Sen. John McCain's health; he was diagnosed last year with an aggressive and often deadly form of brain cancer.

FEC complaint

Claiming that McSally spent money polling for her looming Senate run, local Democrats filed an FEC complaint in December alleging that the GOP congresswoman has violated campaign finance laws by not filing as a candidate.

Jo Holt, head of the Pima County Democratic Party, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, arguing that it is "inconceivable" that McSally had not already spent more than $5,000 in seeking the Senate seat. The Democrats maintain that McSally "apparently" hired a polling firm to gauge her name recognition for a statewide race for the Senate.

The Democrats maintain that McSally didn't file new campaign paperwork with the FEC indicating her plans to run for Senate before a 15-day deadline ran out.

A Politico report in November described the poll results from an 'internal polling memo" from McSally's campaign.

Federal law requires candidates to file organizational statements with the FEC within 15 days of raising $5,000 or spending that amount, the Democratic filing noted.

McSally's campaigns have demonstrated difficulty with adhering to campaign laws in the past.

A 2015 investigation by TucsonSentinel.com showed that her campaign reports overstated her fundraising by nearly $3.3 million. That review also showed that McSally was failing to collect all of the information required for a majority of her itemized donors.

That review later prompted a complaint to the FEC.

FEC staffers have repeatedly pointed to McSally's lax efforts to provide donor info, and she has often missed deadlines to correct her filings.

Bill would have given Border Patrol loophole in freedom of info laws

McSally pulled a provision that would have allowed Customs and Border Protection to evade FOIA laws from a border bill moving through Congress in October, after TucsonSentinel.com broke the news about the measure the previous day in an exclusive story.

McSally was a co-sponsor of the measure — H.R. 3548 — which would have in part granted broad leeway to CBP — including the Border Patrol — to avoid complying with numerous laws when operating on "covered federal land," defined as areas within 100 miles of our southern or northern border. The agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has nearly 50,000 sworn officers and agents and is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world.

In addition to exempting the sprawling agency from a host of environmental laws in order to ease construction of President Donald Trump's border wall, the bill would have allowed CBP to refuse to disclose information on most of its border enforcement activities.

Congressional sources said providing path for CBP to dodge FOIA disclosures was not the intent of the provision, but wouldn't detail any reasons for it being included in the bill. McSally's staff said that they didn't know why the FOIA loophole had been included in the draft of the bill.

The legislation would have been "incredibly awful" if passed unchanged, said David Cuillier, head of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.

It would have allowed the federal government "to work in secret within 100 miles of the border, which is north of Catalina. Basically, the Border Patrol could do whatever it wants throughout Tucson and this legislation would prohibit anyone from the public to find out," said Cuillier, a nationally recognized expert on FOIA. "Is that the America we want to live in — where the government can act secretly doing whatever it wants with our tax dollars and our liberties at stake, and we don't ever find out?"

Following TucsonSentinel.com's reporting on the bill — the only story about the loophole by any news organization in the country before the hearing — McSally said removing the Freedom of Information Act loophole was an "important issue to clear up. Transparency is an important part of governance."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com