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Martha McSally goes all-in with Trump as she launches Senate run

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally took the tarp off her U.S. Senate campaign Friday morning, winding up months of planning with an announcement that works to position her closely with President Donald Trump.

"My friend Martha McSally; she's the real deal, she's tough," Trump said in a video released by the Southern Arizona congresswoman to announce her run for the Senate.

Speaking to about 120 supporters at an airplane hanger in Tucson on Friday, McSally drew herself even closer to the president, declaring her support for his policy of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. While she said she was "concerned about all the vitriol and anger" in politics, she did not condemn Trump's remarks that some immigrants to the United States come from "shithole countries" when asked about the comments that were reported Thursday.

"I speak a little salty behind closed doors," McSally said, saying she's "partnering with the president" on immigration and economic issues. Agreeing with Trump on the visa lottery system, she said "we need to get rid of this." McSally said she agreed with the president that we need to focus on immigrants who will be an economic benefit to America.

She gave the same pat memorized answer when asked a similar question in Phoenix later Friday, after speaking to about 75 supporters at her campaign stop there.

McSally's campaign video showcased the assessment of the Arizona Republic that the two-term Republican is "Arizona's most reliable vote for the Trump agenda."

Her political move marks a shift from 2016, when she refused to endorse Trump's presidential campaign.

"That’s just not how leaders carry themselves," she said then.

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Her video hit on McSally's familiar themes of "national security, economic security and border security," and her support for the Air Force's A-10 attack jet.

"I absolutely refused to bow down to Sharia law," McSally said of her own military experience. "The liberals in the Senate won't scare me one bit."

McSally, a 51-year-old retired Air Force colonel, didn't answer questions one-on-one with Tucson reporters, instead standing on a road case for a brief group gaggle while responding to a handful of queries.

In her speech, she cited "vicious drug cartels and the possibility of terrorism" for her advocating a list of increased border security measures, such as more agents, electronic sensors, "including a border wall."

McSally said there should be "no sanctuary" to those who break U.S. laws, and "no sanctuary cities."

"I'm proud to work with our commander-in-chief to save the A-10 Warthog," she told her audience, wearing a blue jump suit laden with patches, reminiscent of a military uniform.

Discussing reversing President Barack Obama's executive orders and Trump's nomination of conservative judges, she said she will "help work with President Trump to finally get this done."

McSally declined to say whether she expected Trump’s endorsement, saying she was focused on running a campaign on the ground. But she promised it would be a hard-fought contest.

"This is a statewide race with national consequences, and I’m going to run as if the balance of the Senate counted on it," she said in Phoenix. "And it does."

Although the airplane hanger where she gave her speech was far from crowded, a trio of Democrats were kicked out by McSally's team.

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CD 2 congressional candidate Mary Matiella, along with Marion Chubon, head of a group opposing McSally known as Represent Me AZ, and Indivisible Southern Arizona's Kristyn Randel, were told to leave by Tucson airport police at the request of McSally's staff.

Chubon said they were told they would be arrested if they did not leave, "even though we have tickets" to the event.

The Democrats had not planned on disrupting the speech, Randel said.

"I just wanted to hear what she had to say, in person," she said.

McSally may have flown A-10s in the Air Force, but the rollout of her Senate campaign has been more like the slow, methodical preparations for a battle on the ground.

She is joining the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake with 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 long apparent 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 dithered on formally announcing her campaign — may face a smoother path through the primary. But McSally's first campaign video points to the need for all of the candidates to play to the base of Trump voters. While she kept her distance from the controversial president for much of the first year of his term, she has lately more closely associated herself with Trump.

All week, the Democrats have been repeating a line that the Republican primary with be a "brutal civil war."

On Friday, David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the contest will be "nasty, expensive and very long. It will drain the GOP's resources, demoralize their voters, and expose the flaws in each of their candidates."

"Whoever survives this expensive civil war in August will be held accountable for their willingness to take stances on issues that are simply out of touch with Arizona voters," said Drew Anderson of the Arizona Democratic Party.

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

McSally is holding 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. In her kickoff speech, McSally mentioned neither McCain nor Flake, instead referencing "another fighter pilot," former U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.

Underscoring her military experience, she climbed into a vintage T-6 two-seat military training plane to fly to Phoenix after her Tucson event. Her staff followed in a private plane, with a handful of reporters for national publications hitching a ride.

The second-term Tucson Republican narrowly won election in 2014, and prevailed again in 2016. She faced 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.

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'd bow out of the race if McSally sought re-election, but that she was assuming that the congresswoman would 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.

McSally’s announcement gives the GOP three relatively well-known candidates in the race. But analysts were giving the edge to McSally, saying that Arpaio and Ward will likely split the conservative vote in the primary.

“In her (McSally) they get a real solid candidate, which they don’t have right now,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report.

Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, agreed with Duffy that “at first blush” Arpaio’s decision to run is positive for McSally because it can split the conservative vote.

“McSally does look like the Republicans’ best bet in terms of a statewide candidacy,” said Skelley, who is also associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the center. “But the fact that Joe Arpaio has gotten into the race is obviously extremely interesting,”

Skelley said McSally’s background as an Air Force combat veteran and two-term House member from a competitive district makes her a strong candidate for statewide office. Even with those qualifications, however, he said it is not a given she will win the primary.

Arpaio would not comment specifically on a McSally challenge, but said Thursday that “everybody has a right to run.” He focused on his own campaign instead, saying he is “only running to win and serve the people of Arizona.”

When asked for comment, Ward’s campaign pointed to the statement it released Tuesday, when Arpaio joined the race. That statement blasted McSally for what it called her refusal to support Donald Trump as a presidential candidate – support that both Ward and Arpaio are likely to make central to their campaigns – and was critical of her stances on immigration, amnesty and the border wall.

“If Martha McSally jumps into the race, she will be just another version of Jeff Flake,” the statement said.

McSally is considered the most moderate of the current GOP candidates, but is still fairly conservative compared to the rest of Congress. She has a voting record similar to Flake’s, who was elected to the seat in 2012.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s congressional voting scorecard said McSally voted correctly 23 percent of the time in the last Congress, compared to Flake’s 35 percent. The American Conservative Union, meanwhile, give McSally a correct voting score of 76 percent in 2016, up from 58 percent the year before. The ACU said Flake voted in its favor 79 percent of the time in both years.

An analysis of votes by the website FiveThirtyEight said McSally has voted with Trump 96.7 percent of the time, compared to 90.7 percent of the time for Flake.

While most analysts said that McSally is likely to win the primary, and likely to attract a broader base of voters statewide than Arpaio and Ward, they also said that any Republican will face a tough challenge in the fall.

The current unpopularity of Trump, combined with the appeal of current Democratic front-runner, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Tempe, has many rating the Senate race a toss-up.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal ball, agreed with Skelley and Duffy. He said Ward and Arpaio could be “problematic candidates” in a general election.

“For the Republicans, I do think they certainly prefer her (McSally) over Arpaio and Ward,” Kondik said.

McSally's DACA bill slashes new immigration, doubles down on border security

While thousands of people face the expiration of work permits and protection from deportation under DACA, McSally and three other Republicans submitted a bill Wednesday that would reintroduce the temporary permit system while clamping down on legal and illegal immigration alike.

In exchange for a legislative answer to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the bill is a laundry list of hard-line policies that refocus the U.S. immigration system to the needs of businesses while increasing enforcement and penalties for migrants picked up by the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Cosponsored by Reps. Bob Goodlatte, Michael McCaul, Raul Labrador, and McSally, the "Securing America's Future Act" creates a legislative answer to the Obama-era program ended last September by Trump administration officials. It would set up a new deferred action program and work permits for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children for a three-year period, and allows them to travel overseas.

The bill would not create "a special path to a green card," but recipients may pursue "existing paths to citizenship."

The bill would establish a "workable" agricultural guest worker program, and increases the number of available green cards for three categories of skilled workers by about 45 percent, supporters said.

At the same time, the bill would eliminate the ability of immigrants to petition to bring family members, including spouses and children into the United States, and reduces overall immigration from more than 1 million people to around 260,000 annually.

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."

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.

Cronkite News reporters Ariana Bustos and Chris McCrory contributed to this story.


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

McSally speaking in Tucson on Friday morning, announcing her Senate run.

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