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What the Devil won't tell you

The challenger: Mark Kelly launches new mission of political discovery

Team McSally doesn't face the deathly void of space ... yet.

Martha McSally seriously can't catch a break.

First Kyrsten Sinema beat her in a Senate race because President Donald Trump was weighing down the former Tucson congresswoman's candidacy. Then she's appointed to fill the late Sen. John McCain's seat to find herself up for re-election in 2020 with Donald Trump again around her neck. Now she faces a superstar carrying the family sigil to fulfill a fallen wife's destiny.

Oh yeah, and he's an astronaut.

No other politician in America has been so caught up in the Trumpstorm as McSally. In any other year with any other White House occupant, she would have beaten Sinema and now be sitting pretty for six years. The odds she will lose two Senate races in two years shortened bigly when Mark Kelly announced his challenge to her seat in a video.

Kelly, the astronaut husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, has everything required to bring a a whole bunch of fight to McSally. He can match McSally's military experience, plus four shuttle missions' worth of orbits. More important, he has covered the "for better or worse, sickness and in health" part of his marriage vows in ways that get every American husband and boyfriend in trouble just for not being him.

If Team McSally isn’t slinking a bit lower in their chairs, shielding their eyes from the news and sighing and “RUFKM?” then they don’t know what’s bad for them.

Their first best hope is that Kelly doesn't make it through the primary. It's not their only hope.

I doubt Kelly will clear the field of Democrats.

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Back to the Future

Ruben Gallego, the congressman from Phoenix, is also mulling a run for the U.S. Senate and has a legit claim on the Democratic nomination. A Gallego candidacy would follow as part of the progressive uprising that is affecting the Democratic Party in cool and maddening ways.

It would be a collision of the future and the past.

Down on Fourth Avenue on the east wall of the Shanty bar hangs a "Giffords for U.S. Senate" banner that serves as a reminder of what might have been. Giffords’ star was rising like five points of copper over the blue field on the Arizona flag and then Jared Lee Loughner ended her political career along with six other lives.

She was neck-and-neck with Kirsten Gillibrand as the Great Female Hope of the freshman congressional class of 2006. Gillibrand is now running a legit race for president. Former Labor Secretary and progressive economic guru Robert Reich told me during that first campaign that he could see Giffords winning national office. That’s a political euphemism for “could win the presidency.”

Seeing Gillibrand's race, the notion of President Giffords is no crazier than the ideas of President Harris, President O'Rourke or President Warren. People thought President Obama was a hokey idea in 1998. Giffords certainly could have been Joe Biden's VP candidate in an alternate timeline.

Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona’s Senate candidacy nearly upset Jeff Flake on election night 2012. Giffords could have taken him.

Giffords never got to make the Senate run, but Kelly is jumping in to fulfill her destiny by matrimonial proxy.

A party at the intersection

But there was another element to Giffords' ascent that was less favorable and foretold the intra-party fight to come. The activist wing often derided her as “DLC.” Giffords was being groomed by the Democratic Leadership Council to run moderate races and seek common ground with a Republican Party increasingly devoted to the political extermination of the Left as its most defining political goal.

Progressive voices, small in number but persistent in insistence, favored a more liberal option. The Left often chafed at Giffords' hemming and hawing on issues, even if she reliably wound up on the progressive side.

But at the time, the imperative was for a Democrat to finally win the seat that Jim Kolbe had held for 22 years. The left and the moderates were willing to come together and settle for the most likely winner.

Of course, this was before the Great Recession exhausted the left’s patience with neoliberal economics, deregulation and third-way sensibilities. It was before the Right threw conniption fit after fit as Barack Obama and moderate Dems tried to reach out to them. To the Tea Party, compromise could not be brooked with moderate Republicans let alone the socialist party. That was before Bernie. That was before Trump.

Democrats see a new calculus in liberal candidates of color drawing out conservative voters who look like them and mobilizing radical white voters who think like them.

Liberals have already put up a website to draft Gallego (though the cynic in me wonders if Gallego isn't in some way a just teeny bit behind it. Kelly also had a pretty transparently orchestrated "draft" campaign over the past few months).

“Arizonans deserve a leader who reflects the state’s rich diversity — someone who understands what it’s like to grow up poor, to work hard to achieve his potential and to selflessly devote his life to his country and community.”

“It’s time Arizonans are represented by a Latino in the U.S. Senate.”

Before people lose their minds, the Tea Party rose up on the right years ago while the liberal Democratic base for decades played nice. Democratic failure to engage the base has been fatal during midterm elections. The Tea Party didn't cost Republicans (at first). So the Left is sounding off now on issues like guns, taxes, health care, campaign finance, Social Security, Medicare and climate change, and the hard Left sees itself lining up nicely with public opinion. 

The progressives can ignore that polling theoretical questions is different than polling legislation with partisan political stakes. And for God's sake let candidates think about issues. If you are a True Progressive and you think every other industrialized country in the world practices single-payer health care, then maybe do some research before demanding Medicare for All.

Democratic voters just aren't as strident as Republicans. For all the noise (long overdue) on the Left, the party is still more pragmatic than democratic socialist. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a great candidate for one of the most liberal districts in the country. That doesn't translate into a mandate for a state like Arizona.

I think the Kolbe model still applies in Arizona. I've seen little evidence that the Democratic Party has lost its desperate streak in Arizona. Would Kelly or Gallego stand a better chance of giving Democrats both of our state's Senate seats for the fist time since 1952?

On paper, Gallego would probably matches up well against any limp moderate the establishment could put up. Kelly, though, isn't limp. On paper, he's murder.

In the arena

Paper is not where elections are fought out, though. I am old enough to remember how on paper, Bob Kerrey and John Glenn both seemed perfectly poised candidates for president, and then they fell apart as they started campaigning.

Ron Barber, on paper, was the second-best person (behind Kelly) to carry on for Giffords. But the man is just not built for the campaign stump.

Kelly? Sentiment will give him a head start among the rank and file. He will raise an ungodly amount of money. I mean, his haul will be so hellishly high it will be considered some day as a candidate for the eighth deadly sin. I can see him pulling in $30 million, $40 million or maybe $50 million for this race.

He did all right at the Democratic National Convention but as is often the case with those speeches it was half infomercial for Hillary Clinton.

I think he’ll be able to deliver a decent stump speech and make an appeal to the bulk of the party. Will he connect with voters? That's his challenge.

Starting this early – 21 months before the election – will be a big help with that because candidates improve over time. Political journalists see this year in and year out. Campaigning is a skill that should improve with repetition. He will have 18 months to get his act down before voters really start paying attention.

In the meantime, this abundance of time allows him the chance to start building an organization that could reach damned near every key precinct in the state.

Plus the sentiment ... Plus the money ... Plus the contrast ... Oh Great Udall's Ghost, the contrast ... 

A tale of two archetypes 

Nevermind for a second Kelly vs. McSally. Consider the contrast of Kelly vs. Trump as competing archetypes of the American male.

One says bone spurs so aggravated one of his feet (he really can't remember which one), which required him sitting out the Vietnam War draft. The other was a combat fighter pilot. Oh, and an astronaut.

One is caught in the gravity of every kind of shady deal a politician can try to get away with. The other is an astronaut.

One is cozying up with every stripe of despot almost as if he prefers a world run by crime bosses cutting deals, and the other is ... yeah.

One was likely schtupping a porn star while his wife was at home with a newborn baby. I could stop there but throw in that the other was home nursing his wife through a gunshot wound to the head when he could have had porn stars dripping off him for free because he’s a freaking astronaut.

He’s not running against Trump, of course, But Trump will make damned sure McSally is dragging his presidency from city to city while running against an astronaut.

Gunning for a fight

I don’t think this is in any way a done deal, but at first blush the news couldn’t be worse for McSally. She even loses her edge as a military trailblazer.

On the other hand, Kelly’s signature issue has been ending gun violence, which has been construed as stricter gun control.

I’m not not at all sure how that plays in suburban Phoenix, which elected Sinema.

I think of my exes. I’ve had a hippie girlfriend who thought gender is merely a social construct, an artist girlfriend practicing a mix of earth-mother spirituality and the teachings of Buddah and another one who said the only person she would leave me for is Sarah Palin. All three were armed to the teeth.

It’s Arizona and we are gun crazy. I may be the only person I know who made the decision never to own one. Some of the most liberal Berniebots I know will go at me for hours defending the right to bear arms. I honestly half expect a pigeon someday to pull a Glock on a hawk because this is the Grand Canyon State.

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The gun nuts, it goes without saying, are gun cray-cray in this desert corner of the country and some of them are good friends of mine. They want guns in bars. They want guns in courtrooms. Telling them their kindergartners should not be allowed to carry in school is akin surrendering their children’s lives to the Mexicans. The only thing that stops a bad toddler with a gun … finish the thought on your own.

Kelly’s announcement made clear he is running on more than just firearm regulations. That doesn't mean single-issue gun voters will be easily distracted. They will show up to keep McSally in the Senate.

Challenger's challenges

I'm simply outlining the challenges Kelly must overcome. If he should beat a progressive Gallego, can he maintain the partisan energy a Gallego would bring to the base? Can he escape the wrath of gun owners? Can he throw a punch without losing his luster?  

Watch for the Republicans to attack his role with space balloon company World View and its history with Pima County. 

He’ll have the money. He’s got the ID. He’s got the backstory from hell.

That will only get him so far. He's got a deal to offer and close with Arizona voters and only he can do that. So McSally's people shouldn't get too despairingly drunk just yet. They also should realize that Kelly's threat is every bit as total as Sinema's and then some.

So what lessons did she learn in her narrow defeat?

This is going to be one wild ride into the clear blue sky.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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2 comments
Feb 21, 2019, 3:04 pm
-0 +0

I believe Kelly can win the nomination. We need middle of the political spectrum candidates to run as Democrats in this Red State. Common sense is not common and I believe Kelly has that.

If he gets in a debate with McSally he can well explain his stance on gun control which is actually quite sane and it should be very unnecessary to explain his reasons.

Kelly as you stated trumps McSally in Military Experience and one ups her in being an astronaut.

McSally ran a vicious negative campaign that I will not forget. Plus she has the Trump millstone around her neck.

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Renee Bracamonte-Stewart/TucsonSentinel.com

Speaking just 10 days after she was shot in 2011, Mark Kelly demonstrated how his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, played with his wedding ring as she lay in her hospital bed.

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