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Mark Kelly catapults into U.S. Senate race

Giffords' husband, former Navy pilot & astronaut to run as Democrat in Arizona

Ending months of behind-the-scenes prep, Mark Kelly — former Navy pilot, astronaut and husband of ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — publicly announced his Senate campaign Tuesday.

Kelly, who moved to Tucson to live with Giffords after his retirement from NASA and the military, is the first high-profile Democrat to jump into the 2020 campaign. While his announcement could be seen as setting up a dogfight with U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, with two former combat pilots facing off, U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Phoenix — a Marine veteran of the Iraq War — is also mulling a run on the Democratic side.

Kelly released a four-and-a-half-minute video, long on pensive shots and steady narration but short on policy specifics, to pull the wraps off his election effort.

"For Arizona and the country, the mission comes first," his website states.

Pledging the candidate won't take "a dime of corporate PAC money," Kelly's website runs down his history as a pilot in the First Gulf War, in which he flew 39 combat missions; as an astronaut, including as commander of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final mission; and how he and Giffords founded the gun-control organization that now bears her last name after the Jan. 8, 2011, assassination attempt that killed six and wounded 13, including the then-congresswoman.

In his announcement, Kelly said he learned a lot as a pilot, astronaut and engineer, "but what I learned from my wife is how you use policy to improve people's lives."

The new Democratic candidate said he was focused on "access to affordable healthcare, the stagnation of wages, job growth, the economy." Kelly also mentioned climate change and the influence of corporate money in politics as areas of concern.

Kelly's name had been long floated as a potential Senate candidate. In 2011, he said he wouldn't run for the seat then held by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl — a race that Giffords herself had widely been expected to tackle, before she was shot and forced to retire from Congress. Again last year, Kelly bowed out of running in the election for a full term.

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This cycle, Kelly's been laying the groundwork for a run for months, lining up supporters locally and pulling together a team that includes former staffers for Giffords' campaigns.

Much like McSally's campaign rollout last year, when she unsuccessfully ran for election to Arizona's other Senate seat, Kelly's ads and website include not-so-subtle references to his military service. He wears a leather bomber jacket, and is shown standing just outside the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, with lines of military aircraft behind him. Another photo shows him working out while wearing a "Navy" t-shirt.

Kelly's campaign video, posted to Youtube and Facebook and featured on his campaign website, features video of him as an astronaut and climbing into the cockpit of an airplane, as well as him holding his Navy uniform, bedecked with ribbons. A photo of him and his twin brother, Scott Kelly (also a Navy veteran and astronaut) carries the mandatory disclaimer that the campaign is not endorsed by the Defense Department. Kelly's new campaign website also includes that disclaimer.

His Facebook page, which is linked from his campaign site and includes multiple new posts about his campaign, is named "Captain Mark Kelly" and should include that disclaimer under DOD regulations. It does not, but a campaign spokesman said Tuesday afternoon that a change to the page name was in the works.

McSally, the former U.S. representative appointed to fill the Senate seat on an interim basis, left that disclaimer off a number of her previous campaign advertisements, as reported.

Since his retirement from the military, Kelly has engaged in a broad swath of business pursuits and kept a high public profile, not just with the Giffords gun-control group, with an appearance on "Celebrity Jeopardy" and by endorsing various products.

He and his brother just appeared in a Superbowl TV commercial for Amazon, and Kelly's been a "brand ambassador" for high-end Breitling watches.

Kelly's voter registration is sealed by court order, and local officials cited that in declining to release a history of his participation in elections in Arizona.

"Partisanship and polarization and gerrymandering and corporate money have ruined our politics, and it's divided us," Kelly said. "We've seen this retreat from science and data and facts, and if we don't take these issues seriously, we can't solve these problems."

2 Democratic senators?

With U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema having eked out a win over McSally in November's election, earning a six-year term, Arizona could be poised to have two Democrats in the upper chamber for the first time in nearly 70 years. relies on contributions from our readers to support our reporting on Tucson's civic affairs. Donate to today!
If you're already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors, colleagues and customers to help support quality local independent journalism.

The state hasn't had two Democrats in the U.S. Senate at the same time since Barry Goldwater was first elected in 1952. U.S. Sen. Ernest McFarland was first elected in 1940, and U.S. Sen. Carl Hayden served from 1927-1969.

While Kelly may face a primary race against Gallego, he's seen as the favorite of national Democratic groups. Gallego, a progressive and veteran who would be the first Latino to serve the state in the Senate, has chalked up many favors over the last several years. Running in an extremely safe Democratic seat, he spent time campaigning for other party members around the state, including walking door-to-door. But Kelly has pulled aboard an experienced election team and, with no previous runs and no voting record, has an opportunity to craft a fresh campaign message.

Gallego, D-Phoenix, tweeted Tuesday that he will make “a final decision and announcement soon” about a run against McSally, who is seen as vulnerable after losing a race in November against Sinema.

Another potential primary candidate, Grant Woods, said that he won't enter the race. Woods, a former Republican attorney general for the state and a longtime advisor to U.S. Sen. John McCain, switched parties to support Hillary Clinton and has blasted Donald Trump. Woods campaigned for Sinema last year, but his potential candidacy was sandbagged by a Tucson progressive group that cited immature and sexist comments Woods made while working as a radio talk show host.

Even before Kelly jumped in, political experts had marked Arizona as a key state to watch in 2020.

“It’s one of the Senate races we are watching most closely in the 2020 cycle,” said Leah Askarinam, an analyst for Inside Elections. “It is a Trump state … but we just saw a Democrat win a Senate race there and we just saw McSally lose.”

She said Kelly “does seem like a credible Democratic candidate entering what’s going to be a very high-profile race.”

Arizona's seeing the rare opportunity to chose senators in multiple successive elections because of McCain's death. Under Arizona law, an appointee to his seat can only serve through the next regular general election cycle. That means McSally — who was named to the seat after fill-in Jon Kyl resigned after a few months — will be up for election in 2020. The winner of that election will serve the balance of the term McCain was elected to, through 2022.

The circumstances mean that soon, Arizona will have had Senate elections in 2016 (won by McCain), 2018 (won by Sinema), 2020 ("special" election), 2022 (McCain's seat, for a full term) and 2024 (Sinema's seat).

Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor for the Cook Political Report, said Kelly’s lack of a political track record is the biggest question right now in the “most competitive race of the cycle.”

Kelly said Tuesday he will not accept money from corporate political action committees, which Duffy called the litmus test for progressive candidates, but she said that’s just one test.

“Are his views progressive enough for a primary?” Duffy asked. “Are they too progressive for a general election?”

Mike Noble, a political consultant from Scottsdale, said a key factor in the race will be whether there is a Democratic primary. In the last race, McSally faced a tough primary that forced her to tack right in order to win the nomination.

With no primary challenger, Kelly could run as a moderate, Noble said, but he may not be progressive enough to beat a candidate like Gallego in a primary contest.

“If Mark plants himself in the center, and Ruben ends up announcing … I think it’s definitely an advantage to Ruben,” Noble said. “Because there are frankly more people who are very liberal or liberal compared to moderate.”

Analysts say Kelly enters the race with at least some name recognition and his history as a military pilot could counter McSally’s career as an Air Force pilot and the first woman to fly in combat.

Although Kelly has no legislative voting record, his announcement video listed health care, wages, job growth, the economy and the climate as his top concerns, although he gave no details on his position. relies on contributions from our readers to support our reporting on Tucson's civic affairs. Donate to today!
If you're already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors, colleagues and customers to help support quality local independent journalism.

Askarinam said not having a voting record could actually benefit Kelly, adding that the 40-seat Democratic gain in the House in 2018 was attributed to the fact that many of the winning candidates did not have legislative records.

“Often those legislative records can be targeted in campaign ads and opposition research and can actually hurt candidates,” Askarinam said.

But she said it can leave people wondering where Kelly stands on issues.

“It does make it a little bit harder for us to know where he stands in terms of policy, but I assume that we will learn more about that in the coming days and weeks,” she said.

Noble said it will be “interesting to see where he defines himself on the issues,” including the Second Amendment, given his involvement with gun-control legislation with Giffords. “Because a lot of us don’t know.”

Cronkite News reporter Andrew Howard contributed to this story.

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1 comment on this story

Feb 12, 2019, 2:05 pm
-1 +0

Mark Kelly is catapulting to having been an ex-astronaut for 18 years.  Since then this is what he’s done:

This guy couldn’t even figure out how to buy an AR-15… and when asked about it came up with a cock and bull story about “gunshow loopholes”.  LOL

Even in the Mitch McConnell days where a turd can be elected, Mark Kelly is not senate material.


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James F. Palka/

Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, surrounded by survivors and family members of those shot on Jan. 8, called for tighter background checks on firearm sales at a March 6, 2013, news conference at the Safeway store where six were killed.