Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Democratic Challenger Mark Kelly at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix, Arizona on October 6, 2020.
WASHINGTON – A little over two years ago Arizona was represented in the US Senate by two Republicans, it had a Republican governor, and Republicans had majorities in both houses of the state assembly.
If the current poll is correct, two weeks from now there will be only Doug Ducey, an unpopular governor whose term is limited to two years.
In this rapidly changing political landscape, incumbent Republican Martha McSally and her Democratic challenger, former Navy captain and astronaut Mark Kelly, are set to see one of the Senate's most momentous races of 2020. Ducey named McSally to her role in December 2018 after losing the race for the state's other Senate seat to another Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema.
Recent polls show Kelly McSally leads with an average of 8 points. The leadership reflects in part the changing demographics of the state, which in recent cycles has helped steer election results there in the direction of Democrats.
Kelly's strength also rests on the disapproval of Republican President Donald Trump, whose platform and positions McSally has wholeheartedly supported in Washington.
This race is especially important for Senate Republicans trying to hold onto their majority, as both Republican and Democratic strategists could predict a "blue wave" of Democratic victories in the November 3rd election.
But it's not just McSally's Senate seat that could get out of reach for Republicans in Arizona. If current polling trends continue, voters there will be ready to hand over control of the State House to the Democrats and split the Senate down the middle, giving each party 15 seats and ending decades of Republican majority.
There is more. After breaking 4 points for Trump in 2016, Arizona voters are telling pollers this year that they want to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, moving Arizona's 11 electoral college votes from Trump's Biden column.
A recent poll by CNBC / Change Research found that Biden leads Trump by 6 points in Arizona, a staggering reversal in a state that has gone to a Democratic presidential candidate only once in the past 72 years.
Comparison of the candidates
Arizona is a red state that is turning blue before our very eyes, and it is Kelly who is leading that shift.
"The first thing we need to talk about in this race is that Kelly is the best Senate candidate in the country to run for Democrat," said Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican political strategist in Arizona.
In addition to his career in the Navy and NASA, Kelly, 56, is the husband of former MP Gabby Giffords, who survived a shot in the head in 2011. Giffords later became the leader of the Gun Violence Prevention Movement, and she and Kelly founded the American Charitable For Responsible Solutions.
Since Kelly left the Navy in 2011, the Democrats have been encouraging him to run for office. But it wasn't until after Trump's election in 2016 and two years after that, when beloved GOP Senator John McCain died of glioblastoma, that the path to a Senate seat became clear enough to get Kelly up and running.
McSally, 54, also has a military background and served in the Air Force for more than 25 years, becoming the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat.
McSally, a moderate Republican who represented a swing district in Congress, was appointed by Ducey to fill McCain's seat after his death in 2018. At the time, it seemed like a good choice for keeping the seat in Republican hands.
But Trump's divisive record and insistence that Republicans in Congress reflect his positions on any issue has made it much harder for moderate Republicans to form victorious coalitions of voters.
McSally's response was to establish herself as a "loyal foot soldier to Trump," said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist in Washington.
"When I first met her, she was a very different candidate when she ran for the house (2012), much further down the street." said Heye. Her almost complete embrace of Trump eight years later "understandably creates a question of authenticity" in the minds of voters.
But like many at-risk Republicans this year, McSally decided to get as close to Trump as possible. Despite Trump's polarizing stance, her campaign relied on the enthusiasm among staunch supporters of the president, coupled with the historic advantage of the GOP among registered voters, that could lead her and Trump to victory.
Speaking on Monday at their second Trump rally in as many weeks, McSally told a red hatred crowd in Prescott that Arizona was "Ground Zero" in the 2020 election.
"The country is relying on us. This state will decide to send President Trump back for another four years. This state will have a majority in the Senate and stop the radical left in my race," she said.
As if to underline her reputation as Trump, McSally told the crowd that she would fly back to Washington with Trump aboard Air Force One on Monday night.
Overall, it's hard to say how much, if any, of McSally's 8-point deficit with voters is related to Trump's tough re-election campaign. Especially since Trump currently outperforms McSally by 2 points in CNBC polls and even better in several other polls.
U.S. Democratic Senate Candidate Mark Kelly and his wife Gabby Giffords, former U.S. Representative from Arizona, speak to an attendee during a panel discussion with Latino small business owners in Tucson, Arizona, United States on Wednesday, October 14, 2020.
Cheney Orr | Bloomberg | Getty Images
"The Trump people can smell that (McSally) isn't really a wool-dyed trumper, so she's got an enthusiasm problem on the right," said Coughlin, the GOP strategist. "And she's a Republican, so she has a problem on the left."
CNBC reached out to McSally's campaigner asking them to respond to Heye and Coughlin's criticism, but they didn't respond. Neither did Kelly's campaign.
The basis and impartiality
In an election that has so far been defined by record levels of voter enthusiasm, Kelly appears to be taking advantage of Trump's voter outrage.
By October 1, Kelly's Senate campaign had raised a staggering $ 83 million, nearly half of that, with $ 39 million only coming in between July and September. According to Open Secrets data, 80% of Kelly’s individual donations to the race come from outside of Arizona.
McSally raised $ 23 million in the third quarter, with approximately 70% of her donations coming from outside of state.
One key difference, however, is that Kelly raised these huge sums while, as a candidate, doing virtually nothing to attract the most enthusiastic donors to his party: the grassroots.
On the contrary, the former naval officer has run his race as an independent, taking every opportunity to emphasize that as a Senator he will bring "independent leadership" to Washington and work with Republicans (including Trump) on common priorities.
In line with his strategy of isolating his campaign from the left wing of the Democratic Party, Kelly rarely conducts television interviews and almost never appears on cable news programs.
U.S. President Donald Trump points to the wall while speaking to U.S. Border Guard Chief Rodney Scott while touring a section of the recently constructed U.S.-Mexico border wall in San Luis, Arizona, United States, on June 23, 2020.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
However, Kelly appeared on ABC's "The View" in September, where he held up both McCain and another Arizona Republican, the late Senator and arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, as role models of non-partisanship.
"I think Arizonans really like independent leadership, people willing to work across the gang to do things for Arizona and the American people. I mean, your father did that, Barry Goldwater, there are many examples "Kelly told Co. -host Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Senator.
Kelly also dodged a question about Arizona's switch from red to blue, which most Democratic candidates would take the opportunity to talk about. "I don't know who is giving the colors, there has to be someone in Washington who does it," said Kelly.
Whether Kelly wants to talk about it or not, the reality there is unmistakable: the demographic profile of Arizona voters has been changing for several years. And the impact on Republicans and Democrats extends well beyond the 2020 competitions.
Arizona is changing
"There are a lot of reasons for how the state is changing this cycle and past cycles," said Coughlin. "It's an activation of the Hispanic Youth Voting, the California influx is part of it, the booming economy, aerospace, defense jobs, and military bases are also factors. In many ways, Arizona is like a cheap Silicon Valley."
The growth of Hispanic voters is nationwide, but has been particularly pronounced in Arizona in recent years.
In the state's largest county, Maricopa, 31% of the population are Latinos, and in the past four years, Maricopa county has twice as many voters as Democrats than Republicans.
Another 100,000 Latino voters have turned 18 and are eligible to vote in the past two years, although young voters are known to be difficult to mobilize.
There was also a large influx of newcomers to the state, making Arizona as a whole, and Maricopa County in particular, the fastest growing areas in the United States.
As of 2016, the number of people who have moved to Arizona is estimated at 300,000, and a quarter of the newcomers are from California, the most politically liberal state in the country.
Many of the newcomers have settled in the suburbs of Phoenix, where they have helped expand the entire geographic area where Democratic candidates get more votes than Republicans.
However, most of the rural counties in the state remain solidly Republican. But these sparsely populated areas are no match for the sheer numbers of Maricopa County's people, roughly 60% of the state's total population.
This dominance extends to politics. In 2016, Maricopa County accounted for 53% of all votes cast nationwide.
However, experts say it is far too early to count the Republican Party in Grand Canyon state. For one thing, Republicans are still more numerous than Democrats across the country.
"The proportions of registered Republicans and Democrats in Arizona have remained remarkably stable: the registered Republicans are significantly more numerous than the registered Democrats," Samara Klar and Christopher Weber of the University of Arizona wrote in the New York Times.
Klar and Weber argue that the Democrats' electoral advantage this year is not just the addition of more Democrats, but a loss of Republican support for McSally and Trump.
Experts say that move away from the top of the ticket was also accelerated by the oversized impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Arizona, where more than 5,000 people have died from Covid-19.
Trump, McSally, and Ducey all saw their approval ratings drop among Arizona voters this year. A majority of them say that getting the pandemic under control should be the government's top priority.
Against the backdrop of these trends, Kelly and his message of non-partisanship and independence seem to be perfectly coordinated to offer an attractive alternative to the dissatisfied 2016 Trump voters.
In Kelly's anti-partisan pitch, Arizona's wandering Republicans and Arizona's dedicated Democrats can find something they can agree on: Washington is broken.
As Kelly put it in his recent debate with McSally, "Partisan politics has made this crisis worse and partisan politics and partisan politicians are not going to stop us."