Martha McSally’s GOP Primary Win in Arizona Means Capturing the Senate Just Got Tougher for Democrats

Martha McSally speaks from behind a podium that says "Martha McSally U.S. Senate."
U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Martha McSally speaks during her primary election night gathering on Tuesday in Tempe, Arizona.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The GOP’s great lucking-out in Arizona is now official. Rep. Martha McSally, the clear choice of the national party and the only Republican running for retiring Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat with a shot at defeating Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, has won the nomination. She defeated ultra-conservative former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who melted down in the closing stretch of her second straight Senate primary, and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an octogenarian torture clown. As of publication, McSally was still hovering around 50 percent of the vote compared to 50 percent combined for her challengers.

The primary, like so many Republican primaries, was a contest to express the most love for Donald Trump. That was an easier task for Ward and Arpaio than McSally. Ward has long taken a hard line on illegal immigration in contrast to the state’s more dovish senators, Flake and John McCain. Arpaio, meanwhile, received the very first pardon of Trump’s administration after he was found guilty of ignoring a court order to stop constantly racially profiling “suspected” undocumented immigrants.

McSally, who represents a swing district, is not a natural Trumper. Prior to jumping into the statewide senatorial primary, she had been relatively moderate on immigration reform. She only flipped to being a hard-liner when her prospects for Senate shifted. She didn’t talk about Trump at all during her 2016 re-election campaign; now she speaks at length about how she’s “invited over to the White House all the time” to help her dear friend Donald Trump enact his agenda.

Despite all the love being thrown his way, the president himself stayed out of the race. In a parallel world where Roy Moore picked up 22,000 extra votes and defeated Doug Jones in the 2017 Alabama special election, maybe Trump would have endorsed one of the two long-shot challengers. He didn’t—but he didn’t endorse McSally either, to the annoyance of the national party.

His silence, it seems, was enough to keep either Ward or Arpaio from consolidating the conservative opposition to McSally. Their splitting of that vote was the story here, and Arpaio couldn’t have paid the president back better than by entering the race and ensuring a viable Republican Senate candidate in one of the most competitive races in the country.

McSally versus the centrist Sinema is just about a must-win for Democrats in November if they want to pick up control of the chamber—or limit their losses in a cycle with a punishing map. Sinema had the fortune of minimal primary competition, while McSally will have to revert quickly to a more moderate posture after this Trump pander-fest. Most of Arizona’s voting is done through mail ballots, and those will be sent out in about six weeks. It’s a tough task for the Arizona GOP. But at least they have a chance now.