The Slatest

In Arizona Senate Debate, It Was Loud and Offensive vs. Calm and Defensive

Democrat Rep. Kyrsten Sinema seen here in a photo handout from the U.S. U.S. House of Representatives.
Democrat Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is running to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake in Arizona. U.S. House of Representatives Office of Photography

Both Arizona Senate hopefuls stuck to their scripts Monday night during the first and only debate in one of the most hotly contested races of the midterms. Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema repeatedly declared that a vote for her would be a vote for bipartisanship. Rep. Martha McSally was also clear about her opponent: A vote for Sinema, the Republican suggested, would be a vote for Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, George Soros, child prostitution, and treason.

McSally threw that last bomb as the clock was running out. Asked about climate change during the final round of questions, she instead attacked Sinema over an offhand remark she made during a 2003 radio interview while promoting an anti-war protest. After the host had made a hypothetical comment about joining the Taliban, Sinema, then an activist with ties to the Green Party, responded: “I don’t care if you want to do that, go ahead,” as CNN reported late last week. Sinema’s campaign has said she was simply trying to steer the conversation back on topic.

“You said it was OK for Americans to join the Taliban to fight against us,” said McSally, an Air Force veteran, addressing her opponent directly at the debate. She continued, raising her voice to speak over the moderator: “Kyrsten, I want to ask right now as to whether you’re going to apologize to the veterans and me for saying it was OK to commit treason.”

Sinema, as she did for most of the night, refused to engage. “Martha has chosen to run a campaign like the one you’re seeing right now where she’s engaging in ridiculous attacks and smearing my campaign,” Sinema said. “And she’s just trying to cut, cut, cut, and not show the full picture.”

The treason charge garnered the headlines, but it wasn’t the only bombastic claim the GOP congresswoman made on stage. Earlier in the night, McSally suggested that during Sinema’s time in the Arizona statehouse, she sided with men soliciting underage prostitutes over their child victims. “When she was in the Arizona Legislature when they were trying to hold johns accountable … she was advocating for the johns, saying that the girls, 12- and 13-year-olds, you know, looked older than her,” McSally said. Some background: During a hearing on legislation aimed at cracking down on child prostitution, Sinema was one of a number of lawmakers to raise concerns about a provision that would have prevented someone from arguing in court that they could not have reasonably known a prostitute was underage. She ultimately voted for an amended version of the bill that included increased penalties but preserved that legal defense.

Even the moderators, who spent much of the night trying to stay out of the way, were flabbergasted by that one. “Do you believe, do you honestly believe, she was protecting adult men who were molesting children?” one of the two asked incredulously. McSally responded by telling people to go to her website to watch the video. “She was a defense attorney, so I mean, I guess that’s where that comes from,” she added.

The two congresswomen were a study in contrasts all night. Sinema spoke calmly and quietly, describing her attempts to stake out a middle ground in the hyperpartisan wars of Washington, while accusing her opponent of being unwilling to stand up to the GOP. Again and again, the Democrat gave examples of working across the aisle, name-dropping those Republicans lawmakers she teamed up with for good measure. Meanwhile, she limited her criticism of Trump to issues like trade and migrant family separation at the border. “I believe it’s our duty to stand up against the president when he’s doing something wrong, but join with him when he’s doing something right, like working for veterans,” she said.

Sinema was also noticeably hesitant to say how she would have voted on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation if given the chance, instead merely repeating that she was “disappointed” in both parties for how the process played out. And when she finally conceded that she would have voted against his confirmation, she focused on Kavanaugh’s judicial record while barely mentioning the sexual misconduct allegations against him. When she did play offense, Sinema repeatedly jabbed at McSally for moving to the right on things like immigration ahead of her Senate run, but those attacks were relatively mild compared with the incoming fire.

McSally, meanwhile, talked quickly and often loudly, embracing Trump, toeing her party line on Kavanaugh, touting her support for the GOP tax bill, and suggesting Sinema does whatever Democratic leaders want. “She voted against the farm bill in a partisan move because that’s what Nancy Pelosi decided to tell them all to do,” McSally said early in the debate. Later, she claimed Sinema sided with Senate leader Chuck Schumer in “choosing illegal immigrants over our troops” during the shutdown fight over funding for Trump’s border wall.

So, with three weeks to go until Election Day and the two running neck and neck in the polls, will McSally ratchet up her attacks even further? It’s difficult to imagine where she can go from treason and child prostitution. Then again, McSally has a major rally scheduled for Friday. The featured speaker: Donald Trump.