The Slatest

Defeated in the Midterms, Arizona’s Martha McSally Will Head to the Senate After All

McSally in a red dress at a lectern on a dark stage
Martha McSally greets supporters after winning the Republican primary for U.S. Senate on Aug. 28 in Tempe, Arizona. McSally would go on to lose in the November general election to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.
Nicole Neri/Reuters

Martha McSally is heading to the U.S. Senate after all. The Arizona Republican, who lost a contentious Senate election in November, was tapped on Tuesday by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey to serve the next two years in the late Sen. John McCain’s final six-year term. She will replace Sen. Jon Kyl, whom Ducy appointed as a temporary fill-in for McCain earlier this year but who made it clear from the start that he was unlikely to stick around beyond the end of this year.

McSally is getting a free pass to the Senate, but she’ll have her work cut out to stay there: She’ll need to win a 2020 special election to remain in the upper chamber for the final two years of McCain’s term, and then would need to win a regular election in 2022 to earn a full, six-year term of her own. Neither of those achievements is a given after she lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema this fall in a battleground race that both parties made a top priority. It was the first time a Republican lost a U.S. Senate race in the state since 1988, and the seat was one of just two nationwide that flipped from red to blue in the 2018 midterms.*

McSally’s prospects for appointment appeared to dim in recent days. Ducey was reportedly unhappy that her campaign tried to pin the blame for her midterm loss on external factors beyond her control, and some of McCain’s family publicly voiced their opposition to her appointment. However, this appeared to be Ducey’s fallback plan all along. Here, for instance, is what I wrote when the GOP governor unexpectedly tapped Kyl three months ago:

By appointing the 76-year-old Kyl, a known quantity from his nearly two decades in the Senate and someone who is currently shepherding Brett Kavanaugh through his confirmation process, Ducey has given Mitch McConnell a reliable yes vote (more reliable than McCain’s) at a time when Republicans hold a narrow one-seat edge in the upper chamber. And then if and when Republicans finish jamming Kavanaugh’s confirmation through the Senate, Kyl can return to his high-paying gig at Covington & Burling, the D.C. law firm he joined in 2013 after leaving the Senate the last time, and Ducey can replace him with whomever the GOP establishment thinks has the best chance of holding the seat in 2020—possibly U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, if she’s defeated this November in her bid for Arizona’s other Senate seat.

(Kyl is expected to return to the private sector, though he has not said, exactly, where he’ll be working this time around.)

McSally has been a longtime favorite of Mitch McConnell’s, who along with the GOP establishment helped propel her to victory in her three-way primary earlier this year against a pair of conservative firebrands: Kelli Ward, who tried to troll her way to the nomination, and Joe Arpaio, the disgraced former Maricopa County sheriff who would have served jail time if not for a Trump pardon.

Of course, terms like establishment and outsider are of limited value in Trump’s GOP. McSally was elected to the House in 2014 as a relatively moderate Republican. She had shown willingness to compromise on things like immigration and originally kept her distance from Trump, criticizing him for his Access Hollywood boasts about sexual assault and refusing, to this day, to say whether she voted for him. But after entering the Senate race, McSally tacked hard to the right and happily embraced the president and his America First agenda. She also indulged in Trump-style tactics during the general election, at one point accusing Sinema of supporting underage prostitution and literal treason. Awkwardly, McSally will now serve alongside Sinema. Welcome to the Senate, you two!

Correction, Dec. 18, 2018: An earlier version of this post misstated the last time a Republican lost a U.S. Senate race in Arizona. The year was 1988, not 1982.