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The Martha McSally vs. Mark Kelly Senate debate is over. Here's what might matter most


Arizona's high-stakes Senate debate between Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democrat Mark Kelly is in the books, with both candidates offering sharply contrasting tones and priorities.

The combative 90-minute showdown in downtown Phoenix showcased McSally’s aggressive defense of her record in Washington against Kelly’s promise to be a more independent senator.

McSally, a retired Air Force combat pilot who was appointed to the seat once held by the late Sen. John McCain, hit Kelly as willing to get close to Chinese groups with ties to the ruling Communist Party, and didn’t back away from her loyalty to President Donald Trump.

Kelly, a retired Navy pilot and astronaut, cast McSally as willing to strip away health insurance coverage for Arizonans with no viable backup plan even during a deadly pandemic.

The winner of the special election could be sworn in as early as Nov. 30, as the Senate could still be weighing Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. If Kelly were to win, Republicans’ margins in the chamber would dwindle. 

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The debate, co-hosted by The Arizona Republic, focused on crucial areas that have played out on the campaign trail: health care, the Supreme Court vacancy, border security and immigration, the economy, the environment, gun violence and their willingness to break from party lines.

Here are five big takeaways:

One candidate favored personal attacks; the other didn't

Unlike the cartoonish businessman depicted in campaign ads, Kelly struck an amiable tone and repeatedly expressed his concerns for the well-being of Arizonans. 

That image is at odds with the person pushed by McSally and her GOP allies, who have for months cast Kelly as a businessman happy to work with Chinese interests and take millions in economic development funds from Arizona taxpayers. 

One of Kelly’s biggest assets to date has been his perceived likability, which McSally and her allies have sought to chip away at for months now. Kelly avoided personal attacks and stuck to speaking broadly how her votes could affect Arizonans, in his view.

Her likability, meanwhile, has fallen largely along partisan lines and she continues to struggle with women voters. McSally, who is trailing in the polls, had to challenge Kelly without offending voters. Early in the debate, she bestowed on him a Trumpian nickname, "Counterfeit Kelly," and continually referred to him by that name throughout the 90 minutes.

Some may see her strategy as bold and catchy while others may think it's too derisive and more of the same from a broken Washington, led by Trump. 

In her 2018 Senate loss to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, McSally overshadowed much of the one debate in that race with an outburst at the end in which she shouted, “Treason,” about her opponent.

The charge landed with a thud she wanted to avoid this time around.

Instead, she used the final portion of her closing statement to challenge Kelly to additional debates, an offer he has refused. 

When the cameras were off, she asked through a plastic shield if the two should give each other virtual elbow-bumps, because hand-shaking and other physically distanced measures were in place. 

"As they say ... 'Fight's on,'" she collegially said to her opponent.

Focus on suburban voters, women and seniors

If the polls are correct, Republicans are trailing badly with at least three demographic groups that have supported them in the past and could seal their defeat this year.

Women, seniors and suburban residents represent most of the electorate, and McSally needed to improve her standing with them. Many of these voters dislike Trump and are most concerned with getting their lives back on track, keeping their families safe from the pandemic, and returning their children to school.

A big problem McSally has had is the special contempt these groups seem to have for Trump, whom she defended again on Tuesday.

McSally has tried to separate herself from Trump by more vocally expressing her respect for McCain. She had to find similarly safe rhetorical ground with this demographic trio.

Kelly’s task was to avoid coming across as too liberal. McSally invoked endorsements by a gun-safety group he co-founded with his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, of liberal candidates as evidence that he was just like them. The couple created the organization after Giffords survived a near-fatal shooting to the head in 2011 near Tucson. 

Kelly used his time to repeatedly remind these voters that the U.S. has 4% of the world's population but 20% of its COVID-19 deaths and worked those statistics into several of his answers.

The statistics — and the real-world implications of the pandemic — is at the forefront of voters' minds, and Kelly kept it there throughout the debate. 

Health care questions loom large

Polling shows Americans give the Trump administration poor marks for its handling of the new coronavirus crisis and they view the resulting recession as a higher priority than filling the current Supreme Court vacancy.

McSally needed to persuade voters that she is not ignoring the needs of Arizonans who have seen enhanced federal aid run out long ago.

Similarly, McSally has had to answer for voting repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act with no comparable replacement in the offing. It’s a key issue for Democrats and independents, seemingly leaving Republicans on an ideological island that has cost them elections across the country.

Kelly had an easier task because he has no voting record to answer for, and the details of his health care plan seem less important than the big-picture promise of preserving coverage for those with preexisting conditions.

Trying to energize the base

Within seconds of the debate starting, McSally unveiled her new nickname for Kelly — “counterfeit Kelly” — and pitched herself as a “Second Amendment senator.” 

It was part of a clear effort to energize base Republican voters who are strong Trump supporters to cast their vote for her, too. She was on the attack for 90 minutes but did not go out of bounds, unlike her 2018 widely panned performance.

By turning to the well-worn Trump tactic of hanging nicknames on opponents, McSally signaled who she was trying to reach in the debate.

McSally also embraced her record supporting gun rights and sought to put distance between her comments last year of being open to “red-flag” laws that would permit guns to be temporarily taken from those deemed a risk to themselves or others.

Some Republicans have viewed her warily because of the red-flag issue, and her primary opponent, Daniel McCarthy, used it to help peel off votes in the August primary.

But now McSally tried to bring Republicans home with a strident pro-Trump, conventional Republican approach even as she tried to spotlight her bipartisan work in the Senate. 

She stumbled when asked whether she was proud of her support for Trump, repeatedly avoiding a direct response on a subject many Republicans find easy to answer.

The debate probably didn't upend the race

McSally may have helped herself with any Trump supporters who have viewed her suspiciously but may have done so at the expense of gaining with independent voters. 

Kelly played defense much of the night and avoided big mistakes. But he did not forcefully respond to the core charge of being inauthentic and a rubber-stamp for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

As he has for months, Kelly didn't directly answer the question of whether he would support doing away with the filibuster, as many Democrats want if they take control of the chamber. 

Kelly did defend himself early and connected McSally's attacks as a rerun of her failed 2018 campaign.

“Well, it didn’t take long for the senator to attack my patriotism," he said. "She did that last election cycle with Sen. Sinema, so I thought after two years, we’d see a different Sen. McSally. But the same Sen. McSally has shown up.”

Reach the reporter Ronald J. Hansen at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4493. Follow him on Twitter @ronaldjhansen.

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