Fighter pilot versus astronaut — an extensive look at Senate hopefuls McSally and Kelly

McSally has Trump support; Kelly has money

Senator Martha McSally/Photo credit/Gage Skidmore

By James Arkin | POLITICO

Martha McSally, former fighter pilot, was in the midst of launching an attack on Mark Kelly, former astronaut, when she paused to check the countdown clock on her smartphone.

258 days to Election Day.

The Arizona Republican senator finished the attack: Kelly will spend those 258 days, she argued, “trying to pretend he’s not a Democrat” to win over the state’s voters.

McSally lost a blistering Senate race two years ago, but was appointed to the state’s other Senate seat weeks later. Now she’s back on the ballot for round 2 — defending her seat against a more imposing opponent in Kelly, with his sterling resume, massive fundraising and popular wife, Gabby Giffords.

As McSally dashed between a tightly-packed schedule of events on a recent morning here — hours later, she would appear on stage at a rally with the commander in chief, soaking in the praise of the president and his supporters — her 2020 strategy was clear: run side-by-side with Trump, and turn Mark Kelly the astronaut into Mark Kelly the socialist.

It’s a tough sell. Kelly has no history in elected politics, no past votes to attack and a biography that has made him a sought-after Democratic recruit for years. But the fight might decide which party controls the Senate.

“That’s what’s at stake here,” McSally said, leaning over from the front passenger seat of her staffer’s car to emphasize her point to a reporter in the back. “It’s not whether you like him. It’s not whether you think it’s cool he was an astronaut, or I was a fighter pilot. It’s about what direction you want the country to go.”

As for that countdown clock: McSally checked it daily during her 2018 race against Kyrsten Sinema — and she resumed the habit last year when her campaign ramped up. McSally, who made history as the military’s first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, said she approaches the campaign “like these could be the last two years of my life” and would “never pull back from the afterburner.”

Mark Kelly./Brian Ach/Getty Images for LocationWorld 2016

This race, in a state Democrats think could be on the cusp of turning blue, is an expensive clash of heavyweight political biographies: McSally is a retired Air Force colonel. Kelly is a Navy veteran who flew four missions to space, commanded the space shuttle — then quit to return to Arizona to care for Giffords, who was seriously wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt.


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