Martha McSally scored the political redo of a lifetime when she was appointed to the U.S. Senate on December 18.
In a way, by appointing McSally to fill the seat that will soon be vacated by Sen. Jon Kyl, Gov. Doug Ducey wiped the slate clean for the two-term Arizona congresswoman who lost her bitter U.S. Senate bid earlier this year.
While her campaign loss and the political miscalculations that may have led to her downfall won’t quickly be forgotten, the appointment allows McSally to showcase another side of herself and gives her the chance to start fresh. A do-over could prove essential if McSally hopes to have a fighting chance of winning the Senate race in 2020 and again in 2022.
From when she is sworn in next year until 2020, McSally will have to walk a fine line if she wants to be re-elected in what may be an even tougher election year for Republicans. President Donald Trump will presumably be at the top of the ballot, and is sure to have an effect on down ballot GOP candidates.
Although McSally has not said if she will run in two years to keep her seat, it’s practically a given that she will mount another Senate campaign.
McSally’s already hinted that she wants to conduct herself differently than she did during this campaign cycle. At a press conference December 18 where she accepted the appointment, McSally vowed to serve by the guiding principles of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain. She also praised McCain as a giant and an American hero.
“I’m going to commit to holding myself to the standard of service that Senator McCain indemnified, putting country before self and always striving to do the right thing for Arizonans,” she said.
McSally mentioned McCain more in her brief remarks than she did throughout her entire Senate campaign.
During the Senate race, McSally worked to distance herself from McCain for fear that she might alienate Trump voters. Her strategy was painfully obvious when she took credit for a new defense spending bill named after McCain and stood with Trump when he signed it.
But neither Trump nor McSally mentioned McCain’s name during the event.
The incident hurt McSally’s standing with the McCain family. McSally met with Cindy McCain just days before the appointment in an attempt to mend the rift.
If McSally is truly turning over a new leaf, she may also want to reconsider how closely she embraces Trump in the future, said Zachary Smith, a regents professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University.
“Things have changed. Her path is going to have to be, be with Trump but not be with Trump,” Smith said. “She’s still going to have to talk about how great Trump is, but I think she can now nuance that.”
In other words, McSally is going to have to take a page out of Ducey’s playbook.
The governor successfully distanced himself from the president throughout his contentious re-election campaign by intentionally keeping Trump and his administration out of his talking points.
Democrats made gains in Arizona in 2018 and early signs indicate Democrats could have a fighting chance again in 2020 because of the sheer emotional reaction many have to Trump.
If McSally thought her 2018 Senate bid was tough, she may have to wade through an even more complicated political environment in two years.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics has classified Arizona’s 2020 Senate race a “toss-up” and predicts the state’s Senate race will be one of the most competitive in the country as Democrats look to take back the upper chamber of Congress.
The McSally appointment doesn’t change the rating.
Though she’ll technically be an incumbent, McSally won’t have the traditional benefits of incumbency, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Instead, she’ll have to reinvent herself and move to the political middle, which could help her in 2020, he said.
“She’s now in John McCain’s seat,” Kondik said. “I think it would behoove her to try to find a few places where she could move to the middle on issues to try to get back some of those swing voters who maybe voted for Donald Trump grudgingly and then maybe switched to Sinema in 2018 and are probably up for grabs in the next Senate race.”
But McSally’s ability to move to the middle depends on if she can fend off a primary challenge. She’ll likely have to move further to the right if she does face a primary against familiar foes like Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Kondik said.
This year’s GOP primary challenge between McSally and Ward devolved into a contest of who was closer to Trump, which made it hard for McSally to court moderate Republicans in the general election.
Sinema, who did not face a serious primary contest, was able to focus on defining herself for a general election electorate and did not have to spend campaign cash fending off primary challengers.
“I think what Republicans would hope for is that the shoe would be on the other foot this time,” Kondik said. “McSally could maybe use her appointed incumbency to fend off a credible primary challenger and for the Democrats to have a primary of their own.”
Some Republicans are also eager for a McSally transformation to include a complete overhaul of her campaign staff and consultants.
In a campaign postmortem, McSally’s campaign consultants, Axiom Strategies — a national GOP campaign firm — chalked up her loss to outside factors. Their four-page memo made the case why, for numerous reasons, McSally’s loss was not her fault.
The memo has irked some Republicans because it publicly gave the appearance that McSally was not owning up to her campaign mistakes.
Instead, consultants chalked up her loss in the Senate race to Sinema’s money advantage, lack of primary election and having the home court advantage in the state’s largest media market.
Ben Domenech, whose wife is Meghan McCain, a TV personality and the late senator’s daughter, called the memo “disappointing” in a recent post on “The Federalist,” a conservative online magazine he runs.
The memo doesn’t address any of McSally’s failures as a campaigner and seems to indicate the candidate and her team did not take a hard look at where they went wrong in the race, he wrote December 18.
“Whether she holds the seat in 2020 comes down to whether McSally has the capacity and the humility to learn from her mistakes as a campaigner, and chooses a new political team with a proven record of winning in purple states,” Domenech said.