Republican Martha McSally relentlessly attacked Democrat Mark Kelly on Tuesday in the only face-to-face debate in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race, painting him as an unprincipled millionaire willing to take money from Communist China and serve as an accomplice to his party’s liberal agenda.
Again and again through the 90-minute event, McSally, R-Ariz., called her opponent, the race’s front-runner in polls and fundraising, “counterfeit Kelly” and suggested he would empower Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to take radical steps toward socialism.
“He’s Chuck Schumer’s star recruit. … He just won’t answer honestly to you, Arizona,” McSally said early in the debate.
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Kelly rejected the labels and maintained he would be more independent in Washington than McSally, who has proven a reliable vote for President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in her two years in the Senate.
“Sen. McSally is just focusing on (China) right now because she’s desperate to win an election,” Kelly said. He said he understood from a 25-year Navy career what to make of China, and didn’t need a memo from McConnell to raise that nation as an issue. “We need independent leadership in Washington.”
From the outset, McSally sidestepped questions about whether she is proud of her support for President Donald Trump and his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kelly called Trump unacceptable and pointed to the nation’s death toll as an avoidable disaster.
McSally repeatedly sought to tie Kelly to the far left of the Democratic Party, especially Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a member of “the Squad” that has urged more progressive action by Democrats on a number of issues, from social justice to the environment.
McSally brought up Omar’s name throughout the debate, prompting critics on social media to suggest the line of attack was rooted in bigotry. Omar is Black and one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. For his part, Kelly didn’t make any insinuation to that effect.
McSally sought to cast Kelly as operating an organization that supported liberal Democrats such as Omar, which generated blowback from Kelly.
“The organization that Sen. McSally is referring to is named after my wife, Gabby, (former Rep.) Gabby Giffords, it’s named Giffords. Gabby was injured, shot in the head, in 2011. The issue of gun violence is personal for Gabby and me,” Kelly said.
The nationally watched debate at Arizona State University’s Phoenix campus is the only head-to-head meeting of the race to fill the final two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s sixth and final term.
For Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut, it was his first time taking part in a political debate. Given the lead he has maintained over McSally in the race, Kelly needed to avoid any major gaffes and he did.
He didn’t wilt under the heat.
“Well, it didn’t take long for the senator to attack my patriotism,” Kelly 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.”
McSally said Kelly, a former astronaut, took a Chinese flag to space in a sign of his regard for that country. “I’m not questioning your patriotism, Mark. I’m questioning your judgment.”
Republic research indicates Kelly took a flag from an annual U.S./Chinese relations event, not a Chinese flag.
“Sen. McSally likes to make false and outlandish accusations. But we’ve got a serious crisis on our hands. We’ve got a public health crisis, which spurred an economic crisis, and both of these things have been made worse by a crisis of leadership.”
For McSally, the debate was a last chance to impress independent voters. She focused as she has throughout the summer on Kelly’s dealings with Chinese business partners and the taxpayer-funded operations of one of his companies.
The Arizona race could decide which party controls the Senate next year and the tone of the Supreme Court for years to follow.
The debate had one of its most heated and emotional moments when discussing McCain, R-Ariz., the man whose former Senate seat both want to hold.
McSally tried to avoid a question about a report in the magazine The Atlantic that, citing unnamed sources, said Trump disparaged troops as “losers” and “suckers” and remained contemptuous of McCain, with whom he maintained a high-profile public feud.
“You pundits can look into those anonymous allegations,” McSally said. “I’m looking out for our military.”
But Kelly dug in, calling McCain a friend and a hero and said McSally has failed to stand up to Trump on his repeated insults directed at McCain.
“On not one occasion would Sen. McSally come to John McCain’s defense,” he said.
McSally, visibly bothered by such sentiment, then answered more directly.
“I’ve publicly and privately, repeatedly, talked to President Trump, and asked him to stop attacking John McCain. Quite frankly, it pisses me off when he does it,” she said. “I’ve repeatedly said (to Trump), ‘Stop doing that.'”
Kelly faulted McSally for helping block additional aid to small businesses and ordinary Americans struggling through the pandemic.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives passed another broad relief bill in May, but the GOP-controlled Senate hasn’t passed that, and both sides have failed to come to terms on an alternative.
As he has since entering the race in early 2019, Kelly hammered McSally for her votes as a member of the House of Representatives to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She helped pave the way for the lawsuit that will go before the Supreme Court the week after the elections and could topple the 10-year-old law, Kelly said.
Kelly, who favors allowing the government to compete in providing insurance coverage, ripped McSally for taking money in her congressional career from the pharmaceutical industry and other corporations. She then voted to hand out corporate-tilted tax cuts and block changes to drug price negotiations, he said.
“Bottom line,” Kelly said, “Sen. McSally isn’t working for us. She’s working for somebody else.”
McSally called Kelly’s charges “scare tactics” that mask the underlying problems with the ACA. She noted rising health insurance costs and said 150,000 Arizonans paid a fine rather than get insurance through the law.
“What’s happened with Obamacare is the costs keep going up,” McSally said. “I’m fighting for more options for people.”
She warned that the Democrats’ “radical agenda” will lead to a government takeover of health care that will leave Arizonans worse off.
The health insurance overhaul faces perhaps its gravest test yet when the Supreme Court hears a case a week after the November elections and with Senate Republicans trying to rapidly confirm a sixth conservative to the court, a move McSally supports.
Kelly said he doesn’t support the hurried confirmation, saying it should be settled by voters and take a back seat to the need for more economic aid to Arizonans.
When pressed, Kelly said he would vote no on Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Arizona’s Senate contest takes on added importance in that effort because it is a special election to fill an existing term. That means Kelly would take office by Nov. 30 if he were to win the race.
Republicans are already on thin margins in their confirmation efforts because of resistance from two GOP senators and the COVID-19 infections of at least three others.
Both candidates professed their interest in securing improved border security. McSally said she has been committed to pushing resources to that important objectives and said Kelly does not support the wall being built along the border.
Kelly said he supports better technology to help achieve improved security, but not primitive technology such as a wall. He also criticized McSally for allowing the Trump administration to redirect federal funds away from Arizona military bases.
On the issue of whether DACA recipients should be provided a pathway to citizenship, McSally and Kelly again took different stances.
Kelly said he supported a stand-alone bill that would allow young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to gain legal status and citizenship.
“We have to address this issue of DACA recipients and give them some certainty in their lives,” Kelly said.
Kelly also accused McSally of flip-flopping on the issue, saying she once supported allowing Dreamers to gain citizenship, and then opposed DACA, former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary deportation protections to qualified Dreamers.
“Senator McSally used to support it, but then when it wasn’t politically convenient any more, she decided not to. That is not the independent leadership Arizona needs,” Kelly said.
McSally said she supports providing a pathway to citizenship to so-called “Dreamers,” but suggested she would support a DACA bill only if it was tied to providing funding for a border wall and more border security and closing “loopholes” for asylum-seeking families.
“My heart goes out to these young people who were brought here through no fault of their own. They know no other country but America,” McSally said.
McSally said she has been leading to provide a legal path for DACA recipients, “but we can’t just address that issue. We have got to address the root issues as well, which is why we are in this situation in the first place. That is why it’s so important for us to continue to secure the border, complete the border wall system.”
McSally also said the U.S. needs to close “these loopholes,” referring to immigration laws and court decisions that allow asylum seeking families who arrive at the border to be released while awaiting the outcomes of asylum hearings in immigration courts. She was echoing Trump’s claim that criminal organizations are exploiting the U.S. immigration system to come to the U.S. and file meritless asylum claims, which critics say ignores the violence, political instability, corruption and extreme poverty many families are fleeing in Central America, where most of the asylum seekers are from.
Kelly said that a bill providing a pathway to citizenship to “Dreamers” should not be contingent on border security measures.
“We have 28,000, mostly young people in the state of Arizona who I look at as American as my own two kids and I think they should have a pathway to citizenship right now,” Kelly said.
McSally tried to cast herself as a pragmatic conservative seeking bipartisan wins for Arizona where she can find them. She noted that she is considered among the most effective senators in Washington by bills passed.
Kelly reminded viewers that he is a military veteran and the son of two police officers. He also invoked his wife when talking about health care, offering a well-known personal experience.
The debate also brought rare attention to the issue of gun rights.
Kelly emerged as a leading voice for stricter gun control laws after the attempted assassination of his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in a 2011 mass shooting near Tucson. Kelly hasn’t made his calls for requiring background checks on all gun sales a prominent issue in the campaign.
And McSally, a consistent supporter of gun rights, hasn’t made her record on Second Amendment issues a major theme of her campaign, either. “I’m your Second Amendment senator,” she said.
On Tuesday, McSally said Kelly supports an agenda that will lead to restrictions on gun rights and that the Supreme Court vacancy is a critical check against stripping away gun rights.
“Our freedoms are at stake,” she said.
Kelly noted that he is a gun owner and wants only to make sure people with mental health problems, such as the man who shot his wife, can’t legally buy guns.
“The issue is incredibly important to me,” Kelly said. He spoke fondly of his first gun, a gift from his father, but said he wants to prevent events such as school shootings.
“Some stronger gun laws are not inconsistent with our Second Amendment,” he said. “There’s these giant loopholes you can drive a truck through.”
The debate was organized by four of the state’s most prominent media outlets: The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com; Arizona PBS and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University; KJZZ, the Phoenix public radio station; and Arizona Public Media, southern Arizona’s PBS and National Public Radio affiliate.
Republic reporters Daniel Gonzalez and Maria Polletta contributed to this article.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Martha McSally, Mark Kelly clash on COVID-19, health care, China