Right now, the major national story involving Arizona is the death of John McCain. Nothing about Tuesday’s Senate primaries is likely to change that. When Arizonans go to the polls to choose party nominees to fill Jeff Flake’s seat, the overwhelming likelihood is that they will choose Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally.
Sinema, a congresswoman from Arizona’s ninth congressional district, has been a lock for the nomination since she announced her candidacy. McSally has not. Before McSally entered the race in January, observers thought she would be in for a dogfight with populist Kelli Ward. Back in the halcyon days of the Steve Bannon project to remake the GOP in his image, Ward, an osteopath who had mounted a 2016 primary challenge to McCain from the right, seemed like a serious contender for the nomination. On the back of her full-throated support for all things Trump, Ward secured an endorsement from Bannon, and gained positive coverage from Breitbart, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.
But things changed. Bannon’s project lost its momentum, Breitbart its relevance. McSally, who had criticized Trump in the 2016 election, developed a relationship with the White House and moved to the right on immigration. And perhaps most consequentially, Joe Arpaio entered the race. Like Ward, he ran as a bomb-throwing Trump sycophant; as expected, the former Maricopa County sheriff sapped her support. In recent weeks a flailing Ward has tried to drum up publicity for her campaign with a statewide bus tour featuring Iowa congressman Steve King, nootropic salesman Mike Cernovich, and Fox News provocateur Tomi Lahren. But recent polls give McSally a commanding lead: She led Ward and Arpaio 48–22–18 in a recent Data Orbital survey, and an ABC-15 poll put her up 20 points on the second-place Ward.
Trump has stayed out of the race, dashing any chance of a last-second Ward or Arpaio surge. In recent days McSally’s campaign has shifted its focus away from her primary opponents and toward Sinema. Last week her campaign released an ad in which McSally touts her military record (she was the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat and served from 1988 to 2010) and mocks an image of Sinema (a former Green turned Blue Dog Democrat) protesting the Iraq war clad in a pink tutu.
Ads aside, though, Sinema is no slouch. Connected Republicans foresee a competitive race. The old conventional wisdom in Arizona statewide elections was that if the GOP candidate kept things close in liberal Pima County, which contains the city of Tuscon, she could count on support from conservative Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix and its sprawl, to deliver victory. But that might be changing as the share of Hispanic voters grows and as white suburban Arizonans drift to the left. Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 was surprisingly narrow, and both he and governor Doug Ducey have lackluster favorability ratings in the state. A recent special election in the state’s eighth congressional district — which comprises conservative Phoenix suburbs and voted overwhelmingly for Trump — was tighter than expected. McSally enjoys decent numbers in Tuscon, and is a solid candidate. But the general election, unlike the primaries, should be close.