Kelly announces Senate bid, opening high-stakes race to unseat McSally

WASHINGTON – Former astronaut Mark Kelly said Tuesday he will seek the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2020, jumpstarting what experts were already predicting would be one of the “most competitive” races of the year.

Kelly is the first Democrat to announce a challenge to Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican who was appointed to fill out the last two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s seat. But he may not be the last.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, tweeted Tuesday that he will make “a final decision and announcement soon” about a run against McSally, who is seen as vulnerable after losing a race in November against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, for the state’s other Senate seat.

Even before Kelly jumped in, political experts had marked Arizona as a key state to watch in 2020.

“It’s one of the Senate races we are watching most closely in the 2020 cycle,” said Leah Askarinam, an analyst for Inside Elections. “It is a Trump state … but we just saw a Democrat win a Senate race there and we just saw McSally lose.”

She said Kelly “does seem like a credible Democratic candidate entering what’s going to be a very high-profile race.”

Neither Kelly, Gallego nor McSally responded to requests for comment Tuesday. But in a video launching his campaign, Kelly called on his career as an astronaut and the inspiration he has gained from his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, as she struggled back from a near-fatal shooting.

“I learned a lot from being an astronaut. I learned a lot from being a pilot in the Navy. I learned a lot about solving problems from being an engineer,” Kelly said in the video. “But what I learned from my wife is how you use policy to improve people’s lives.”

This is Kelly’s first run for public office, but not his first foray into politics.

He and Giffords founded an organization – now called Giffords – that lobbies for what they call responsible gun-safety laws. It was formed in the wake of the 2011 shooting at a congressional event in Tucson that killed six and severely wounded 13, including Giffords, the intended target.

Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor for the Cook Political Report, said Kelly’s lack of a political track record is the biggest question right now in the “most competitive race of the cycle.”

Kelly said Tuesday he will not accept money from corporate political action committees, which Duffy called the litmus test for progressive candidates, but she said that’s just one test.

-Cronkite News video by Bryce Newberry

“Are his views progressive enough for a primary?” Duffy asked. “Are they too progressive for a general election?”

Mike Noble, a political consultant from Scottsdale, said a key factor in the race will be whether there is a Democratic primary. In the last race, McSally faced a tough primary that forced her to tack right in order to win the nomination.

With no primary challenger, Kelly could run as a moderate, Noble said, but he may not be progressive enough to beat a candidate like Gallego in a primary contest.

“If Mark plants himself in the center, and Ruben ends up announcing … I think it’s definitely an advantage to Ruben,” Noble said. “Because there are frankly more people who are very liberal or liberal compared to moderate.”

At least one potential Democratic challenger has already stepped aside. Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who changed parties for what many expected would be a Senate run, bowed out in a Feb. 8 tweet.

“I have no interest in spending the next 18 months running against Democrats. They are not the problem,” Woods tweeted.

Analysts say Kelly enters the race with at least some name recognition and his history as a military pilot could counter McSally’s career as an Air Force pilot and the first woman to fly in combat.

Although Kelly has no legislative voting record, his announcement video listed health care, wages, job growth, the economy and the climate as his top concerns, although he gave no details on his position.

Askarinam said not having a voting record could actually benefit Kelly, adding that the 40-seat Democratic gain in the House in 2018 was attributed to the fact that many of the winning candidates did not have legislative records.

“Often those legislative records can be targeted in campaign ads and opposition research and can actually hurt candidates,” Askarinam said.

But she said it can leave people wondering where Kelly stands on issues.

“It does make it a little bit harder for us to know where he stands in terms of policy, but I assume that we will learn more about that in the coming days and weeks,” she said.

Noble said it will be “interesting to see where he defines himself on the issues,” including the Second Amendment, given his involvement with gun-control legislation with Giffords. “Because a lot of us don’t know.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Kelly’s daughter, Claire Kelly, is an education reporter for Cronkite News.