WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic challenger Mark Kelly opened a sizable lead in early returns Tuesday over Republican Sen. Martha McSally, who was desperately fighting to hold the seat she was appointed to just two years ago.
With 79% of precincts reporting four hours after the polls closed, Kelly held a 54-45 percentage point lead over McSally, with 1.36 million votes for him to 1.15 million for her.
If the lead holds, Arizona would send two Democratic senators to Washington for the first time in almost 70 years, and provide further proof that the state has shifted from red to blue. It would also go a long way toward helping Democrats gain control of the Senate.
“I’m confident that when all the votes are counted, we are going to be successful in this mission,” Kelly said in a speech to his supporters Tuesday night in Tucson.
McSally’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday night, except for a tweet criticizing Fox News for calling the race for Kelly.
“With 1 million votes to be counted, and no Election Day results reported from Maricopa County, the decision to make a call at this point is irresponsible,” campaign spokesperson Caroline Anderegg said in a tweet.
It caps a high-profile, high-cost campaign that was the most expensive in Arizona history and the second-most expensive Senate race in the country this year, behind South Carolina, Kelly had raised $89.8 million as of Oct. 14 to McSally’s $56.9 million, according to the most recent reports with the Federal Election Commission.
Jason Rose, a Republican political analyst in Arizona, said the reason Arizonans are taking this race so seriously is because the state “has become a battleground state.”
“A Mark Kelly victory would be the second Democratic senator elected in two years,” Rose said, a reference to the 2018 race in which Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, beat McSally in her first bid for Senate.
“It would certainly cement the purple hue of the state,” he said. “The other most obvious thing is that this would potentially decide which party takes control of the Senate.”
Jacob Rubashkin, a reporter for Inside Elections, agreed.
“This is one of the four races that forms the bedrock for Democrats to take back a Senate majority,” Rubashkin said. “They need Kelly here.”
After losing to Sinema, McSally was appointed to fill the seat of the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who died in 2018. Rubashkin said the appointment is part of what has been hurting McSally with voters.
“If anything, right, they voted against her, and somehow she still ended up there,” Rubashkin said. “So you can imagine that there might even be a little bit of frustration among the electorate that they feel like we already dealt with this. We already answered this question. And the answer was no.”
Still, Rose said McSally is “a tremendous candidate, despite going 0-for-two.”
The campaign pitted two candidates with impressive back stories.
McSally, a former Air Force pilot, was the first woman to fly a jet in combat and successfully challenged a Pentagon rule that forced female soldiers to wear a burqa while serving in Saudi Arabia. First elected to the House from Tucson in 2014, she spoke out against sexual abuse in the military by revealing during a Senate hearing that she had been raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force.
Kelly, a Navy pilot, became an astronaut with his twin brother and flew several space shuttle missions. He married then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, who was severely wounded in a assassination attempt in 2011 that killed six and wounded 12 others. The attack made Giffords and Kelly high-profile proponents of gun control.
Going into Election Day, the regional director for the Republican Party, said the party felt confident about McSally’s chances. Keith Shipper said the party expected an Election Day surge of GOP voters and that “the enthusiasm is playing out exactly how we were hoping.”
Democrats are also feeling enthusiastic.
“There’s a clear choice in this election, and we’re seeing massive amounts of enthusiasm from a broad coalition of Arizonans who are turning out to vote for Mark and elect a senator who will put this state first in Washington,” Brad Bainum, a spokesperson for the Arizona Democratic Party, said in a statement Tuesday.
While the state could swing blue in this election, Rose does not think Democrats should get comfortable.
“If Democrats are as successful as they think they will be in this cycle, the pendulum will most likely swing back in Republicans’ favor in the next cycle,” he said.