McSally concedes to Kelly, capping costly and high-profile Senate race

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., conceded Friday to Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, 10 days after the polls closed and the ballot count left her no path to victory. Political veterans say the numbers usually take the concession decision out of a losing candidate’s hands – but that doesn’t make the “very personal … very emotional” decision any easier. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, conceded Friday to Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, whose heavily funded campaign ousted the sitting Republican to give the state two Democratic senators for the first time in almost 70 years.

McSally’s concession came 10 days after polls closed, ending the most expensive race in state history, when it became clear that she could not close the gap with outstanding ballots that remained.

“With nearly all the votes counted, I called Mark Kelly this morning to congratulate him on winning this race,” McSally said in a statement released early Friday afternoon. “I also offered support in his transition to ensure Arizonans are best served during this time. I wish him all the best.”

As of Friday, McSally had 1,635,352 votes to Kelly’s 1,714,466 – a gap of 79,114 ballots with just 6,670 uncounted, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.

Political veterans say the decision to concede or not is basically a numbers game, as McSally noted in her call to Kelly – but that doesn’t make it any easier to do.

While polls and counted votes often make the decision to concede clear, it is also “a very personal and very emotional one,” said Jim Kolbe, a Republican who represented the Tucson area in Congress for more than two decades.

“It’s never easy to do something like that,” said Kolbe, who conceded in 1982 to Democratic Rep. Jim McNulty. “It’s kind of like a personal rejection for you – the voters have personally rejected you.

“But it’s the thing you do and the thing we have traditionally and normally done in American politics is the loser congratulates the winner,” he said.

Traditional and normal have not applied for much of this election, however, and the concession is no different. While some losers have conceded, others have been silent – or defiant.

President Donald Trump has rejected calls to concede to Joe Biden, who was declared president-elect by major news organizations a week ago. He has insisted that all votes must be counted, and has launched legal challenges to the vote in states where he is trailing.

Democrat Hiral Tipirneni conceded her bid to unseat Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, after an election night lead slipped away in later return. While it took McSally close to another week to concede, Charlie Black said that may only have been because candidates often “just want to see every vote through even if they know it won’t go their way.”

Black has first-hand experience, as a senior political adviser to former Sen. John McCain’s failed 2008 presidential campaign. While conceding is not easy to do, he said the numbers often take the decision out of the candidate’s hands.

“With the great majority of campaigns, there is a margin significant enough that the loser can’t hold out hope of recovering in a recount or legal proceedings,” said Black, who calls conceding “part of politics.”

It was part of the 2018 race for Senate between McSally and eventual winner, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Despite having a lead on election night, McSally conceded in a Twitter video the following Monday – accompanied then, as now, by her dog, Boomer.

“I just called Kyrsten Sinema and congratulated her on becoming Arizona’s first female senator after a hard-fought battle,” McSally said. “I wish her all success.”

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While concessions can be private, they are often public. Or both, like McSally’s to Kelly on Friday.

Black points to McCain’s 2008 concession to Barack Obama as “one of the greatest in history.”

“In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance,” McCain said. “It is natural tonight to feel some disappointment, but tomorrow we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again. We fought – we fought as hard as we could.”

Black said the conversation about conceding usually begins once a campaign realizes there is “almost no way to get the points back.”

“McCain went from even to about nine points down, like in two days,” Black said of the 2008 race. “So for the rest of the campaign, he was able to fight back sort of close to Obama, but not really even give up, but we didn’t really think we’re going to win. So it was really a decision that was made for him.”

For Christine Porter Marsh, who conceded after losing a tight race for Arizona State Senate in 2018, “There really was no discussion to be had. The votes were counted, it was done.”

Marsh, who lost to Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, by just 267 votes, said the only reason she waited was that “the votes were so close.”

“So I conceded right away, like when the votes were all tallied, I conceded. Had it been absolutely clear sooner then I definitely would have conceded sooner,” she said.

Kolbe said he called McNulty to congratulate him and concede in their 1982 race about 1 a.m. on election night. After that, he spoke to his remaining supporters.

“Most of them had gone home. But there was still press around,” Kolbe said. “And so, yes, after I made the call (to McNulty), I spoke to the press and let them know that I had just had a conversation with my opponent and conceded the election, and wished him well for his, for the future for his term in office. Then I went home.”

Former astronaut Mark Kelly raised $89.8 million for his campaign to Sen. Martha McSally’s $56.9 million, making Arizona’s the second-most expensive Senate race in the country this year – and giving the state two Democratic senators for the first time since the 1950s. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

Marsh said she doesn’t remember much of her conversation with McGee – “I remember it was friendly, though” – but the call itself wasn’t as important as the acknowledgment of the voters’ decision that it represented.

Kolbe said a concession affects more than just the two candidates.

“There’s a close-knit group around a candidate, including family and senior campaign people and friends who are very likely with them,” he said. “After talking to them, first thing you do is call your opponent then go to make a public statement.”

While concessions are not required, legally or ethically, they are part of the political norm. But Black said in the final analysis they’re “not that important.”

“When it’s over, it’s over. Everybody knows that,” he said. “You don’t have to (concede). I mean, how you handle it tells you something about the person, but they’re still a loser.”

But Kolbe said it’s “essential to bring closure for yourself, and for the public, and for your supporters.”

“You have come to the conclusion that you did not win this election, and you close the door on that and move on to the next chapter,” said Kolbe, who went on to win election to the House 11 times.

“Our country is founded on the process of democratic elections and the voters making these decisions,” he said. “If we leave them constantly in doubt, and never concede the election, we simply undermine the very foundation of democracy, which is the election process.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Catherine Fusillo is from Houston and expects to graduate with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and political science. She has been a political reporter at the State Press and an intern at KUHF in Houston.