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Martha McSally: Short general election was key factor in 2018 loss

Appointed after loss, Arizona Republican is running for remainder of McCain’s term

GOP Sen. Martha McSally is a top Democratic target in 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Arizona Republican Martha McSally said Tuesday that her unsuccessful Senate run in 2018 came down to one major factor: She ran out of time.

“We didn’t get a chance for [voters] to get to know me, what I’ve done all my life, what I did in the House,” McSally, a former fighter pilot, told reporters Tuesday. “We were very aware of these challenges at the time but we ran out of airspeed and altitude. And we weren’t defined and resilient enough.”

After losing to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema by 2 points last fall, McSally earned an appointment to the state’s other Senate seat, which became vacant last year after the death of longtime GOP Sen. John McCain. McSally is running in 2020 to serve the last two years of McCain’s term.

McSally won a divisive late August primary in 2018 and had a short window to shift to a general election. Arizonans, who largely vote by mail, can begin mailing ballots in early October. McSally, who represented a Tucson area district in the House for two terms, said she was largely unknown in the Phoenix area, which is the state’s largest media market.

Sinema, in contrast, did not face a primary and had much of the election — and the airwaves — to herself while McSally fought through her primary. That meant Sinema was able to craft a message early on, promising to be a moderate and independent-minded senator. Democrats also contend that Arizona voters rejected McSally because of her support for the GOP effort to repeal much of the 2010 health care law.

McSally met with female reporters Tuesday near the Capitol at a lunch organized by Winning for Women, which supports GOP women running for office.

The Air Force veteran pointed to her previous House campaigns when discussing her strategy for the 2020 Senate race. In 2012, she lost the GOP primary for a special election in the 2nd District, which opened up after Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords resigned a year after she was seriously injured in a shooting at a constituent event in Tucson.

McSally is now expected to face Giffords’ husband, Navy veteran and former astronaut Mark Kelly, in the Senate race.

The Arizona Republican was the 2nd District Republican nominee for the regular election in 2012, but narrowly lost to Democrat Ron Barber. She won a rematch with Barber two years later by fewer than 200 votes and went on to win re-election in 2016 by 14 points.

“The main reason that happened is because I did a good job, not because I immediately started campaigning,” McSally said of her 2016 win after earlier close races.

“So my approach is: Do a good job. Be a good senator. I’m mindful of the swirl that’s going on around me, but just like when I’m flying my A-10, I’m ignoring it, and I’m doing my job,” she said.

McSally is a top Democratic target in 2020, running in a state that President Donald Trump carried by 4 points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race a Toss-up.

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