Sen. Martha McSally and Democrat Mark Kelly face off in the special election for US Senate in Arizona

  • Sen. Martha McSally is running in a special election against Democrat Mark Kelly US Senate in Arizona.
  • McSally was appointed to serve in the Senate seat held by the former Sen. John McCain and is running to serve out what would have been the rest of his term until 2022. 
  • Kelly, a gun prevention advocate and former astronaut, is a prolific fundraiser and formidable opponent, making this election one of the most competitive US Senate races for Democrats. 
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Sen. Martha McSally is running in a special election against Democrat Mark Kelly for US Senate in Arizona.

The candidates: 

McSally, a former US House Representative, ran for an open US Senate seat to replace Sen. Jeff Flake in 2018 but lost to Sen. Krysten Sinema. 

Gov. Doug Ducey then appointed McSally to serve in the US Senate seat held by the legendary former Sen. John McCain, who died in office in 2018. Now, McSally is running to serve out the rest of McCain's term, slated to end in 2022. 

Shortly after McSally took office in January 2019, former Navy captain, astronaut, and gun violence prevention advocate Mark Kelly announced he would challenge her in 2020 as a Democrat. 

Kelly co-founded the organization now known as the Giffords Foundation with his wife, the former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and seriously injured while meeting with constituents in Tucson in January 2011. 

His campaign platform emphasizes expanding access to affordable healthcare, building up Arizona's economy, immigration reform, and protecting Social Security benefits for seniors. 

McSally is among the most talented fundraisers among the Republicans running for re-election this year, but she faces a tough match-up to catch up to Kelly. 

Right out of the gate, Kelly proved himself to be a formidable fundraiser, bringing in several million dollars per quarter. He raised an eye-popping $12.8 million in 2020's second quarter compared to $9.2 million for McSally.

The stakes:

In addition to winning back the White House, regaining control of the US Senate for the first time since 2015 is a top priority for Democrats and would be a major accomplishment towards either delivering on a future president Joe Biden's policy goals or thwarting President Donald Trump's second-term agenda.

Currently, the US Senate is made up of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two independents that caucus with Democrats, winning that Democrats need to win back a net total of four seats to have a 51-seat majority (if Biden wins, his vice president would also serve as president of the Senate and would be a tie-breaker vote). 

In her short time in the US Senate, McSally has aligned herself closely with Trump during her time in the Senate and taken conservative, pro-Trump stances, and has voted with Trump 95% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. 

And after previously being rejected by the voters in 2018, McSally now in an increasingly precarious position vying for a full term in a year where the electorate is poised to be far friendlier to Democrats. 

Thanks to Biden's strong performance among white, suburban, and senior voters, Arizona — once considered a Republican bastion — is now a tossup state in the electoral college. Biden leads Trump by 4.9 percentage points on average in Arizona, according to FiveThirtyEight's tracker of general election polls. 

The most recent poll of the race conducted by The New York Times and Siena College found Kelly leading McSally among voters over 65 by four points and leading among women, Latino voters, and white voters with a college degree, three more key demographic groups in the state, by double-digit margins. In the poll, McSally led Kelly among white voters and white voters without a college degree. 

Given the general trending direction of the state, some of McSally's weaknesses in expanding her support over 2018, and Kelly's strength as a candidate, Arizona could be the next best pickup opportunity for Democrats after Colorado.

The money race: Both candidates are prolific fundraisers. McSally has raised $30 million this cycle, spent nearly $20 million, and has $10.9 million in cash on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Kelly has raised $45.7 million, spend $24.5 million, and has $21.2 million in cash on hand.

Recently, McSally was criticized for joking at an event that supporters should "fast a meal" in order to give money to her campaign. 

What the polls say: Kelly has led McSally by a margin of four percentage points or more in every non-partisan poll conducted in 2020, according to FiveThirtyEight's tracker of Arizona Senate polls.

The New York Times/Siena poll conducted September 10-15 found Kelly leading McSally by eight points, 50% to 42% among likely voters. A Monmouth University poll conducted September 11-15 found Kelly leading McSally by six points about among registered voters and four points among high-turnout likely voters, while a previous Fox News poll conducted August 29-September 1 found Kelly leading by a remarkable margin of 17 percentage points, 56% to 39%, among likely voters. 

What the experts say: The Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics rate the race as lean Democratic, and Inside Elections rates it tilt Democratic.

According to FiveThirtyEight's US Senate forecast, Kelly has a 78% chance at defeating McSally in the November election. The forecast shows that Kelly is poised to receive 50% of the popular vote, 6% more than McSally.

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