Rep. Martha McSally told her fellow Arizona Republican House colleagues Monday that she plans to run for the state’s newly open Senate seat.
The Arizona political outlet Yellow Sheet Report first reported the news Monday night, followed by The Arizona Republic the following day. Three sources with knowledge of the discussion confirmed the reports.
McSally, who represents Arizona’s 2nd District, emerged as a top candidate to succeed GOP Sen. Jeff Flake after he announced last month he would not run for re-election. It is not clear when she will officially announce her Senate campaign. But McSally is already facing criticism from some outside conservative groups for her immigration positions.
The pro-Trump group Great America Alliance launched a website and a digital ad Friday accusing the congresswoman of “supporting amnesty for illegals.” The group’s chairman, Eric Beach, is also a strategist for former Republican state Sen. Kelli Ward, who launched a primary challenge against Flake before his retirement announcement.
McSally campaign manager Anthony Barry countered the group’s ad, telling USA TODAY that his boss’s voting record aligns with President Donald Trump. He pointed out that she voted to strip funds for so-called sanctuary cities, which do not honor federal immigration laws. McSally also chairs the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee on the Homeland Security Committee.
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A coalition of conservative groups including the Club for Growth PAC and FreedomWorks announced last month that they would oppose McSally’s candidacy if she ran, accusing her of being too liberal.
McSally could face a crowded Republican primary field. Besides Ward, who was endorsed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul last week, Arizona Board of Regents member Jay Heiler has formed an exploratory committee. Other potential contenders include former GOP Rep. Matt Salmon and state Treasurer Jeff DeWit.
Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar told reporters off the House floor Tuesday that he is still considering running for Senate. GOP Reps. David Schweikert and Trent Franks have ruled out runs. Candidates have until May 30 to file for the race and will face off in an Aug. 28 primary.
Schweikert signaled Tuesday that he was not concerned about a divisive GOP primary.
“It’s just what we do,” he said. “It’s the nature of every election."
Schweikert said McSally does have a “great profile” for the state.
“She’s from the right part of the state, she has some fairly impressive history,” he said. “Being able to say a female, 300-some combat flying hours, it’s just a great story to tell.”
McSally was first elected to the House in 2014 from a swing district that includes parts of Tucson and stretches along the southern border with Mexico. She is a former Air Force pilot and the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat.
A prolific fundraiser, McSally would enter the race with $1.4 million in cash on hand. But that still pales in comparison to the likely Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. She had $4 million in the bank at the end of the most recent fundraising quarter, according to Federal Election Commission documents.
Even before she had officially entered the race, Democrats were already tying McSally to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Mitch McConnell’s Martha McSally — who has already earned the ire of conservatives — will take up the same establishment campaign that forced Senator Jeff Flake to sprint out the door, and this attempted coronation will only continue the GOP civil war in Arizona,” Herschel Fink, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said in a statement Tuesday.
McSally’s impending Senate run also opens up a competitive race for her House seat. Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the 2nd District by 5 points last fall, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. But voters narrowly supported Republican presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012.
McSally unseated Democratic Rep. Ron Barber by just 167 votes in 2014 but handily won re-election last year by nearly 44,000 votes, or 14 points. Barber had succeeded his former boss, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 at a constituent event.
One GOP source said potential contenders for McSally’s House seat include Lea Márquez-Peterson, president of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Juan Ciscomani, a senior adviser for regional and international affairs for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey; and Douglas city Councilman Danny “DJ” Morales.
Democrats are hopeful that McSally’s exit will help them regain the seat next year. Former 1st District Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate last year, moved into the district to challenge McSally. Matt Heinz, last year’s losing nominee, is also in the race, along with a handful of other Democrats.