PHOENIX — Kyrsten Sinema was rallying volunteers for the “exciting week ahead of us” when a campaign poster tacked to the wall behind her fell noisily to the ground.
“They’re coming for us, guys,” Sinema quipped before returning to her remarks on Saturday.
In fact, they’ve been coming for the third-term House Democrat ever since she sailed to victory in her late-August primary to replace the retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Sinema’s opponent, GOP Rep. Martha McSally, has tarred her as a liberal in centrist’s clothing, running ads contrasting the Republican’s Air Force service with the Democrat’s past as an antiwar activist clad in a pink tutu.
But the hits, like Sinema’s poster, don’t seem to be sticking. Polls show the race tied or Sinema with a narrow lead — in a state that’s remained red over the years even as it elects famously independent-minded Republicans such as Flake and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Arizona’s strong early vote totals have Sinema backers hopeful that she will be the first Democrat elected statewide since former Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-Ariz.) was reelected to a second term in 2006.
McSally betrayed a hint of frustration with what she called a disingenuous makeover by her opponent.
“Sinema has been on television since April 8 with tens of millions of dollars of ads portraying herself as right-of -center without ‘Democrat’ anywhere near her ads,” the two-term House Republican told POLITICO. “To people who are out there just living their lives — they’re not political activists — you can fool a lot of people with tens of millions of dollars pretending you’re something that you’re not.”
In fact, Sinema has shifted to the center since her 2013 arrival in the House, voting with President Donald Trump more than half the time and declining last month to call herself a “proud” Democrat. McSally prefers to invoke Sinema’s past as a Green Party spokeswoman, but also pointed to the Democrat’s opposition to Justice Brett Kavanaugh and her vote against last year’s GOP tax bill as signs that “even in the present, she’s out of step with Arizonans.”
Arizonans will decide on Tuesday whether McSally’s alignment with Trump is more in step with the state than Sinema’s sales pitch as a label-resistant coalition-builder. Sinema is hoping to capture GOP crossover voters who might also mark their ballots for Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.), who is poised to easily defeat a far more liberal Democratic opponent.
Mario Diaz, a veteran Democratic operative in the state who crossed party lines to work on the Ducey campaign this year, said that there is “no doubt” the GOP’s ads and attacks have helped tighten the race, but that Sinema is in a good position.
“If this is what you have, McSally, she’s withstood it,” Diaz said.
If Sinema wins, her key will have been a relentless focus on health care and education. Health care is a weak point for McSally, who has sought to downplay her vote for the House GOP Obamacare repeal bill that would have stripped the health care law’s popular protections for those with preexisting conditions.
As for education, a teachers’ strike in the state earlier this year galvanized political engagement among women like Kathy Hoffman, a 32-year-old newcomer who won a contested Democratic primary in the race for state superintendent of public instruction.
On the sidelines of Sinema’s canvass launch at a community center in a Democratic-leaning Phoenix neighborhood, Hoffman said that Republicans in her local race also are “trying to call me a radical or trying to present me in a radical way, but I just stay focused on the issues. I think Kyrsten Sinema is doing the same thing.”
Sinema agrees. Asked about what’s kept the race so close despite the bombardment of attacks on her — a purple shift in Arizona politics, perhaps, or a backlash against the GOP’s negative ads — she returned to health care and education.
“Arizonans know me, and they know my record,” the 42-year-old Democrat told POLITICO. “That’s what’s making the difference in this campaign.”
If McSally can keep the Senate seat red in an otherwise rocky year for her party, it’ll be because of the robust Trump-era economy that she touted this weekend — and her steely presence as the nation’s first female fighter pilot to fly in combat. Her appeal to veterans was on full display at a Sunday pancake breakfast Sunday in Prescott, the rural town where conservative icon Barry Goldwater famously kicked off his Senate and presidential campaigns.
“McSally has had some of the same leadership training that I’ve had, so I would vote for her in a heartbeat,” Air Force veteran Robert Shanks, 77, said.
Ducey invoked Arizona’s best-known veteran-turned-senator on Sunday in citing McSally’s “commitment to the military mission … because we are missing the influence of Sen. John McCain.” But the governor also name-checked two Arizona Democrats, Napolitano and former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, as he declared to reporters that McSally “has that independent spirit that will reflect the state’s values.”
McSally did survive a rough primary against two more conservative opponents, onetime state senator Kelli Ward and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In a radio ad, however, Ward touts McSally as best positioned to mend “the damage done by Obamacare.” The GOP nominee also has benefited from appearances by Trump as well as his eldest son, lending her campaign more of a White House imprimatur than a stamp of independence.
With the exception of former Vice President Joe Biden, Sinema has largely eschewed campaigning with big-name Democrats in favor of smaller grass-roots events. Earlier this year, she told that she wouldn’t support Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). But two prominent liberals in the caucus, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), have come to Arizona for Sinema fundraisers, according to invitations viewed by POLITICO.
While McSally faced her own primary-season challenge to corral GOP support, Sinema has encountered some grumbling on the left about whether she’s progressive enough to capture the state’s Democratic base.
“I know some people who are very, very left-leaning — they’re not necessarily as happy with what she’s voted on before,” Monica Pimentel, the Democratic chairwoman of a state legislative district, said during the party’s weekend canvassing event. “But I think that she’s also pulling in the moderate Republicans.”
Justin Unga, Arizona state director for the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said that he’s “not personally concerned about” Sinema’s shift to the right in the House.
“She wants to represent the entire electorate, and the only way she can do that is by working with the other side of the aisle,” Unga said.
Despite the race’s continued closeness after multiple hits on Sinema, Republicans haven’t given up the battle to define her as too liberal. Arizona GOP Chairman Jonathan Lines described her in a Friday interview as “a progressive liberal masquerading as a moderate.”
What Sinema may not be — even as she sprinted towards the election in two ways, completing a half-marathon on Sunday — is as good a singer as McSally, who belted the national anthem before Arizona State University’s homecoming football game on Saturday.
Sinema happened to be in the stadium for her opponent’s rendition. The Democrat flashed the famed hand signal of her alma mater ASU before calling the pregame coin toss. And the home team won.