The House GOP’s top recruit
By: Alex Isenstadt
June 9, 2014 06:52 PM EDT
TUCSON, Ariz. — She’s the first female Air Force fighter pilot to fly in combat, a retired colonel who once sued the Pentagon over a policy on Muslim dress, and a self-described moderate who rails against government overreach.
Republicans consider Arizona’s Martha McSally their top House recruit of 2014, and few have generated as much excitement in GOP circles.
The 48-year-old is battling for the highly competitive House seat from Arizona’s swing 2nd District, a position once held by Democrat Gabby Giffords, who gave it up after a near-fatal shooting in 2011. McSally is trying to oust Rep. Ron Barber, the former Giffords aide who also was wounded in the shooting and who barely beat McSally in 2012.
McSally, a die-hard athlete, has had her share of stumbles on the political field.
She’s been criticized for comparing herself to Giffords and accused of evading issues that might antagonize either base GOP voters or moderates, declining, for instance, to say if she would have voted for the deal that ended last fall’s government shutdown. Giffords is watching the race closely, and her well-funded pro-gun control super PAC is expected to pump money into the contest to shore up Barber, who describes McSally as being in “hiding” on the issues.
Fellow Republicans brush off concerns about McSally, preferring to focus on her lengthy résumé. That she is a woman doesn’t hurt, given the party’s struggle to elect more females.
“Her personal story is so powerful,” said Duff Hearon, a Tucson real estate developer and prominent GOP donor. “I think she’ll be in leadership early on.”
McSally says she doesn’t think much about about the hype (“I appreciate it, but I’ll leave the labels to others.”), and that it doesn’t add pressure (“No, God no.”). Sticking to talking points with military precision, she stresses she’s simply focused on the task at hand, “racing to the finish to replace Barber.”
At a time when moderates are an increasingly rare species in the GOP, the fact that McSally is running as one is crucial in a district with a long history of electing them.
The politicians who have won here, including Republican Jim Kolbe and Giffords, succeeded because they straddled the middle ground and sold themselves as independents. Democrats have held the district since Kolbe retired in 2006, and the GOP candidates who’ve fallen short here since then, many Republican strategists believe, did so because they cut a hard-line conservative image.
McSally has taken some positions, such as supporting the recent Democratic-sponsored equal pay bill, that collide with many on the right. During a recent meet-and-greet with constituents here, she was asked several times if she embraced the principles of the tea party. Each time, she pushed back.
“I need you to be pragmatic,” she told one questioner.
McSally also is making gender a central part of her campaign — a tactic, Republican strategists say, aimed at cutting into the Democratic Party’s traditional advantage among female voters.
When she’s on the trail, she stresses her female-related firsts in the military, while also noting women-related awards she’s won over the years. McSally’s first combat mission came in January 1995, when she flew into Iraq to help enforce the U.N.-backed no-fly zone. She retired from the Air Force in 2010 having flown more than 325 combat hours, including missions to Afghanistan post-Sept. 11, 2001.
McSally often tells audiences about how she sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over a requirement that female servicewomen wear a headscarf and an abaya, a traditional body-covering robe worn by many conservative Muslim women, when traveling off base in Saudi Arabia. McSally had internally asked for changes to the policy for years, but filed a lawsuit in late 2001 after spending some time being posted in the country. The policy was eventually overturned.
Still, in other areas, she hews more closely to standard GOP lines.
During her 2012 campaign, in a questionnaire from a conservative group, McSally said she supported repealing Obamacare and prohibiting abortion except when it was necessary to prevent the death of the mother. She also said she supported amending the Constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Few handicappers gave McSally a chance in 2012, when she launched two bids for the seat after Giffords, still recovering from being shot in the head, decided to step down in January of that year.
Following Giffords’ resignation, McSally returned to the U.S. from Germany, where she was teaching national security studies at the George C. Marshall Center. But she had little time to launch her campaign and introduce herself to voters.
She first ran in the special election, but failed to win the GOP nomination. Barber, who cut a sympathetic figure following the mass shooting that killed six and wounded 13, comfortably won the June race.
McSally tried again in the regularly scheduled November election, this time nabbing the Republican nod. She came so close to winning that it took more than a week for her race to be called. Out of more than 292,000 ballots cast in her contest with Barber, she lost by fewer than 3,000 votes.
In an interview over dinner at a Mexican restaurant, McSally said she is a better candidate this time around.
“Let’s review the conditions we had in 2012,” she said. “I had very little name ID. I was really starting from scratch and building the airplane as we were flying it. And we didn’t know it was going to be a bad night for Republicans until election night. But given all that, Barber won by .84 percent.”
McSally has demonstrated strength on the cash circuit, out-fundraising Barber in the past three consecutive quarters. (GOP leaders already have asked McSally to coach other congressional contenders on how to raise funds.)
Another advantage is that the general political climate is trending in favor of Republicans. Even Barber admits that President Barack Obama is a drag in the district.
“We’re not unlike the rest of the country. The president’s job approval has fallen quite low,” he said in an interview. “Clearly, this district does not favor the president or his policies for the most part.”
As she crisscrosses the district, McSally is painting the 68-year-old Barber, who spent 30 years overseeing Arizona’s developmental disabilities office before going to work for Giffords, as a stale, run-of-the-mill pol and “lifelong bureaucrat.”
Her introductory campaign video, meanwhile, shows her running through the Arizona desert. In an interview, she talked about breaking her kneecap while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and then “sucking it up” for two more days until she could get to a hospital. She even invited a POLITICO reporter along for a Sunday afternoon hike.
She talks in fast bursts, using phrases like “heck yeah.” And she promises voters she won’t be a “tired political hack” — a not-so-veiled reference to Barber.
Like many still new to the political scene, however, she’s had her share of blunders.
During her 2012 campaign against Barber, McSally was quoted as saying, “I resemble Gabby Giffords more than the man who worked for her, although I am grateful for his service.”
The comparison drew push-back from Mark Kelly, Giffords’ husband. “Martha McSally is no Gabby Giffords,” he said.
And last fall, the longtime Washington handicapper Stuart Rothenberg lit into McSally for refusing to say definitively whether she would have voted for or against the deal that ended the government shutdown, charging that it made her look like she was dodging the tough questions.
“McSally’s refusal to give an answer,” he wrote, “raises some disquieting questions about her and her campaign.”
Barber has latched on to that narrative.
“My opponent is hiding and people are wondering, basically, ‘What does she stand for?’” he said. “They know what I stand for. Whether they agree with me or not, they know who I am.”
In an interview with POLITICO, McSally declined to say whether she would’ve voted for the deal to reopen the government (“I’m against shutting down the government,” she said) or whether she supported Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s much-criticized budget plan (“I have concerns about the Ryan budget,” she said).
McSally shrugs off the notion she’s wishy-washy.
“When I have a staff and I’m in Congress, I’m going to do everything I can to actually help form the issues in front of us instead of having to answer, ‘Are you going to run on this? Are you going to run on that?’” she said.
Still, even Republicans who see much promise in McSally acknowledge she has a tough fight ahead and that there are no guarantees.
“If she doesn’t win, it doesn’t make a bit of difference, does it?” said Jim Click, the Arizona automotive king who is one of the GOP’s most prolific donors. “First, let’s get her elected, and then we’ll see what happens.”