Under siege, McSally pleads for outside help on the airwaves

By: - January 3, 2020 4:38 pm

Martha McSally speaks at a rally for President Donald Trump in October 2018, during the final weeks of her campaign for the U.S. Senate. McSally, a Republican, lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

WASHINGTON — Sen. Martha McSally, who’s in one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country, is encouraging outside groups to run ads defending her position on health care, according to audio obtained by the Arizona Mirror

During a December conversation with Republicans in Legislative District 11, McSally expressed frustration with a barrage of ads against her and insisted she wants to protect health care for people with pre-existing conditions. Her comments came as polls show she’ll likely face a tight race against retired astronaut Mark Kelly, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the Senate seat.

“Look, the attack ads are a lie,” she said when asked whether she supports people with pre-existing conditions getting access to health insurance. The ads have assailed her vote opposing an effort to overturn a Trump administration policy that allows states to ignore certain requirements of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.  

McSally said at the GOP gathering, “We don’t have the resources to fight. If I went up on TV right now, my campaign coffers would be empty. If we’re going to fight back with a TV ad, it’s going to cost us millions of dollars.”

Kelly has outraised McSally so far in his bid to unseat her. The next round of fundraising reports is due to be released later this month. 

McSally suggested last month that outside groups should pitch in to help. 

“We need close air support to show up. There’s outside groups. We can’t talk to them. We can’t invite them, but we pray for them every day. We need conservative outside groups, you know, to wake up, and get involved, and start muddying up the landscape a little bit, so I’m not just sitting here taking incoming and not having any A-10s show up, you know overhead, to help me out.” 

Republicans close to McSally warned late last year that the absence of air cover from the party and affiliated groups was putting her seat at risk, the Washington Examiner reported

McSally’s campaign office and her U.S. Senate office did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

Health care was a major issue in McSally’s 2018 campaign, which she lost to Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Gov. Doug Ducey later appointed McSally to fill the late Sen. John McCain’s old seat. She’s now running to serve the final two years of the term he was re-elected to in 2016. 

“I did vote to repeal and replace Obamacare on that House bill — I’m getting my ass kicked for it right now because it’s being misconstrued by the Democrats,” she said during the campaign. “They’re trying to, you know, invoke fear in people who have family members or loved ones with pre-existing conditions.”

Democrats and outside groups intend to continue to pressure her on the issue throughout this year’s Senate campaign. 

“Arizonans know that Martha McSally can’t be trusted on health care issues, and no amount of spending from corporate interest-funded donors and outside groups can erase McSally’s long record of voting to increase health care costs and strip away coverage protections for Arizonans who have a pre-existing condition,” said Brad Bainum, a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party. 

Coordination rules

Federal campaign finance law prohibits coordination between outside groups and political campaigns, but those rules are often stretched and they’re difficult to enforce. 

McSally’s remarks could potentially run afoul of those rules, according to Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the government watchdog group Common Cause. 

“In my view, Senator McSally’s comments meet a really important part of the federal law coordination test: the conduct standard,” Ryan said. “Senator McSally has requested or suggested that outside groups buy ads supporting her. If an outside group hears that suggestion and and acts on it to buy ads to support Senator McSally, then the campaign finance laws would seemingly have been broken.” 

That would be difficult to prove, Ryan added, because it would require proving beyond a reasonable doubt that an outside group made the ad buy in response to McSally’s request. 

Enforcement of campaign finance violations is also at a standstill because the Federal Election Commission — the agency charged with doing so — lost its necessary quorum last year. 

Adav Noti, the senior director of trial litigation at the Campaign Legal Center and the former associate general counsel for policy at the FEC, said McSally’s comments could be permitted under federal law. 

“It would depend on the content of the support that she’s envisioning. If it were truly, purely issue-based, that would probably be permissible,” he said. However, he added, “any time you say, ‘I’m not allowed to do this, but …’ it indicates some consciousness of guilt.” 

Ryan, of Common Cause, said McSally’s comments point to problems with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the Citizens United v. FEC case, which enabled outside groups to make unlimited expenditures in federal elections. 

“The Supreme Court did so on the basis that there would be no coordination between candidates and outside groups,” Ryan said. 

“Senator McSally’s remarks make clear that they don’t take that need for independence very seriously,” he added. “Senator McSally is asking for help from outside groups and is likely to get it, and she of course will know which outside groups have come to her rescue, provided her with this air cover and she will also likely know where they got the money to do it.” 

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.