Will a Sanders nomination sink Mark Kelly?

February 26, 2020 10:26 am

Mark Kelly. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The number one question posed by Arizona political reporters of late is whether a Bernie Sanders nomination spells doom for Mark Kelly, the presumptive Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

The answer is a resounding no.

A number of pundits believe Sanders harms Kelly because Sanders is just too liberal for purple Arizona. They audibly gasped when Kelly said he’d support Sanders if he became the eventual Democratic nominee, and worried Kelly’s independent image would be tarnished by having Sanders at the top of the ticket.  

Critics insist the only way Mark Kelly can defeat Republican Martha McSally is if he follows Senator Krysten Sinema’s campaign playbook to a tee, refusing to endorse anyone in the presidential contest and remaining as politically neutral as possible.

But that analysis makes several dubious assumptions.

The first is that Arizonans will vote a straight party ticket in November.  

Conservatives – and some Democrats – believe Sanders cannot possibly sway enough Arizona moderates to win the state. They may be correct. Though I believe there are several Democrats who could win in Arizona, I have a difficult time believing Sanders is one of them.

But then again, Trump is the most polarizing politician in modern times, and some voters might be more motivated by a vote against Trump than a vote in favor of a progressive Democrat.

What’s more likely, though, is for Never Trumpers to vote for a third party or write-in candidate. That still gives Trump the win in Arizona’s presidential contest, but it doesn’t automatically correlate to a Kelly defeat.

Remember, it was moderate suburban women, specifically those who had soured on Trump and wanted a check on the president, who split their tickets and voted for Republican Doug Ducey for governor and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema for U.S. Senate in 2018.

If McSally wants to turn the tables against Kelly, then she needs to win back many of the swing voters she previously alienated.

Good luck with that one.

In 2018, McSally made a big gamble. She bet on Trump, throwing her moderate image to the wind and embracing the president and his controversial policies.

Since then, she’s become even more of a Trump loyalist, defending him against impeachment before the Senate trial ended and adopting his narrative against inconvenient facts and a free press by decrying #FakeNews and referring to reporters and the Arizona media as “liberal hacks.”

During last week’s Trump rally in Phoenix, she declared her intent to fly on Trump’s wing. She obviously believes it’ll carry her to victory this time around, but I think it’s more likely to crash and burn.

Why would voters who rejected McSally in 2018, either because of her close alignment with Trump or her lack of independence from partisan politics, find her more palatable now?

I don’t believe they will, nor do I think her efforts to paint Kelly as a “Bernie Bro” will stick.

Arizona’s voters aren’t stupid. They can differentiate between progressive and moderate candidates, just as they did in 2018. And if we use Kelly’s most recent campaign ad as a guide for how he’s planning to define himself, it’s clear he’s going in a much different direction than McSally. 

He’s not planning to be a wingman for Bernie Sanders or any Democratic presidential contender. Instead, he seems quite comfortable charting his own course.

I’m betting his course is the one Arizona voters will endorse.

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Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.