If there was any question that Arizona’s 2020 Senate race would be one of the nation’s hottest, it was answered this week with an emphatic “yes” when second-quarter Federal Election Commission reports were released.

Republican incumbent Sen. Martha McSally and her likely Democratic challenger, Mark Kelly, reported raising a total of just under $13.9 million in the first six months of this year and had a combined $10.3 million on hand for an election that’s still 16 months away.

“We’re going to have a front row seat to one of the most competitive races in the country,” Arizona political consultant Michael Noble said of the Senate race.

Inside Elections rates Arizona as one of two “toss-up” Senate races next year, along with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner’s defense of his seat.

Arizona is seen as in-play after last year’s election of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema – a race in which she beat McSally and gave the state its first Democratic senator in more than two decades.

Money poured into that race, with almost $118.7 million spent by the candidates and by political action committees on their behalf. The 2018 Arizona Senate race was the fourth-most expensive in the country, according to opensecrets.org.

After narrowly losing to Sinema, McSally was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to fill the seat of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, who died in 2018. McCain’s term does not end until 2022, but because she was appointed to the seat, McSally has to stand for re-election next year to the last two years of the term.

Kyle Kondik, political managing editor at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said all that has made Arizona “something of a swing state.”

“After narrowly beating McSally in 2018, Democrats now see Arizona’s other Senate seat as pivotal to winning a Senate majority,” Kondik said in an email. “Likewise, Republicans know that if they can hold it, they likely will hold on to the majority.”

Kelly, a retired astronaut and the husband of former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, has managed so far to outraise McSally. He reported raising $4.2 million in the second quarter, bringing his total to $8.4 million for the year and leaving him with $5.9 million cash on hand as of June 30.

McSally – an Air Force veteran and the first U.S. woman to fly in combat, who served two terms in the House – raised $3.4 million in the quarter, for a total of $5.5 million this year, with $4.4 million in the bank, according to FEC filings.

Leah Askarinam, a political analyst at Inside Elections, said that besides seeing a vulnerable incumbent in McSally, Democrats are excited at the prospect of a Kelly candidacy that could mirror Sinema’s moderate image. But she noted that McSally is not likely to face a primary challenge as she did in 2018.

“There was some concern earlier in the cycle that McSally could struggle in fundraising just in terms of generating enthusiasm after a major statewide loss,” Askarinam said Friday. “But I think these numbers show she’s a serious contender and she’s going to run a real campaign.”

But Noble said Democrats are “incredibly motivated.” He said it’s surprising that Kelly, a Democrat who has never run for office and does not have campaign infrastructure in place, is pulling ahead of a McSally, a political veteran in a predominantly Republican state like Arizona.

“To see a Democrat out-fundraising a Republican is probably the most surprising thing on this level,” Noble said.

Bill Scheel, a partner at political consulting firm Javelina, said Kelly and McSally have raised more than some Democratic presidential candidates this year.

“You see Kelly with really strong numbers and surpassing McSally and it’s impressive from the Democratic perspective,” Scheel said.

He added that Kelly has more than 100,000 donors, the sort of “great grassroots support” that Scheel said candidates need these days.

“When you have that many donors this early in small amounts, you can keep going back to those folks again and again for $60-$100 at a time,” Scheel said. “It tells us that Kelly is going to have all the money he needs to run a very effective race against McSally.”

Jen Cox, Kelly’s campaign manager, said Friday that the donations show that “when you elevate Arizonans’ voices over corporate PACs, people respond, they want to be part of this mission.” Kelly has vowed not to take money from corporate political action committees.

Terry Nelson, general consultant for McSally’s campaign, countered by noting that the senator’s fundraising has been driven by small donors, with 85% of individual contributions being less than $100. “Martha’s strong fundraising shows the momentum and strength behind her campaign,” Nelson said.

But neither candidate appears to be lacking for funding at the moment: Kelly and McSally were first and second in the country, respectively, in second-quarter Senate fundraising, eclipsing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who raised around $3.1 million in the quarter.

Noble said this is only the “tip of the iceberg,” and believes there will be even more money spent on this race than in 2018.

“We have never been a competitive or a battleground state,” Noble said. “When you add those two together, I don’t see how you don’t have a historic election.”


Story by Miranda Faulkner, Cronkite News