Aside from the noise of the attack ads and talking points, one question was looming over the nominees in the Arizona Senate race when they met in their debate.
Who’s the bigger hypocrite?
When Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema faced off on stage on Monday night for the only debate of the 2018 Senate race, each sought to brand her opponent as a liar – unworthy of the public's trust.
Exchanges grew testy at times. They attacked each other’s records on health care, immigration, and taxes in the hourlong debate moderated by Ted Simons of Arizona PBS and Maria Polletta of the Arizona Republic.
McSally’s repeated line when responding to Sinema: “That is just a flat-out lie.”
Sinema’s refrain while hammering home her reputation for independence: “Martha has chosen to be an apologist for whatever her party supports.”
Sinema, a three-term congresswoman in District 9 who represents Tempe and parts of metro Phoenix, has campaigned like an independent. A former Green Party spokesperson, Sinema was an antiwar activist and liberal state legislator during the early 2000s, before she tacked to the right during her career in Congress after voters elected her in 2012.
So, Simons asked of Sinema, what changed?
“Over the years, I’m proud to say that I have taken the time to learn and grow and occasionally even change my opinion,” Sinema said. Arizonans want someone in the Senate who puts their interests first, she added, not just those of the party leaders.
Sinema was eager to pivot to her opponent's political metamorphosis, though she didn't name a specific policy.
“Martha opposed many of these issues before running for Senate, but then changed her mind very quickly," Sinema said. McSally, she argued, “has shown that she will do or say anything to get elected.”
What about McSally – has she changed after a bruising primary?
“Absolutely not,” McSally said. She said she has consistently been leading on the issues of supporting the military and securing the border. “My record is clear and it’s consistent, unlike my opponent,” she said.
A two-term congresswoman from Tucson who was the first female combat fighter pilot in U.S. history, McSally defeated her hardline opponents in the Republican primary, embracing President Trump at every opportunity. But in doing so, McSally may have damaged her own credibility as an independent and moderate Republican – she didn't endorse Trump in 2016 and criticized him for his ugly remarks.
When asked if she was proud of the way Trump has conducted himself as president, McSally praised him.
“He’s a disrupter,” she said, pointing to the negotiations with North Korea and Trump’s focus on revising trade agreements. “He went to D.C. to shake things up, and he’s doing that.”
Pressed on Trump’s behavior in the White House, McSally didn’t budge.
“I’ve gotten to know him over the last year and a half, and he loves America, and he is fighting for Americans each and every day,” she said.
McSally and her allies have slammed Sinema for her antiwar activism, which they say denigrated veterans. From McSally's point of view, Sinema is a badly disguised radical leftist. And McSally sought to tie Sinema to the purported ideological goals of the Democratic Party.
“If [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer is in charge, it’s going to be open borders, it’s going to be government-run health care, and abolishing ICE [the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau], and everything that goes with that,” McSally said.
On health care, Sinema went after McSally over the Affordable Care Act, tying her opponent's vote to repeal President Obama’s signature health care law to striking down protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
“I voted to protect people with pre-existing conditions,” she said. “That is just a flat-out lie. We cannot go back to where we were before Obamacare.”
At times, Sinema also seemed to be in an awkward position in the debate, in spite of her stance that as a senator she will be "calling the balls and the strikes, not just blindly following what party leaders tell you to do.”
Sinema supports President Trump's position when voting on congressional legislation over half the time, including the strict immigration-sentencing bill known as Kate's Law. During the debate, Sinema brought up her support of Kate’s Law while discussing immigration – likely rankling left-leaning Democrats who were watching. (The bill has yet to be taken up for a vote in the Senate.)
Sinema raised her support for a variety of border-strengthening measures, and acknowledged that these measures could be combined with a border wall.
Increased technology will allow the U.S. to “actually interdict the dangerous cartels such as Sinaloa and MS-13,” Sinema said. And again, she went after McSally for distancing herself from previous efforts to provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
McSally, however, said that Congress needs to fix immigration enforcement. “I’m willing to do something on DACA, but we’ve got to close these loopholes," she said.
But McSally dodged, offering a confusing answer when asked whether the Trump administration made a choice as a matter of policy to separate families.
“The law on the books is to enforce the law,” she said. “I think we can all agree, families shouldn’t separated, but I think we can also agree, we need to enforce the law."
The definition of a country, McSally argued, is to control who is entering the borders.
The two candidates aim to make history as Arizona's first female senator and replace outgoing Republican Senator Jeff Flake. Right now, the race is a toss-up. A poll from CBS News/YouGov conducted during the first week of October showed Sinema leading McSally, 47-44, a result within the poll's margin of error of +/-3.5 percent.
Throughout the campaign, Sinema has remained relentlessly disciplined. Her comments are always on-message, no matter the setting – press gaggle, television appearance, radio interview – even if she appears tightly scripted. This debate was no different.
Recently, though, Sinema has weathered a daily barrage of attacks – only some of them grounded in reality – from right-wing corners of the internet, which seep into campaign missives and then the mainstream press.
Take, for example, the nightmarish holographic flyer sent by the Republican super PAC Defend Arizona, which showed a mushroom cloud erupting over downtown Phoenix accompanied by the text, "Kyrsten Sinema won't keep Arizona safe."
Other attacks from McSally and her political allies have used Sinema's offhand comments and past activism against her.
In this debate, McSally probably had more to prove. Trailing in most polls, she needed to land at least a few convincing hits on Sinema.
At the end of the debate, when McSally seemed to realize that she wouldn’t get a chance to talk about the military and veterans – the last question of the debate dealt with climate change and water – she seemed to lose her patience.
“We have to talk about the military, we have to talk about our veterans,” McSally insisted. “We haven’t had any opportunity.” Simons gave her an opening, and McSally brought up Sinema’s activist history of protesting in a pink tutu.
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She raised a crack Sinema made on a libertarian radio show in 2003, as the host argued a hypothetical, asking if she would oppose him joining the Taliban. ("I don't care if you want to do that, go ahead,” Sinema replied.)
McSally wheeled on Sinema, turning to face her directly for the first time in the debate and raising her hand in indignation. “I want to ask right now whether you’re gonna apologize to the veterans, and me, for saying that it’s okay to commit treason,” McSally said.
Sinema stared dead ahead.
“Well, Martha has chosen to run a campaign like the one you’re seeing right now,” she said icily. “Where she’s engaging in ridiculous attacks and smearing my campaign.”