Congressional Record

Martha McSally Isn't a Moderate Republican (Anymore)

Congresswoman Martha McSally wore a flight suit while announcing her Senate run in an airplane hangar.
Congresswoman Martha McSally wore a flight suit while announcing her Senate run in an airplane hangar. Flickr/Gage Skidmore
About six weeks ago, this paper (and this reporter) described Representative Martha McSally as a "moderate Republican."

That was a mistake, and we apologize.

Since launching her run for Senate, the Tucson Republican has appeared determined to prove that she, too, can go on Fox News and complain about immigrants. Her campaign materials and public statements have been littered with references to MS-13, sharia law, and chain migration, like a racist version of Mad Libs.

She also wants you to know that she could kill a man. In January, upon learning that she was scheduled to sing the national anthem at a Phoenix Suns game, a reporter asked her a softball question: "Are you a trained singer?"

McSally's response? "No, I'm a trained killer."

Before entering Congress in 2012, McSally spent 22 years in the Air Force, much of that as a combat pilot. Her military background has been a major theme of her campaign: She wore a flight suit to her three launch events — held in Tucson, Phoenix, and Prescott — and flew in a World War II-era fighter plane from one to the other. It was kind of cool, if you were willing to overlook the fact that the whole purpose of said plane is to kill as many people as possible.

McSally has never promoted conspiracy theories about chemtrails or bragged about running a “concentration camp,” so she comes across as a slightly more reasonable alternative to the other two candidates in the Republican primary for Senator Jeff Flake’s seat. After all, she’s managed to spend three years in Washington without thoroughly embarrassing the entire state of Arizona, right?

That may still be true, but McSally appears to be rapidly abandoning her moderate, swing-district Republican stances. That is, if she ever believed in them in the first place — she's notorious for flip-flopping on basically every issue.

Take, for instance, young undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children. When she first ran for office in 2012, McSally said that she did not support the DREAM Act, giving the standard meaningless conservative answer about how we need to uphold “the rule of law.”

A few years later, though, something shifted. In 2015, she split with Republicans to vote against a bill amendment that would have defunded the DACA program. In a statement, she explained that while she didn’t agree with then-President Barack Obama’s decision to take unilateral action through an executive order, she was sympathetic to the plight of Dreamers:

It’s true that our immigration system is broken, and that the president’s unilateral actions have made it worse. But it is neither practical nor fair to deport young migrants who freely came forward, giving information such as fingerprints and home addresses to our government, under the auspices that they would be given deferred status. Those who came here through no fault of their own, have passed background checks, earned high school degrees, and are pursuing the American dream should not be punished for the president’s irresponsible action.

Then, this past September, a few days before Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally announced the end of DACA, she wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan, urging him to come up with a legislative solution that would protect DACA recipients. Her letter, which was signed by a handful of other Republicans, noted:

Since its inception, the federal government has approved approximately 795,000 initial DACA applications and 924,000 renewals. DACA recipients have contributed both to the U.S. economy and our society. Since being approved for DACA status, an overwhelming majority of these individuals have enrolled in school or found employment. Most have also increased their average earnings and many have served in the military, opened businesses or purchased homes [...] It would be wrong to go back on our word and subject these individuals to deportation.

The day before she formally announced her Senate run, McSally talked to Fox News about the future of DACA. This time, her tone was markedly different. Funding the border wall and ending the visa lottery had to be a priority, she said, “so that we make sure we’re not in a situation with 800,000 more DACA people in the next one, two, five, years.”

As Represent Me AZ, a Tucson-based Super PAC focused on attacking McSally, pointed out, “This is a classic racist dog whistle. It is the equivalent of saying ‘They are infesting our country,’ and is meant to rile up the racist base.”

Since then, she's doubled down on the dehumanizing rhetoric. On January 20, she wrote on Twitter that she was “disgusted” that Democrats had shut down the government, “choosing illegals over our American troops and 9 million children throughout this country relying on CHIP for healthcare.”

Those “illegals,” of course, are the same DACA recipients whose contributions to society she had been celebrating less than four months ago.

You don’t need a political science degree in order to figure out what’s happening here. In November 2016, Trump lost McSally’s swing district by five points while she won re-election. Up until that point, she’d occasionally criticized Trump, calling his proposed Muslim ban “ridiculous” and condemning his remarks in the infamous Access Hollywood tape.

Now that she’s entered the Senate race, though, McSally has to win over all of Arizona, which went for Trump by four points. Last year, she voted in line with Trump’s positions 97 percent of the time. He also makes an appearance in her announcement video, describing her as “my friend, Martha McSally.”

Veering to the right in hopes of ascending to higher office … sound oddly familiar? That's because it’s the same strategy employed by Kyrsten Sinema, who McSally will likely face if she wins the Republican primary.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.