With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Kelly led McSally with 53 percent of the vote to her 47 percent. The Associated Press called the race for Kelly shortly after 1 a.m. on November 4, the morning after Election Day. Fox News called the race for Kelly much earlier on election night.
At the Arizona Republican Party's election night watch party in downtown Chandler, Republican attendees were shocked by the double-whammy of Fox News calling Arizona for both Kelly and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
"I am completely shocked that Arizona went blue," said Kenneth Watkins, a Chandler resident and Trump supporter. "I always thought, whoever the presidential winner was in Arizona, the Senate will follow, and it looks like that was true to form."
McSally, a former Congresswoman and retired Air Force combat pilot, was appointed by Governor Doug Ducey in 2018 to fill John McCain's Senate seat after he died; she had previously lost the 2018 Senate election to current Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who then filled the seat vacated by Republican Jeff Flake.
McSally's race against Kelly had been considered key to winning the Senate for Democrats. Republicans currently control the U.S. Senate with 53 seats to Democrats' 47 (two independent Senators caucus with the Democrats). But Democrats fought for control of the chamber by targeting weak Republican incumbents in states like South Carolina, Colorado, Montana, Maine, and Arizona. But as of election night, only one seat in Colorado flipped blue, while Democrats lost a seat in Alabama, nullifying either party's gain.
As such, Arizona's U.S. Senate race has been one of the most expensive campaigns in the country. An estimated $210 million was spent on the Senate race by the campaigns and outside groups, according to OpenSecrets.org, making it the fourth most expensive Senate race in the nation during the 2020 election cycle. Only races in the Carolinas and Iowa witnessed larger infusions of money spent on electioneering.
Like the presidential race, the race has been remarkably stable despite the head-spinning quality of 2020. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest over racism and police brutality, an economic downturn, and the fight over filling Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat on the Supreme Court, Kelly has consistently led McSally in the polls.
Kelly's campaign consistently marketed him as a moderate and independent-minded Democrat while playing up his 'good guy' credentials as a former astronaut. He went hard at McSally with the standard playbook for moderate Democrats in the 2020 election: Healthcare and coronavirus. Democrats tied the Senator to President Trump's widely criticized handling of America's out-of-control COVID-19 outbreak and slammed her past votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Conversely, McSally and other Republicans tried to paint Kelly as a pawn of the far-left and "weak" on China, a punching bag for both parties in the 2020 election. At a recent debate between the McSally and Kelly, she repeatedly referred to him as "counterfeit Kelly" and dubbed him Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's "star recruit," a line that is similar to messaging about the dangers of a Democratic-controlled Senate that is being deployed by Republicans in other contested Senate races across the country.
A variety of factors play into McSally's poor showing. For one, Kelly's campaign outspent the Senator's reelection bid in both television and digital ads. Her steadfast support of Trump, a highly polarizing figure, may have also been a drag on her reelection bid.
Paul Bentz, vice president of research and strategy at HighGround, a Phoenix political consulting firm, told New Times that McSally's reelection campaign failed to sell voters on a personal narrative about the Senator and instead opted for attacks, while Kelly's team went all-in on projecting him as a well-intentioned moderate. He also noted their firm's polling shows that there was an "enthusiasm gap" among Republican voters between Trump and McSally.
"She has the same challenge now that she did two years ago, that she never really established herself as a candidate and as an individual beyond her military service to her general election audience," he said. "Negative campaigning brings your opponent down but it doesn’t bring you up. You actually have to invest in your message to get people to convert over to you."