Tim Steller

Tim Steller

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Rep. Martha McSally saw an opportunity to press a point with the GOP president she had not even endorsed, and she went for it.

In a meeting in the Oval Office earlier this year, McSally, a Tucson Republican, had a chance to talk with President Trump about the A-10 Warthog. That’s the fighter plane McSally flew in the Air Force that remains a mainstay, always needing federal budget protection, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

McSally recounted the story to a meeting of the Arizona Bankers Association in Tucson in a June speech that was secretly recorded by critics of hers. It has a renewed relevance now as she appears poised to leave her U.S. House seat to run for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate against a Trump devotee, Kelli Ward.

“So he said, ‘We’re still flying it (the A-10), right?’ ” McSally told the bankers, quoting Trump.

“And I said, ‘Well, the last administration wanted to put it in the boneyard.’ Which I said on purpose, right, because he doesn’t want to do anything the last administration did. I said, ‘The last administration tried to put it in the boneyard, but you’re going to have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands, Mr. President.’ I just was deciding to go big or go home.”

“And he says, ‘You just saved it.’ ”

The audience whooped in response to McSally’s story of success.

But Arizona’s electorate might not be as enthusiastic about her ambivalent approach to Trump, refusing to support him rhetorically while going along with his agenda in her votes. It’s a balance that has kept her options open, including a possible run for Senate, but also opened her up to attacks from both sides, as too resistant to Trump and too supportive of him.

After Trump won the GOP nomination last year, McSally declined numerous invitations to endorse him, and after the election was over, she declined to say whether she voted for him. Yet, she has voted with Trump’s agenda in Congress more than any other Arizona member of the U.S. House, according to the political data website FiveThirtyEight.com. They say McSally has voted in line with Trump’s position 96.1 percent of the time.

In the primary, McSally would be running against Ward, who has proclaimed herself the most MAGA (Make America Great Again) of the candidates. Before McSally has even officially announced her intentions to run for Senate, Ward’s camp and outside groups have been attacking McSally as insufficiently supportive of Trump and inadequately conservative.

The Great America Alliance, a Trump-supporting 501(c)(4) social welfare group, even set up a website called AmnestyMartha.com that attempts to portray her as too soft on immigration enforcement. “What does Martha McSally’s immigration record reveal? Supporting amnesty for illegals,” intones a husky male voice in an ad produced by the group.

The Club for Growth, too, has attempted to pre-empt a McSally run for Senate. And a variety of groups aligned with Trump and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon put out a letter asking her to stay out of the race.

Inevitably, if McSally joins the race, she will be hearing more about her lack of enthusiasm for the president and comments like this that she made at the bankers meeting: “If we could just take the Twitter account from the president, we could stop with some of the distractions that are going on. That would be helpful.”

Or her somewhat mocking way of dealing with the president in that meeting after he said that he saved money on the F-35 fighter craft.

“He’s talking about how he’s saved all this money,” McSally recounted. “I said, ‘Well the program’s had some problems earlier, but it’s on track now.’ ”

“He said, ‘Since I got elected.’ ”

“I said, ‘Well, it’s actually been on track for many years, sir, (McSally and the crowd laugh here) but you may have squeezed some efficiencies out of it. That’s great. We can use those efficiencies.”

And just as likely as McSally’s opponents using these comments against her, McSally’s supporters will tout her agreements with Trump to win her primary votes. In fact, it already started when McSally’s campaign chairman, Anthony Barry, responded to the Great America Alliance ad in a statement to USA Today.

“The real news is that Martha votes for the President’s agenda more than anyone else in Arizona,” Barry said. “Martha is one of the strongest members on border security in Congress as the chairwoman of the border security subcommittee.”

But what may work for McSally in the primary would likely be used against her in the general election. Likely Dem winner Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has a more centrist voting record than McSally, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s measure, voting with Trump’s position 50 percent of the time. That compares to Tucson Democrat Rep. Raul Grijalva’s score of 9.8 percent.

The Democrats have had long practice bashing McSally as a Trump enabler and will certainly roll that out if she wins the primary. In fact, McSally complained of that tendency in her speech to the bankers.

“There’s just an element out there that’s just so against the president, it’s like they can’t see straight. And all of a sudden on Jan. 20, I’m like his twin sister to them. I’m responsible for every single thing he does and tweets and says,” she said.

That’s the challenge for a candidate who refused to go all-in for a polarizing president but nevertheless largely supports his agenda.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter:

@senyorreporter