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In economic arms race for Senate, Kelly's cash leads all congressional candidates

In economic arms race for Senate, Kelly's cash leads all congressional candidates

If you just can’t get enough of Sen. Martha McSally and astronaut-turned-politician Mark Kelly, you’re in luck.

Based on the amount of money flooding their campaigns, the Republican incumbent and her Democratic challenger will soon be everywhere — your television, your computer, your mailbox, maybe even knocking on your front door.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Kelly has raised more money so far than any other congressional candidate in the nation, while McSally ranks fourth in fundraising, setting up what many predict will be the most expensive election race in Arizona history.

The only other congressional candidates who have raised more than McSally are incumbent Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, and Democrat Amy McGrath, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.

No other sitting senator has pulled in more money than McSally has so far.

“More is always better, that’s why we’re happy Martha raised more in 2019 than any other Senator,” said McSally campaign manager Dylan Lefler in a written statement.

The Kelly campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.

“Martha McSally isn’t a bad fundraiser, but she’s nowhere near as good at it as (Kelly) is,” said Brendan Quinn, outreach manager for the center, which tracks money in U.S. politics through its website OpenSecrets.org.

Quinn said Kelly entered his first race for elected office with a built-in donor network and a great deal of fundraising experience, first as the husband of former three-term Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and then as a leader of Giffords PAC, a gun control group formed following the 2011 attack on his wife.

The political action committee spent nearly $7 million to aid Democratic congressional candidates in 2018, according to OpenSecrets.org.

In one possible sign of his built-in fundraising network, Kelly has raised $3.3 million more from individual out-of-state donors than McSally, according to donation receipts that both campaigns are required to report.

Quinn said all the cash pouring into the Arizona Senate race will almost certainly be used to pay for “a lot more” TV, radio, print and internet ads, yard signs and field offices around the state.

How effective that might be is an open question.

“I think there’s some point where more money stops having an effect,” said University of Arizona political science professor Barbara Norrander. “It’s just so saturated, but neither side wants to pull back.”

McSally and Kelly are expected to easily win their respective primary contests, then face each other in the general election. The winner will serve until January 2023, completing the senate term John McCain won in 2016, two years before his death.

Gov. Doug Ducey appointed McSally to McCain’s old seat in December 2018, a month after McSally lost her bid for Arizona’s other Senate seat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

Though McSally has been raising money and campaigning since last year, she officially launched her 2020 bid on Tuesday with a three-minute web video called “Inspire” about bipartisanship and overcoming adversity.

She followed that up a day later with her first TV ad, 30 seconds of ominous music and unflattering video painting Kelly as a liberal and attacking him for his support of the Trump impeachment.

The attack ad dropped one year to the day that Kelly launched his Senate campaign.

His camp marked the occasion with a press release Wednesday touting all that Kelly has done over the past year to connect with voters across the state.

Kelly’s $20.1 million and McSally’s $12.4 million already bring the race to within $11.3 million of the total raised during what currently ranks as Arizona’s most expensive political contest ever: the 2018 Senate race between McSally and Sinema.

That contest saw the two candidates raise $43.8 million and spend almost $45 million combined. The race also drew another $64 million in outside spending.

Norrander expects the same level of attention — if not more — this time around.

“I think this is going to be a race where you’re going to see a lot of outside money coming in,” she said.

Late last month, two leading gun control groups, Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety, announced plans to target McSally as part of a roughly $60 million campaign to elect what they call “gun-sense candidates” nationwide.

Quinn said he wouldn’t be surprised to see money dumped into the race from groups on both sides of the gun issue. “I doubt the (National Rifle Association) wants to see Mark Kelly in the Senate,” he said.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, McSally was the No. 2 recipient of money from gun rights groups in 2018, with $232,443 in contributions from individuals and PACs. The NRA has spent almost $300,000 on McSally throughout her congressional career.

The Senate race — and the state as a whole — can also expect a lot more attention from President Trump, who wants to keep the Republican majority in the Senate and hang onto Arizona’s 11 electoral votes. That could mean more money and attention for McSally from GOP donors.

If the 2020 election turns out to be a referendum on Trump, McSally will likely see her fortunes rise or fall with him, Quinn said.

Quinn said no one should be surprised if the money in the Kelly-McSally race sets records in Arizona — or even approaches the eye-popping totals racked up in the Senate contests in Florida and Texas in 2018.

New records seem to be set with each election, he said. “Every cycle we’re just seeing the maximum amount spent.”

The Center for Responsive Politics ranks the 2018 race between Florida Republican Rick Scott and then-Sen. Bill Nelson as the most expensive congressional contest in U.S. history with $213.4 million in combined spending by the candidates and outside groups. The Texas race between Sen. Ted Cruz and challenger Beto O’Rourke is considered the most expensive ever in terms of candidate spending with $124.7 million.

Why does it matter? Because money wins, Quinn said.

Analysis by the center shows that the top spending candidate won 85% of Senate races in 2016 and 88% of Senate races in 2018, though it’s worth noting that Cruz still managed to beat O’Rourke despite being out-spent nearly 2 to 1.

Based on the receipts so far, McSally might have to overcome a similar spending gap if she wants to hold onto her seat in the Senate.

Just don’t expect either candidate to go down without a well-funded fight.

“Be prepared for it to be one of the most expensive races in the country,” Quinn said. “It’s going to be insane. I don’t envy voters there.”

Norrander agreed.

“I think by the time it’s over, we’ll all be tired of it,” she said.

Star reporter Alex Devoid contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@tucson.com or 520-573 4283. On Twitter: @RefriedBrean

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