Flyers stuffed into mailboxes across the state depicting downtown Phoenix being vaporized in a nuclear blast to criticize one Senate candidate’s record will likely top off one of the ugliest political fights in Arizona.

More than 54 years since the infamous “Daisy” ad used similar imagery to lambaste another Arizonan — Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater — thousands of mailers sent out last week by the DefendArizona political action committee attacking Democrat Kyrsten Sinema were accepted as fair criticism by Republicans backing her rival, Republican Martha McSally.

McSally said the ad went too far.

With both Democrats and Republicans keeping a close eye on Arizona as part of their larger calculus of which party will control the U.S. Senate after the midterm elections, tens of millions of dollars have been poured into a race that has featured the two congresswomen lobbing charges at each other for the better part of the last year.

Outside groups have already spent more than $29 million on the race, reports the Center for Responsive Politics. DefendArizona has spent $12.7 million, primarily attacking Sinema.

It also spent $2.7 million on negative ads that were critical of McSally’s main rival in the Republican primary, Kelli Ward.

To put it in perspective, the spending by DefendArizona is more than the entire Sinema campaign, which has put $10.3 million into the Senate run. McSally’s campaign, which launched in January, has spent $5.7 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

McSally is a retired Air Force colonel first elected to Congress in 2014 after defeating then-Rep. Ron Barber here in Tucson. Sinema is a former social worker and attorney from Phoenix who was first elected to the Arizona Legislature in 2004 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012.

In Arizona, where Republicans have a significant registration advantage over Democrats, both women have been intensely condemned for moving to the political right from their relatively centrist voting records in congress.

Would the real McSally please stand up?

When McSally announced she wouldn’t seek another term in the competitive Congressional District 2 in favor of running for Jeff Flake’s Senate seat, many political observers noted McSally quickly sought a closer relationship with President Trump.

Less than two years ago, McSally routinely brushed aside reporters’ questions about then-candidate Trump, saying she was focusing on legislating, not politics.

McSally announced last week that President Trump would come to Arizona to help her on the campaign trail. Trump will be in Mesa on Friday.

On the campaign trail, Trump is a frequent topic as McSally reminds voters of her close working relationship with the president.

“What’s changed is he’s now in the White House. He’s the commander in chief, and we have this historic opportunity to move the country in a direction that provides a stronger economy, more opportunities for people, rebuild our military, secure our border, so that’s what’s changed,” she said.

Her critics also point to her taking her name off of the DACA Recognizing America’s Children Act earlier this year, which offered a path to permanent legal residency for “dreamers,” children brought to the United States illegally by their parents.

McSally instead put her weight behind the Securing America’s Future Act, which she helped to co-author. The legislation, which failed to get out of the House, replaces the guidelines for long-term legal residency with renewable residency permits.

McSally pushes back on the narrative, essentially calling it fake news, saying she is willing to back measures that will at least move the needle on DACA.

“(I’ve been) willing to stick my neck out saying, ‘I’m leading on this issue,’ and I’m willing to show that it’s not everything I wanted, but at least we’re moving it forward when no one else would vote yes on that thing,” McSally told the Arizona Daily Star last week.

“I think it showed that I haven’t changed and I’m willing to still lead on these issues and get things done.”

Both Sinema and her Democratic allies have repeatedly attacked McSally on health care.

A new round of ads, paid for by the Arizona Democratic Party, claims McSally has repeatedly lied to voters about protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions.

McSally argues that her enemies are twisting her words, taking one vote out of a broader context.

McSally backs repealing the Affordable Care Act, saying she wants the private sector to offer better solutions while still protecting those with pre-existing conditions.

“The individual health insurance market has collapsed,” McSally said. “More people paid a penalty last year than actually bought the crappy health insurance plans.”

Asked about a recent Senate vote that was designed to eliminate short-term health-care plans that don’t cover pre-existing conditions that failed on a 50-50 vote, McSally said she wasn’t familiar with the legislation.

But Democrats argue that McSally’s faith that private insurance groups that will voluntarily cover those with pre-existing conditions is misplaced.

In terms of her voting record, McSally votes with the Trump administration 97.8 percent of the time, according to statistics site FiveThirtyEight.com.

Among the times when she broke with the administration were votes in 2017 to impose sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea.

McSally’s main campaign platforms include securing the border and backing a new border wall, supporting the state’s military bases and focusing on support for veterans.

Is there still a pink tutu
in Sinema’s wardrobe?

Before the mailer featuring downtown Phoenix getting leveled by a nuclear blast, one of the most memorable attacks against Sinema in the Senate race featured a decades-old video of her wearing a pink tutu.

The political ad contrasted McSally’s record in the military at a time when Sinema took part in anti-war protests.

“Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11,” McSally said in the 30-second ad. “I was deployed to the Middle East. I led air strikes against the Taliban and was the first woman to fly a fighter jet in combat.”

While the ad references 9/11, the image of Sinema wearing a pink tutu coincided with Women’s International Day, not an anti-war protest.

In an interview with the Star days before the controversial nuclear-bomb flyers hit mailboxes, Sinema said the race was getting ugly.

“I am pretty disappointed that Martha has chosen to run an almost exclusively negative campaign based on lies and distortions,” she said. “Some publication said a few weeks ago that this had become the nastiest Senate race in the country, and they are right.”

The nuclear-bomb ad relies on a survey from The Arizona Republic newspaper in 2002 in which Sinema stated she did not support keeping Luke Air Force Base open.

Sinema’s campaign dismissed the ad, noting it doesn’t mention the numerous votes the Phoenix congresswoman has cast in support of the base.

An independent fact check labeled the ad as misleading, noting that there is no evidence that Sinema made disparaging remarks about the military.

McSally, who served in the military for 26 years, said the average military member would see remarks from a politician about not supporting a local military base as awful.

Another series of ads, again financed by DefendArizona, accuses Sinema of protecting child molesters.

A slick mailer asked voters to play a game of “Who said it?” using quotes from a Sinema floor speech when she was discussing possible legislation on the floor of the statehouse in 2007. The ad mocks Sinema, asking voters to guess whether a “Senate candidate” or a “child predator” made the remarks.

The quotes are accurate, including when Sinema said that when she worked as a social worker at an elementary school, there were “children at my school who were 12, 13 years old and some of these children looked older than me.”

What it doesn’t mention is that Sinema voted for the legislation that increased penalties against those found guilty of soliciting prostitutes.

Sinema, known for her often fiery floor speeches while in the Legislature, said she was asking tough questions about the proposed law and not excusing the behavior of those who solicited sex from underage individuals.

In terms of her voting record, Sinema votes with the Trump administration 62.2 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.

In June alone, Sinema was at odds with the Trump administration on a Republican “compromise” immigration bill, the House’s revote of the 2018 farm bill and rescinding previously approved but unspent federal funding.

On the campaign trail, Sinema touts what she calls “common-sense immigration solutions” and vows to support strategies to secure the border, but that doesn’t include building Trump’s wall. She says the proposal is an 18th-century solution to 21st-century problem.

The pro-choice Phoenix Democrat has repeatedly fought to protect access to reproductive health care, and has vowed that if elected she’d vote against cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

She also opposes raising the retirement age.

McSally and Sinema will take part in a debate in Phoenix on Monday, Oct. 15, hosted by Arizona PBS, in partnership with The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Watch the debate live at azpbs.org online. 

Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at jferguson@tucson.com or 573-4197. On Twitter: @JoeFerguson

Reporter

Reporter with the Arizona Daily Star. I cover politics as well as the city of Tucson and other municipalities in Southern Arizona.