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Former astronaut Mark Kelly has flipped an Arizona Senate seat for Democrats

Democrats now hold both Arizona Senate seats.

Mark Kelly campaigns alongside his wife, former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, on October 24.
Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Former astronaut Mark Kelly has defeated Republican Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona, securing a critical Democratic victory, according to a projection from Decision Desk on Thursday evening.

Kelly’s win means that, in just two years, Democrats have now flipped both Arizona Senate seats. In 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s old seat. And now, Kelly has unseated McSally.

McSally was first appointed to the seat in 2018 by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to serve out the term of the late Sen. John McCain until a special election could take place. This year’s race served as a special election and determined who would complete what’s left of McCain’s term until 2022.

Kelly ultimately won by running a campaign similar to Sinema’s: emphasizing his independence as a leader, rather than tying himself closely to the Democratic Party. Health care was one of the primary issues he focused on, including a commitment to protecting coverage for people with preexisting conditions.

The husband of Arizona’s former US Rep. Gabby Giffords, Kelly has also been a longstanding advocate for gun control, backing universal background checks and “red flag” laws, which enable law enforcement agencies to bar individuals from accessing firearms if they are flagged as a danger to themselves or others.

Kelly’s victory is central to Democrats’ efforts to retake the Senate majority this year, and was one of a handful of seats the party has been working to flip.

Arizona’s leftward shift in recent elections is the result of an increasingly diverse electorate that’s turned away from President Donald Trump and Republican candidates like McSally who have aligned themselves with him. Trump’s hardline stances on immigration and racist comments about Mexican immigrants — as well as his poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic — are among the factors that have put these voters off.

Kelly’s campaign targeted independent voters in the state, as well as moderate Republicans who were open to crossing over.

“The shift is these Ducey-Sinema voters. You’re a Republican and you’re willing to vote for a Democrat. That’s where I think the most growth has been,” Lorna Romero, a former communications director for McCain’s 2016 campaign, told Vox in late September.

An uptick in Latinx voters in the state likely also had a significant impact on the outcome. Latinx voter share in the Arizona electorate was projected to grow from 19.6 percent to 24.6 percent this year, with thousands of younger voters reaching voting age. In previous elections, Latinx voters in Arizona have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, with 70 percent backing Sinema in 2018.

“The Latinx vote definitely has the power to swing this election,” Lexy Reyelts, an organizer for NextGen America, a progressive group aimed at mobilizing younger voters, told Vox in October.

Sinema has established herself as a moderate lawmaker in the Senate who’s been willing to buck the party on votes including confirmations of Trump cabinet officials. If Kelly takes the same approach once he’s sworn in, he will be part of an important contingent of centrist Democratic senators who will be important votes for advancing legislation and nominees.

“I’m running — to be an independent voice for Arizona,” Kelly has said.

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