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Arizona’s primaries could provide a hint as to whether Democrats can take the Senate

Here are three races to watch in Arizona’s primary election on August 4.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) wears a mask as she listens to testimony during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in May 2020
Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) wears a mask depicting Arizona’s state flag as she listens to testimony during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 6, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Shawn Thew/Pool via Getty Images

When it comes to Arizona, much of the nation’s political attention this year has been focused on whether former Vice President Joe Biden can flip a state President Donald Trump won in 2016. But exactly how either Trump or Biden governs could be decided not by the presidential election but by races lower on the ticket — including one for Arizona’s Senate seat.

This Tuesday, August 4, voters pick their favored candidate in that primary and several others across the state.

For the Senate, sole Democratic candidate Mark Kelly will coast to victory unchallenged. But a challenge against incumbent Sen. Martha McSally in the Republican primary could show just how much enthusiasm there is for her — and, perhaps, for whether Democrats can take her Senate seat to help them build a majority in both houses in Congress.

Meanwhile, the Democratic primary in the Sixth Congressional District, which is potentially up for grabs in November, is shaping up to be a battleground over how the party moves forward, whether that means embracing a more progressive strategy (that’s perhaps politically riskier) or a potentially safer, more moderate approach.

There’s also an interesting local race for sheriff: Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — who was convicted of criminal contempt of court in 2017 for continuing his racist immigration enforcement in defiance of a judge’s order, though he later received a presidential pardon from Trump — is running to get his old job back.

Here’s what you need to know.

1) The Republican primary for US Senate

Former astronaut Mark Kelly has the Democratic primary on lockdown, as he’s running uncontested. But things are a little murkier for sitting Rep. Martha McSally, who’s facing a primary challenge from businessman Daniel McCarthy.

Polling for the GOP primary is very thin, but it’s widely believed McSally has the advantage as the incumbent — albeit one who was appointed to her seat after losing to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in a bid to replace former Sen. Jeff Flake in 2018, who did not seek reelection that year.

The question, political observers said, is how much of an advantage McSally actually has.

If McSally wins but sees a considerable amount of voters pull away to McCarthy, that could demonstrate little Republican enthusiasm for her as a candidate — and perhaps spell trouble for her in the general election.

“If there are any issues between McSally and the base, it will be revealed in the primary,” Paul Bentz, a political consultant in Arizona, told me. “If McSally’s victory is smaller than expected, it would spell trouble for her in the general, as she would run the risk of some of the Republicans choosing to stay home — or vote for president but skip her race.”

That would be bad news for a campaign that’s already seemingly behind. According to a RealClearPolitics average of the polls, Kelly currently leads McSally by nearly 7 percentage points.

So if it looks like McSally is facing a formidable challenge, that could be bad news for her and other Arizona Republicans, but good news for Kelly and Democrats looking to retake the Senate.

2) The Democratic primary for Arizona’s Sixth Congressional District

One primary fight in Arizona could expose some of the remaining splinters within the Democratic Party between its more progressive wing and its more moderate members.

In the Sixth Congressional District, Hiral Tipirneni, Anita Malik, Stephanie Rimmer, and Karl Gentles are fighting to run against Republican incumbent David Schweikert in November. Tipirneni, a physician, and Malik, a former tech executive, are believed to be the favorites, with Tipirneni boasting a huge fundraising advantage but Malik leading a challenge to her from the left.

Malik ran against Schweikert in 2018 but lost by a little more than 10 percentage points. Tipirneni also ran in 2018 — against Republican Debbie Lesko in the Eighth Congressional District — and lost by 5 percentage points in the special election and 11 in the general, although she beat expectations in what’s considered a very safe Republican seat.

This time, Tipirneni took her campaign to the Sixth Congressional District. That’s invited accusations of carpetbagging, or seeking office in a district in which she has no personal connections.

But it’s also opened rifts between the progressive and moderate wings of the party, with progressives largely on the side of Malik, who supports Medicare-for-all, and moderates on the side of Tipirneni, who’s called for keeping private insurance plans while letting people buy into Medicare.

“If Tipirneni loses, it would definitely show that progressives are incredibly engaged,” Bentz said.

That may have implications in the general, too, in one of the dozens of seats Democrats could win to further bolster their hold on the House. The Sixth District is rated “Lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report, but it’s also a district with the kind of suburban voter who has swung against the president and his party in recent years. Some experts believe Tipirneni stands the better chance at appealing to a Republican-leaning district, especially given that Malik lost to Schweikert before.

“My read is that, based on recent history, Tipirneni will be the far more formidable opponent,” Mike O’Neil, a political consultant in Arizona, told me. “I have no idea who will win the primary, but my guess is that most pros want Tipirneni based on her impressive recent track record.”

It’s a reflection, in other words, of many of the same fights Democrats have wrestled with in other stages: backing a possibly safer, more moderate candidate over a perhaps riskier, more progressive choice.

3) The Republican primary for Maricopa County sheriff

The first thing you should know about the Maricopa County sheriff’s race is that Joe Arpaio is running again.

The former sheriff was previously convicted for violating a court order meant to stop racial profiling. Arpaio explicitly used racial profiling in his fight against unauthorized immigration, deploying his deputies in predominantly Latin neighborhoods to arrest people. Due to the indiscriminate racial profiling, his deputies would often arrest immigrants who were legally authorized to be in the US.

But Trump pardoned the former sheriff in 2017. Arpaio was, not coincidentally, a major supporter of both the president and his tough approach to illegal immigration. Although the pardon was immediately controversial, it bolstered Arpaio’s reputation as a Trump ally.

Now Arpaio is hoping that his reputation will get him back to the office he used to run. But first he has to win the Republican primary against Jerry Sheridan — a former chief deputy who served under Arpaio and was also found in contempt of the same court order — and Glendale police officer Mike Crawford.

Arpaio would then have to beat Democratic incumbent Paul Penzone, who defeated Arpaio in 2016 by more than 11 percentage points and later reversed some of Arpaio’s policies. Some political observers are pretty certain about Arpaio’s chances: If Arpaio wins the primary, O’Neil said, “He will lose the general.”

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