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Martha McSally Lost in 2018 by Adopting Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Message. She’s Doubling Down in 2020

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On March 14, 2018, the United States Senate delivered a stunning rebuke to President Trump. Fifty-nine Senators, including 12 Republican Senators, stood up for the Constitution and voted to reject Trump’s fake national emergency. On the other hand, 41 Republican Senators chose Trump over the Constitution, and one of them was the recently appointed Senator from Arizona, Martha McSally.

Arizona politics are changing, as evidenced by the 2018 election results. In addition, an analysis of the 2018 Senate race and polling of Latino voters in that state, conducted as part of the American Election Eve poll, provides a picture of how immigration issues played in the state.

Martha McSally will find an electorate in 2020 that is increasingly pro-immigrant and averse to the negative and racist messaging espoused by Donald Trump. In 2020, she’ll be running on the ticket with Trump.

As a Senator, McSally is showing her fealty to the President. She was one of only three members of Congress who represent a border state who sided with Trump on the national emergency and building the wall. The others are Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.

In the 2018 Senate race, Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema defeated McSally by a margin of 50.0 – 47.6 percent, becoming the first Democrat in Arizona to win a Senate seat since 1988. McSally, who was appointed by Arizona’s Governor to fill the vacancy left by the death of John McCain, will now face an election in 2020.

During the 2018 midterms, Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant messaging became the central theme and closing argument for Republican candidates, and McSally was certainly on board with it. Initially, she was considered more a centrist Republican along the lines of John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of whom were part of the “Gang of 8” that authored the 2013 immigration bill which passed the Senate by a 68-32 margin. But a primary run against two hard-core nativists, Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio, pulled McSally to the extreme right — and she stayed there for the general election.

In the general election, Trump campaigned for McSally, as did Vice President Mike Pence. Trump came to a rally in Mesa, Arizona on October 19, 2018, and an AZ Central recap noted that “immigration remains his focus”:

Trump also said Democrats “will fight to the death because they don’t want us to have the (border) wall. But we’ve started the wall anyway, and we’re going to get it done,” he said in Mesa.

In short, it seemed as if it was all immigration, all the time.

In Arizona, the issue had particular salience for Latino voters, who make up an increasingly large segment of the electorate.

In 2018, America’s Voice conducted an Election Eve poll, which surveyed Latino voters in Arizona on a range of issues, including immigration, as well as candidate preference.

Immigration has been a critically important issue in Arizona for most of the last decade, in large part because of SB 1070, a racist, discriminatory law signed by then-Governor Jan Brewer in 2010.

Latino Decisions has conducted exit polls in Arizona in every general election since 2010 — and immigration has continued to be a central issue for Latino voters. In the past two cycles, the issue has been front and center because of Donald Trump’s racist policies.

The GOP, from the top down, invoked racist, anti-immigrant messages — and in Arizona, that GOP strategy failed. Our Election Eve poll in the state confirmed that support for immigration issues and backlash to the GOP’s toxic messaging were key factors in Sinema’s victory over McSally.

Arizona Election Eve poll results

Our American Election Eve poll explored key issues and reinforced the idea that the GOP strategy backfired in battleground House districts and key states.

The American Election Eve 2018 poll was conducted conducted by Latino Decisions, Asian American Decisions, and the African American Research Collaborative. On behalf of Allied organizations across the progressive movement, it examined how African American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American, and White voters engaged in the 2018 midterm elections. The poll included a survey of House battleground districts, a national survey of Native American voters, and state polls in Nevada, California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona. The poll was based on randomly selected voters across the entire state (or congressional district), giving all voters an equal chance to participate.

In 2018, the Election Eve poll in Arizona surveyed Latino voters who comprise a growing percentage of the state’s electorate. By 2030, Arizona will be a majority-minority state.

In the 2018 election for U.S. Senate, Democrat Sinema secured 75% of the Latino electorate to 22% for McSally.

Among the state’s Latino voters, Trump and his racist rhetoric had an impact. We asked, “has Donald Trump – because of the kind of person he is or because of something he has done or said, ever made you feel disrespected?” The results were a strong yes, with 71% of Latino voters agreeing. When respondents were asked if Trump ever made them feel angry, the results were also very strong: 74% of Latinos said yes.

We also asked a question about the “toxic rhetoric” which had been on full display in Arizona via ads and presidential campaign stops. When asked if this statement is definitely true, probably true, probably NOT true, or definitely not true: “Trump and the Republicans are using toxic rhetoric to divide us from one another”, 82% of Arizona Latino voters said it was true, including 56% who said it was definitely true.

Another question we asked was: “During the 2018 election candidates said many different things about immigration. Which statement on immigration do you agree with more?”

Agreement was low on the statement “America has too many illegal immigrants, they hurt the economy, bring crime and gang violence to our cities. We have to crack down on illegal immigration.” Only 17% of Latino voters agreed.

For the statement, “immigrants just want to provide a better life for their families, just like you and me. I support legislation to make America more welcoming to immigrants,” agreement was was very high, and 80% of Latino voters agreed.

There was strong support for the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation very similar to the Dream and Promise Act that has just been introduced this Congress. When asked if Congress should pass the bill to allow young undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children the chance to live and work legally in the United States and eventually earn a path to citizenship, 85% of Arizona Latino voters agreed, including 65% who strongly agreed.

In the last Congress, McSally had been a sponsor of a GOP-led bill to fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program after Trump ended it. But during her campaign, she removed her name from the bill sponsors list and tried to hide past statements that were supportive of a fix for DACA.

Finally, Arizona’s Latino voters strongly rejected the GOP’s divide and distract strategy and, instead, indicated that they want a solution on immigration. Respondents were asked if they agreed that an important reason to vote in 2018 was the following: “In 2018, many Republicans made attacks on immigrants’ part of their campaigns. It’s obvious we need to reform our policies but calling immigrants rapists and gang members accomplishes nothing. Congress should work together on bipartisan immigration reform and immigration put the issue to rest, and address important issues like improving wages, lowering the cost of health care so we have more money in our pocket.” There was overwhelming agreement among the three groups surveyed. For Latino voters, 88% agreed while 9% disagreed.

Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that post-election analysis found immigration was a major factor in McSally’s loss. Writing in the New York Times shortly after the election, Latino Decisions co-founder Matt Barreto wrote:

In Arizona, Republicans had high hopes for Martha McSally to hold Jeff Flake’s Senate seat, but she ended up supporting Mr. Trump’s full immigration agenda, and she lost, in part, because of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant message.

The New York Times’ post-election report noted that “in some places like Arizona, where the Democratic Senate candidate, Kyrsten Sinema, narrowly beat her Republican opponent, Martha McSally, analysts said [attack ads about the migrant] caravan might actually have backfired. Ms. McSally echoed Mr. Trump’s language about the coming wave of migrants, calling it a ‘public safety and national security issue.’” That anti-immigrant demonization did McSally no favors in the end.

With her vote in favor of Trump’s national emergency, it seems that McSally has not learned her lesson. She is clearly siding with the xenophobes in her party’s right wing, even though Arizona voters have shown that this is not what they support.

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