WATCH: Arizona U.S. Senate Candidates Mark Kelly, Sen. Martha McSally Debate Pandemic Response, U.S. Supreme Court Vacancy

By Ben Giles, Steve Goldstein, Mark Brodie
Published: Monday, September 14, 2020 - 7:27am
Updated: Wednesday, October 7, 2020 - 1:41pm

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Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democrat Mark Kelly clashed Tuesday night over Washington’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, a vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat while attacking one another as dishonest and untrustworthy.

In the lone debate between the two U.S. Senate candidates, McSally wasted no time labeling her opponent “counterfeit Kelly,” attacking him as a pawn for a radical left agenda.

She immediately tied her campaign to President Donald Trump’s nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court seat left vacant by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

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McSally, who supports voting on Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett with less than 30 days before the Nov. 3 election, said her re-election is all that stands between a Democratic Senate majority and a liberal justice.

“What the left wants, what ‘counterfeit Kelly’ wants, is to delay this so they can get liberal activist judges on the bench,” McSally said. “When they don’t get their way at the ballot box, they want to take away your freedoms (with) activist judges who legislate from the bench.”

Kelly said he’d vote no on Trump’s nominee, and would rather wait until after the election to determine if Trump or a newly elected president can appoint Ginsburg’s replacement.

Mark Kelly and Sen. Martha McSally
Ben Giles/KJZZ
Mark Kelly and Sen. Martha McSally before the debate in Phoenix on Oct. 6, 2020.

GOP senators like McSally are misguided in their focus on the Supreme Court amid the coronavirus, he added.

“We’ve got 420,000 Arizonans right now who are unemployed through no fault of their own, and are trying to get by on $240 a week,” Kelly said. “Why isn’t the United States Senate dealing with that?”

Kelly — who could take office in November if elected — was asked repeatedly whether he would support a filibuster. Moderator Lorraine Rivera of Arizona Public Media in Tucson tried to get a direct answer.

LORRAINE RIVERA: Would you be able to hit the ground running on Day One if you’re still thinking about something like the filibuster?

MARK KELLY: Absolutely. We don’t even know if this is going to come up for even a discussion. It might. And if it does, I will give it thoughtful consideration, and I will do what’s in the best interest of Arizona and Arizonans and the best interest of our country — and not the Republican Party or the Democrat Party.

Kelly criticized McSally for failing to stand up to what he called a lackluster response to the pandemic from the Trump administration. And he frequently attacked her votes to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which includes protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

Kelly recalled the day his wife, former Congresswoman Gabbrielle Giffords, was shot, suffering a severe brain injury. Kelly said they were lucky because — unlike so many Arizonans, especially after losing their jobs because of the pandemic — they had good health insurance. 

“Health care costs too much," Kelly said. "So, a public option to compete with private insurance, and individuals would potentially pay for that insurance. That’s a public option. I think we should also allow folks to buy into Medicare at a certain age, say 50 to 65 years old. That makes a lot of sense. You could remove them from the risk pool. And then, we have to address this issue of pre-existing conditions.”

Mark Kelly and Sen. Martha McSally before the debate
Ben Giles/KJZZ
Mark Kelly and Sen. Martha McSally before the debate in Phoenix on Oct. 6, 2020.

McSally said those votes symbolized her opposition to the ACA, and said she supports protecting pre-existing conditions for Arizonans. But she also argued that includes the fact that Obamacare is failing.

“But this public option, which is Bernie Sanders light, really, it’s the next path to the full government takeover of health care," McSally said. "This is going to have — you can’t have a public option compete with private health insurance. Everybody who gets health insurance from their employer is eventually going to lose it. The full government will take over. And Medicare as we know it will be collapsed.”

McSally said this Senate race will decide which party claims the majority. And Democrats won’t stop at health care, she told voters. Border security would fall away. China would surpass the United States. 

Both candidates are veterans, a status neither was afraid to invoke. So, it was no surprise that “Arizona Horizon” host Ted Simons asked what they thought of a recent article in the Atlantic alleging the president had insulted fallen servicemen and women.

MARTHA MCSALLY: You pundits can look into those anonymous allegations. And I’m just telling you I’m fighting for our military. I’m fighting for our veterans. But they will cut our military again if they gain power.

TED SIMONS: Mr. Kelly, does it concern you?

KELLY: Absolutely. He’s the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. And to say that about deceased veterans who died on the battlefield, calling them losers and suckers — what also concerns me is what he’s said about John McCain.

McSally agreed with her opponent about the president's attacks on the late Sen. McCain, and said she's brought it up with the president on numerous occasions.

“I’ve publicly and privately, repeatedly talked to President Trump and asked him to stop attacking John McCain. Quite frankly, it pisses me off when he does it," McSally said.

The Citizens Clean Election Commission sponsored the 90-minute debate, which was organized by KJZZ; the Arizona Republic and azcentral.com; Arizona PBS and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University; and Arizona Public Media, southern Arizona's PBS and public radio station. KJZZ's Steve Goldstein was one of four moderators.

For analysis on what occurred during the debate, The Show spoke with Samara Klar, associate professor of political science at the University of Arizona.

What did you think of the debate? Join the conversation on KJZZ's Facebook page.

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