SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In a small office full of Democratic women steamed over Brett Kavanaugh, Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema carefully avoided telling reporters whether she thought sexual assault allegations against President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee were true.
“The Senate can wait for the thorough investigation and then make a decision based on the conclusion of that investigation,” Sinema said.
A few days later, Sinema’s Republican opponent, Rep. Martha McSally, who has talked about being sexually abused in high school, chided Trump for mocking psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s initial accuser, during a campaign rally. Minutes later, McSally added that she hoped the president can come to Arizona to campaign for her.
“We are in a consequential race for the balance of the Senate,” McSally said. “We do need Republican voters who are less engaged to wake up.”
Arizona’s Senate race pits Sinema, a congresswoman and careful politician running as a centrist in a Republican-leaning state, against McSally, a onetime Trump critic turned fan. Both are walking a tightrope as the Senate moves toward a confirmation vote.
When allegations against Kavanaugh first emerged last month, McSally was uncharacteristically quiet, only calling for investigations and respect for all sides. It took McSally until Tuesday — 17 days after Christine Blasey Ford first publicly made her allegations — to say she backed Kavanaugh, provided the FBI finds no new evidence against him. Sinema, an attorney, has also been typically controlled, notably declining to jump on the bandwagon of other Democrats calling for his rejection. That changed Thursday night, when she issued a statement criticizing Kavanaugh’s temperament and contending he was “not truthful” in part of his testimony last week.
“There hasn’t been a lot of leadership,” said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican political consultant. But, he added, that’s because Arizona embodies the national divide over the nomination.
“The state’s reflective of the demographics of the country — relatively independent, and people are trying to navigate between the two poles of two dysfunctional political parties,” Coughlin said.
Kavanaugh’s nomination has put moderates in the Senate from both parties in a difficult position, as whatever decision they make will upset a vocal faction of their electorate. On Thursday, embattled North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, said she’d vote against the nominee. Attention turned to her fellow Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
In Arizona, the state’s conservative lean is evident in how the state got entangled in the Kavanaugh case in the first place. The nominee’s so-called “sherpa” who guided him around Capitol Hill initially was Jon Kyl, a former senator tightly tied into the state’s legal community and a former mentor to McSally. Kyl was then appointed to fill John McCain’s seat after McCain died in late August. When Ford’s allegations surfaced, Senate Republicans tapped the head of sex crimes prosecutions in the Maricopa County prosecutor’s office, Rachel Mitchell, to question her at last week’s hearing.
Throughout it all, Sinema and McSally stayed quiet, issuing similar-sounding written statements saying they were waiting for the investigation. The cross-cutting pressures on them are clear: Sinema is counting on peeling off enough conservative-leaning independents to win in November while McSally’s own history and need to get Trump voters enthused about her candidacy also were in conflict.
On Tuesday, McSally made her first statement of support for Kavanaugh’s confirmation on a local morning television show. That night, Trump mocked Ford at a rally in Mississippi to riotous laughter from his supporters.
The next day, reporters asked McSally about the president’s words. “It’s pretty personal,” McSally said, noting that many don’t understand why survivors like Ford and herself sometimes don’t go public for decades. “I’d prefer that we all have some grace here.”
McSally said she has sympathy for Ford, but then blamed Democrats, who say they believe her story, for the psychologist’s stress. “If you want to look at how survivors are being treated in this process, I would also look squarely at the Democrats and how they have basically paraded her out and put her in this situation,” she said.
On Wednesday evening McSally said in a radio interview that there isn’t enough evidence to show Kavanaugh actually attacked Ford.
“I would hope, as someone who has dealt with this personally and dealt with it also in the military, that maybe we can have this conversation about, ‘Hey, let’s prevent the next assault and abuse from happening, but let’s make sure that people are not susceptible to false allegations that — just because someone said something doesn’t make it true,’ ” she said.
McSally was echoing numerous conservative Arizona women, who in interviews last week said they were enthusiastic for the confirmation.
“The Democrats have done a hatchet job,” said Joyce Smith, 67, of Gilbert, as she left a Trader Joe’s store. “You’re innocent until you’re proven guilty.”
Still, the anger among other Arizona women shows the risk McSally runs.
“McSally’s out of her mind. It makes no sense to me,” said Kate Miller, 65, a former independent-turned-Democrat, at an anti-Kavanaugh protest. “I don’t understand how she can have an experience like that and be where she’s at.”
On Thursday night, Sinema said in a statement she was “really frustrated” at the process and that she’d vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation were she in the Senate. But, on Monday night, as reporters pressed her repeatedly about the allegations against the judge and his response, the possible objection Sinema stressed was how Kavanaugh would rule on internet privacy cases.
The restraint surprised some of the Democrats in the room. “If he gets confirmed, it’s going to be a new, fresh devastation — we already have all our hair on fire,” said Miesje Curbo, a 46-year-old business consultant.
Brittany MacPherson, an organizer with a pro-reproductive rights group, was at a crowded campaign office waiting for Sinema to speak the following night. She said she expects Democratic senators to unanimously oppose Kavanaugh. “I would hope people who claim to stand up for us would do it when it counts,” she said.
Told Sinema hadn’t said she’d oppose Kavanaugh, MacPherson sighed. “It’s Arizona,” she said.