PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5/AP) - Republican Rep. Martha McSally accused her Democratic opponent, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, of supporting “treason,” citing a 15-year-old radio interview -- a charge that Sinema dismissed as part of a “ridiculous” negative campaign during Monday’s debate in the race for Arizona’s open Senate seat.
McSally, a former Air Force colonel and combat pilot, made the explosive charge in the final moments of the debate that had already included heated clashes over issues such as health care and immigration.
When she was asked the final question, about climate change, McSally complained there’d been no discussion of national security in the hour-long debate, the only one of the campaign. She attacked Sinema for protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and referenced a 2003 radio interview in which the host engaged in a lengthy, rambling hypothetical that ends with him asking Sinema if she’d be OK with him joining the Taliban.
“I don’t care if you want to do that, go ahead,” Sinema replied in that interview, reported by CNN last week, before asking if they can return to explaining her anti-war stance.
McSally described that exchange Monday as Sinema saying “it was OK for Americans to join the Taliban to fight against us.” Then, turning toward Sinema and pointing at the Democrat, she asked if she going to apologize to veterans like herself for saying “it was OK to commit treason.”
Sinema said: “Martha has chosen to run a campaign like the one you’re seeing right now where she’s engaging in ridiculous attacks.” After the debate, Sinema called the charge “ridiculous.”
The two congresswomen are vying for the seat of Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring. The Arizona Senate seat of the late John McCain is filled by appointee Jon Kyl until a 2020 election.
McSally is a former combat fighter pilot who was a Donald Trump critic in 2016 and represents a Tucson district that voted for Hillary Clinton. She’s now embraced the president and hopes his visit to Arizona on Friday helps unites Republicans against Sinema.
Sinema represents a district based in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe and is a former Green Party activist who transformed herself into a centrist Democrat. She has one of the most conservative voting records among Democrats in Congress and presents herself as a nonpartisan problem-solver.
Both congresswomen engaged in attacks Monday night as they have throughout the race, Democrats and Sinema have hammered McSally for voting to weaken protections for people with preexisting conditions and for shifting to the right on immigration. McSally dismissed those charges as “lies” Monday as she tried to steer the conversation back to Sinema’s old anti-war activism.
McSally and Trump
Sinema contrasted her own voting record with McSally’s, saying her rival was a blind partisan who voted 98 percent of the time with President Trump. Sinema says she was willing to buck party leaders and back the president when he was right, but oppose him when he was wrong, citing a 60 percent voting record with the president.
Citing Sinema’s support for Trump, McSally scoffed: “60 percent with the agenda is a failing grade in every school.”
Trump won Arizona in 2016 but only by three percentage points and Democrats hope Sinema can appeal to enough disaffected Republicans to turn the normally red-leaning state blue in November. McSally spent the debate trying to goad Republicans into voting with their party and reject Sinema. “The economy is doing great and Arizonans feel it every day,” McSally said, crediting unified GOP control of government.
The two also tangled on the perennial Arizona issue of immigration. McSally supports Trump’s border wall and slammed Sinema for not voting for two immigration bills that would have built it earlier this year. Both were only supported by Republicans but couldn’t muster enough support to pass the House because some members of the GOP voted against them.
Sinema said “there was no bipartisanship in any of this discussion” and noted she voted to stiffen penalties against some people in the country illegally who commit crimes, which has angered members of her party.
The impact of debates have diminished over the years with the rise of 24-hour news channels and the internet.
But in a race as tight as this one, a single moment in a debate can change the dynamics quickly.
"A mistake in a debate like this can be critical because that mistake can be exploited in a soundbite for weeks to come," said Emily Ryan, a Republican political consultant.
Right now, polling shows McSally and Sinema running neck and neck.
For most of the election, Sinema has focused running a positive campaign and touting a record of bipartisanship in an era of partisan gridlock.
However, McSally and her allies have bombarded the airwaves with attack ads that call into question the moderate political image Sinema has crafted for herself.
Chad Campbell, a Democratic political consultant, expected McSally to keep up the attacks with Sinema trying to stay on message.
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That means both candidates are trying to convince that small group of undecided voters.
For McSally, that means she risks turning off that block of undecided voters if she's too aggressive in her attacks.
However, Sinema will have to firmly defend herself or risk looking weak.
Again, there is a lot on the line nationally for both sides as the Democratic Party is trying to take back control of Senate.
Right now, Republicans hold a 51-49 edge.