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Arizona Set To Have A More Dynamic U.S. Senate Race Than In Years Past


Arizona has only sent 11 senators to Washington in the state's history. Those senators have generally been mainstream conservative, white men. The 2018 race is much more dynamic. Headlines have described the Arizona race as a free-for-all and bedlam. Here to talk with us about it is Arizona Republic political columnist Laurie Roberts. Welcome.

LAURIE ROBERTS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: So Senator Jeff Flake is retiring in 2018. And this is a delicate question, but we need to acknowledge that Senator John McCain is being treated for brain cancer and may retire before the 2018 election. Do people in Arizona see this as a race for one seat or possibly two?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, it's a difficult thing to talk about. But in private, everybody sees it as a race for two seats. Many people thought that one of the candidates - one of the leading candidates has actually held off announcing, thinking that she might simply be appointed to an open spot. But that has of course not happened.

SHAPIRO: It's a crowded field, and perhaps the most controversial candidate is the Republican former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix, who had a conviction in criminal court. He was pardoned by President Trump. Does he have a substantial base of support?

ROBERTS: He certainly does have a substantial base of support. He always has, and he probably always will. He will play that as he's a victim of a Obama Justice Department vendetta against him because he was trying to enforce our laws against illegal immigration. And a sizable portion of Maricopa County Republican voters would agree with him.

SHAPIRO: Does his entering the race effectively - I don't know if you would say cancel out Kelli Ward. She's a candidate who had been backed by Steve Bannon. She was trying to appeal to the Trump voter base.

ROBERTS: Well, I don't think she feels canceled out. But the conventional wisdom is around here that their base of support is exactly the same. And those who might have supported Kelli Ward will quickly gravitate over to Joe Arpaio. Now, she'll keep a few people because some people think that 85, 86 years old is a little old to be running for the United States Senate.

SHAPIRO: That's Arpaio's age, yeah.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Arpaio just came tromping into this race as the huge elephant. And it changes everything.

SHAPIRO: And still on the Republican side, Congresswoman Martha McSally is expected to enter the race tomorrow. She was the first American woman to fly in combat. Tell us about her.

ROBERTS: She's got a great story - first woman to fly in combat, was an Air Force colonel, has held her seat in Congress for two terms in a district that - it's Gabby Giffords' old seat. It's a swing district. For a Republican to hold that is a very, very difficult thing. She was not a big fan of Donald Trump, did not endorse him. She has been considered the mainstream Republican candidate, certainly the one that Mitch McConnell would like to see take over Jeff Flake's seat. Again, things changed totally this week when Joe Arpaio jumped into the race.

SHAPIRO: It's been 30 years since Arizona sent a Democrat to the Senate. And on the Democratic side, it seems that the leading candidate is Kyrsten Sinema, who's currently in the House of Representatives. She has a really interesting background. Tell us about her.

ROBERTS: Well, she used to be - when she was in the state legislature, she was a screaming liberal, came to the conclusion that nothing was getting done and also to the conclusion probably that she was never going to be elected to anything on a statewide basis in the state of Arizona if she didn't moderate. But for whatever her reason was, she became a more moderate force. And again, she has been elected in one of our few swing congressional districts and managed to maintain that seat.

SHAPIRO: So how realistic do you think it is that a Democrat could win this seat?

ROBERTS: I think it depends on who that Democrat is facing. He's facing Kelli Ward, you can say Senator Sinema. If he's facing Joe Arpaio, boy, the Democrats would love that. What a great way to boost turnout. And that's what they need - is to figure out a way to boost turnout in order to put her over the top. If it is a Martha McSally versus Kyrsten Sinema, you're going to have two strong, moderate, smart women going at each other. And what an interesting race that will be for the state of Arizona.

SHAPIRO: I'm sure you'll have fun covering it. We appreciate your talking with us. Arizona Republic political columnist Laurie Roberts, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINKANE SONG, "HOW WE BE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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