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Impeachment Trial May Be Crucial For Reelecting Senators Like Martha McSally

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The impeachment trial is playing out in Washington, but it has ramifications that extend far beyond Capitol Hill. The effects will be felt in Senate races throughout the country, and one of the biggest races will be in Arizona. That is where appointed Republican Senator Martha McSally is seeking a full term in a rapidly changing state. Jimmy Jenkins of member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports.

JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: Just over a year ago, Arizona got two new senators in Congress. The Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won an upset victory, a sign that the state's demographics are rapidly shifting. The loser in that contest was Martha McSally, but she was then appointed to the vacant seat left by the late Senator John McCain. Now that she's running for a full term, her opponents are energized.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: A fair trial.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

JENKINS: About 50 protesters gathered outside her office last Friday. Kathy Carbone said she was there to ask McSally to vote for what she described as fair rules for the impeachment trial.

What's your sign say?

KATHY CARBONE: My sign says, guilty men love sham trials. Moscow Mitch, do your job. Vote blue in 2020.

JENKINS: McSally served two terms in the House, where she developed a reputation as a moderate. Since moving to the Senate, she has moved closer to Trump. She's tried to avoid talking much about impeachment, until this moment last week. McSally was approached in the Capitol by a CNN reporter asking about the impeachment trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTHA MCSALLY: You're a liberal hack.

JENKINS: It's hard to make out, but McSally didn't answer the question and calls him a liberal hack. She quickly turned that exchange into a viral fundraising opportunity, and she'll need the money. McSally faces a well-funded challenge from Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut.

CHUCK COUGHLIN: It doesn't surprise me that she's hugging the president right now.

JENKINS: Chuck Coughlin is an Arizona political consultant who has worked on a number of high-profile Republican campaigns. Arizona could be a swing state this year, and the Senate race is seen as highly competitive.

COUGHLIN: And that will require the president to be here, and he will make this a point about his presidency. He will ask Arizona voters to return her to office to protect him from partisan Democrats.

JENKINS: But that may be a risky strategy, says Grant Woods. He's a former Arizona attorney general and aide to John McCain who's left the Republican Party because of Trump. Woods says that voters here reward independent-minded politicians who don't toe the party line.

GRANT WOODS: The way most people would think you would win her race would be to capture your share of the moderates and the independents in this state. She's going to get zero moderates and independents with this sort of behavior.

JENKINS: But pollster Mike Noble doesn't think it's likely that McSally will break with the president over impeachment.

MIKE NOBLE: She cannot go against her base. If she loses her base, she will get crushed in her reelection effort come November.

JENKINS: He says the trick for McSally will be keeping her base while still appealing to a key group of swing voters - suburban college-educated women. Noble says his polling from last fall shows that many of them opposed impeachment. It's unclear whether anyone's mind has changed since then. For his part, GOP consultant Chuck Coughlin thinks the trial won't actually have that much impact.

COUGHLIN: I think most voters - most swing voters who are still looking at this are tuned out. They're going to look at other things.

JENKINS: Things like the economy, which is strong right now in Arizona - and with 10 months until the general election, he says impeachment is unlikely to stay at the top of voters' minds.

For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Jenkins in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLOATING POINTS' "NESPOLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.