Ex-fighter pilot launches bid to replace Arizona Sen. Flake

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks at a rally, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. McSally announced Friday that she is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Jeff Flake. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks at a rally, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. McSally announced Friday that she is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Jeff Flake. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., waves from a T-6 World War II airplane as she leaves for Phoenix, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. McSally announced Friday that she is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Jeff Flake. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks at a rally, Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Tucson, Ariz. McSally announced Friday that she is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Jeff Flake. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TUCSON, Ariz. — Republican congresswoman Martha McSally embraced President Donald Trump and his hardline immigration rhetoric as she launched her Senate bid Friday, lashing out at the same establishment leaders who support her campaign to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.

The 51-year-old retired Air Force combat pilot attacked Sharia law and sanctuary cities while vowing to support Trump's push to build a massive border wall. Her comments came amid a series of public appearances and social media posts as she trekked across the state flying a World War II-era fighter plane.

"I'm a fighter pilot and I talk like one," she said in an announcement video, a fiery beginning to one of the nation's premier Senate contests. "That's why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done."

Later, she refused to condemn Trump's closed-door description of African countries as "shitholes."

"I speak a little salty behind closed doors at times as well, so I'm not going to throw the first stone on using any language," McSally said after facing dozens of supporters inside a Tucson airport hangar.

Like few others, the Arizona election is expected to showcase the feud between the Republican Party's establishment and its fiery anti-immigration wing in particular — all in a border state that features one of the nation's largest Hispanic populations.

McSally is the early establishment favorite in the contest, even if she has recently adopted the same anti-establishment message that fueled Trump's political rise in 2016. One of her primary opponents, outspoken Trump backer Kelli Ward, was quick to call McSally "a pretender" on Friday.

The race will test the appeal of the Trump political playbook — which emphasizes the dangers of illegal immigration and demands border security above all else — in a state where nearly 1 in 3 residents is Hispanic and roughly 1 million are eligible to vote, according to the Pew Research Center.

McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly a combat mission, flew herself across Arizona on Friday. Her outfit for the big day: a blue flight suit.

She enters a dynamic Republican primary field that features a nationally celebrated immigration hardliner, 85-year-old former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by Trump last year after defying a judge's order to stop traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. Another high-profile candidate, Ward, was an early favorite of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Ward, like other conservative critics, noted Friday that McSally's past statements don't necessarily match the figurative bear hug she gave Trump on Friday. "The truth doesn't line up with her new campaign rhetoric," she tweeted.

Little more than a year ago, McSally refused to endorse Trump, and she referred to his sexually predatory comments caught on the "Access Hollywood" tape as "disgusting."

On Twitter on Friday, McSally thanked Trump for attacking Democrats who are contemplating a government shutdown to protect young immigrants known as "Dreamers."

"As we discussed on Tuesday, we won't allow our troops to be held hostage by DACA negotiations. Our military is relying on us," McSally wrote, using an acronym for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

She also co-sponsored an immigration plan released by House conservatives this week that would reduce legal immigration levels by 25 percent, block federal grants to sanctuary cities and restrict the number of relatives that immigrants already in the U.S. can bring here. The bill, which is unlikely to survive the GOP-controlled Senate, also provides temporary legal status for young immigrants enrolled in DACA.

Democrats see Arizona as a rare opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in 2018 as their party struggles to defend vulnerable incumbents in several other Republican-leaning states. Trump won Arizona in 2016 by less than 4 points.

Democrats have another advantage: Their party's leading candidate, three-term incumbent Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, faces a relatively weak Democratic field, while McSally and her Republican opponents are expected to wage a bruising Republican contest until the state's late August primary elections.

McSally avoided her Republican opponents altogether on Friday, focusing instead on her military service while adding a jab at Sharia law — a reference to her fight against a military policy that required female soldiers in some Muslim-majority countries to wear robes over their service uniforms.

"I absolutely refused to bow down to Sharia law," she said. "After eight years of fighting, I won my battle for the religious freedom of American servicewomen."

Democrats, meanwhile, are practically giddy about what they view as a race to the right in the Republican field that could make it difficult for the primary winner to prevail in November.

"Whoever escapes the GOP primary in August, they will be held accountable for touting their radical stripes at every opportunity and willingness to take stances on issues that are simply out of touch with Arizonan voters," state Democratic Party spokesman Drew Anderson said.

___

Christie reported from Phoenix.

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