Martha McSally

U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., already faced what is expected to be one of the toughest Senate races in the country next year before Phoenix businessman Daniel McCarthy announced this week he would challenge her in the GOP primary.

TUCSON — Arizona’s Senate race, already expected to be one of the toughest in the nation, got tougher this week when a Phoenix businessman announced a Republican primary challenge to incumbent Sen. Martha McSally.

Longtime GOP donor and Trump supporter Daniel McCarthy said Wednesday that he will run against McSally, a first-term senator appointed to fill the seat left vacant by the death last year of Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

McCarthy, founder of a Phoenix-based cosmetic company and CEO of a real estate brokerage, said he has the means to fund his own campaign, and he told the Associated Press he believes he is the best candidate to beat Mark Kelly, the likely Democratic nominee.

The announcement comes days after a poll by OH Predictive Insights showed Kelly with a slight lead over McSally with more than a year left to the election.

McCarthy could not be reached for comment Thursday. But in a statement on his Facebook page, he said he has “a responsibility and an obligation to stand up for our families when we have a federal government that is out of control.”

In remarks after a GOP event Wednesday in Scottsdale, McSally downplayed the possibility of an intraparty fight, saying she was focused on her work in the Senate.

“I’m endorsed by President Trump; we are unified as a Republican Party,” she said. “We are working together, and we’re going to make sure that we hold this seat up and down the ticket for Republicans, for our future, and that’s our focus.”

Analysts said that while McCarthy’s challenge is not good news for McSally, they note that she survived a bitter primary in 2018. But that primary left her weakened for the general election, and a strong challenge from McCarthy could cause deja vu for McSally’s camp in 2020.

“If he does become a critical contender, that means that McSally will again have to deal with a primary, when the Democratic opponent is already on to the general, because it does look at this point that Mark Kelly will not have a competitive primary,” said Leah Askarinam, a reporter and analyst with Inside Elections.

That’s what happened last year when McSally faced former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state Sen. Kelli Ward — now chairman of the Arizona Republican Party — in a competitive three-way primary. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema faced a first-time candidate in her primary and was able to devote most of her energy to the general election, where she beat McSally by 2.35 percentage points.

“Kyrsten Sinema was able to focus on a general campaign message during that time without having to be attacked,” Askarinam said.

After being named to McCain’s seat, McSally has to run for re-election, and both parties have focused on the race. Inside Elections has rated the Arizona race a toss-up.

McSally, a former Air Force combat pilot, and Kelly, a former astronaut, had raised a total of $13.9 million as of June, according to the most recent reports with the Federal Election Commission. Kelly does not currently face a significant challenger.

Republican political consultant Jason Rose said he believes that even if Republicans were dissatisfied with McSally, they would still rally behind her because of what’s at stake for the party in Arizona in 2020.

“All but the most extreme elements of the Republican Party know what’s at stake with a very capable and very significant candidate staring at the Republican nominee on the Democratic side,” Rose said.

He said McSally is currently the favorite to win on the Republican side.

“This seems to be a vanity project,” he said of McCarthy’s bid. “I can already predict that he will be introduced for the rest of his life as former U.S Senate candidate.”

Bill Scheel, founding partner of Phoenix-based political consultant firm Javelina, said it remains to be seen if McCarthy can drum up a serious campaign that can compete with the already established McSally.

“Can he pull away some of the tea party folks who did support Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio two years ago? That’s the test,” Scheel said. “The other question is, will figures like (Arizona Republican) Rep. Paul Gosar endorse someone like McCarthy?”

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