Who is Martha McSally? That’s the question being asked in GOP political circles in Arizona and Washington, D.C., over the past several months.
The retired Air Force colonel is among the Republicans running in the special election to succeed former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). She probably will not win the primary, but some important Republicans wish she would.
To say she was off the political grid prior to her candidacy is an understatement. Her announcement speech set up was amateurish. Even people on her own payroll will describe her nascent campaign as “rag tag.”
The video of her announcement intrigued political consultant Christian Morgan of Axiom Strategies so much that he and his team tracked McSally down and pitched working with her.
“The American people are thirsting for leadership these days. They don’t see it in the other opponents,” Morgan said earlier this week. “Five days out from the primary, Martha’s surging,”
There are three other candidates in the GOP nomination hunt. Each has more established ties to Tucson, Ariz., than the 46-year-old McSally, who has lived in the area off and on over the past 10 years, some of the time while on military assignment.
During her 28 years in the military, McSally was a prominent figure. She broke gender barriers as the first female combat pilot in the Air Force. But when told “no” on various policies, she fought the bureaucracy with research and litigation, even going to Congress.
McSally made the most waves when she challenged the military’s policy of forcing women to wear abayas off-base while stationed in Saudi Arabia. Over the course of that debate, she was featured in newspaper articles and appeared on “60 Minutes.” And she won.
As for her current Congressional run, she was rarely even mentioned in early news articles as a contender. Jesse Kelly, who barely lost to Giffords in 2010, is expected to emerge the winner of Tuesday’s special GOP contest. But McSally popped in the news because of her reaction to then-presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s opposition to women in combat.
“I really just wanted to go kick him in the jimmy,” she said on Fox News. “He’s totally out of touch.”
The turning point for McSally came in early March. She traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with journalists, fundraisers and party powerbrokers. Most knew little about her, but she left many impressed. Julie Conway of VIEW PAC, an organization dedicated to electing Republican women to Congress, was one of those people.
“I didn’t know anything about her. We sat down with her and everyone kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Wow,’” Conway said. “This is exactly the kind of woman that we want to support and see come to Washington.”
Another prominent backer is Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), whose PAC made a donation to the campaign on March 28.
McSally did not knock the socks off her primary opponents with her first fundraising report. But her $134,000 raised was respectable and she outlapped a sitting state Senator in the race.
Her aides and campaign literature often refer to her as “a warrior.” It is a fitting term, because when she goes on offense, she does it as a happy warrior. She does not throw out red meat lines or embrace a nasty tone. When offered an opportunity to criticize President Barack Obama, for example, she described herself as “not on the bus of bashing the president.”
But she does have bite.
When Kelly laid out his solutions for increasing energy prices, he described the United States as having “significantly more oil in this nation than Saudi Arabia.”
She rebutted, “Jesse, we don’t have more oil than Saudi Arabia.” For the record, the CIA agrees with McSally. The Kelly campaign points to this Fox News article, saying that he was referring to oil that were not yet commercially accessible, a different metric from the CIA.
Then she explained how the technology does not exist to drill all of the oil in the United States. “Maybe you should use your GI Bill to get a geology degree to help with that,” she playfully added.
It was a subtle dig. McSally graduated from the Air Force Academy and has a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Kelly served in the Marines and attended Montana State, but does not have a college degree.
Her critics are quick to point out that she is weaker on domestic policy and local issues than she is on foreign policy. She has also been described by a Republican aligned with an opposing campaign as opportunistic and as someone who has an “attitude she needs to start at the top.”
But she can work her charm on the trail. Many have noted she has crossover appeal, not unlike the woman she is hoping to replace.
Many Republicans privately say they think she has the only biography that can compete with that of former Giffords aide Ron Barber, the presumptive Democratic nominee who was shot twice during the 2011 Safeway shootings that seriously injured Giffords.
Most have concluded that the primary campaign was probably too short for McSally to have gotten her footing. But the consensus is if she loses on Tuesday, her stock will be up regardless. And many see her as likely to run in the regularly-scheduled August primary if Kelly fails to win the June special election to fill the Giffords vacancy.
“I think that she’s got a heckuva shot to win this,” VIEW PAC’s Conway said. “And even if she doesn’t, she’s not going any place. And she will run after this special and be in the regular [election] and I think she’s got a heckuva shot to win that.“