PHOENIX — Former astronaut Mark Kelly waded into the political arena Tuesday, making a bid for U.S. Senate and hoping to prove to Arizonans he’s about more than just gun control.
Kelly officially said he wants the seat formerly held by John McCain and now occupied by Republican Martha McSally. She was appointed to fill the vacancy by Gov. Doug Ducey but has to run in 2020 for the final two years of McCain’s term.
While Kelly has achieved some national attention, particularly for commanding the space shuttle, he is better known in Arizona as the husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson. She left Congress after being shot in the head during a 2011 assassination attempt and mass shooting outside a Tucson grocery store that left her partially disabled. Six people were killed and 13 wounded in the shootings.
Since that time, the pair have been on a crusade of sorts to persuade state and federal lawmakers to enact what they believe are reasonable restrictions on firearms. That starts with closing what some have called the gun-show “loophole” that exempts people who buy guns from another individual from having to go through the same background check as they would if purchasing a firearm from a licensed dealer.
Now Kelly needs to convince Arizona voters that he’s about much more than that.
In an interview with Capitol Media Services, Kelly provided some specifics.
For example, he said physical barriers do make sense along some areas of the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico, notably in urban areas.
“We can’t have an incredibly porous border,” Kelly said.
“But in some places it would be better if we applied technology,” saying that’s the way problems were solved at NASA, with “a science-based approach.”
Still Kelly said he wants more enforcement border checkpoints. “It’s too easy to illegally move drugs through these ports of entry,” he said.
Kelly said he got an important lesson in the importance of health care after Giffords’ shooting.
“She nearly died,” he said. “Her recovery took a long time.”
The issue, said Kelly, is that this kind of thing, whether it’s an injury or illness, happens to millions of others across the country.
“And often it happens when they don’t have health-care coverage, and it is devastating to them and their families,” he said. “It often ruins their lives.”
That, he said, goes beyond the physical problems, leaving crippling medical bills.
The top priority, said Kelly, is ensuring that people have access to health care and do not lose their coverage for pre-existing conditions. But he balked at whether he supports some type of single-payer system where the government is responsible for obtaining coverage for all residents.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m going to have to figure this out over time.”
Kelley’s other key issue is climate change.
“I’ve seen changes in this planet from orbit,” he said. The problem, said Kelly, is that people in Washington are not taking this seriously.
“Often, we have people in D.C. that don’t even believe in science,” he said.
Kelly stressed that while he is campaigning for the Democratic nomination, he is coming at the campaign and the job with the idea of being independent and working across the aisle on key issues.
“I don’t look at this through a partisan lens,” he said. “I think Arizonans need people who are independent, at least independent-minded.”
That may play in a general election campaign, as it did for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema who defeated McSally in the general election race for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Flake.
But Kelly first needs to win the Democratic primary, a hurdle Sinema did not need to face last year. And former state House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said Kelly is not simply going to be able to claim the Democratic nomination. What he said Kelly needs to do is provide Democratic voters with the kind of specifics on issues of importance to them to get their support.
“He’s going to have to demonstrate to voters he has a vision of some of the other big issues,” said Campbell, now a political consultant.
There’s also the question of whether Kelly, a relative newcomer to Arizona and Arizona politics, can gather the votes against those with deeper roots, including U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who represents Congressional District 7, which is primarily urban Phoenix.
“I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m looking seriously at running for the U.S. Senate in 2020, and that hasn’t changed,” Gallego posted on Twitter shortly after Kelly’s announcement. “I’ll be making a final decision and announcement soon.”
Gallego has his own backstory, including being the son of Hispanic immigrants and a Marine Corps veteran serving in Iraq. More significant, he also has an extensive voting record both in the Arizona Legislature and, since 2015, as a member of Congress.
“Ruben represents a big challenge,” Campbell said, saying Kelly will need to “earn his Democratic credentials.”
Kelly brushed aside the question of that lack of a record for voters to consider.
“Well, I’m not a politician,” he said. “Obviously, I’m new to this.”
But Kelly said that he does have 25 years of service in the Navy, including his own military record during the first Gulf War where he flew 39 combat missions as part of Operation Desert Storm. Then there’s his record as commander of the space shuttle.
“I’ve solved problems looking at data and science and information and I hope to apply that in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Gallego is not the only obstacle to the Democratic nomination. Former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, just elected to Congress this past November, also is exploring his options.
Republican political consultant Stan Barnes said whoever survives the Democrat primary will find McSally will be a stronger candidate than she was last year when she lost the Senate race to Sinema.
Barnes said he believes McSally learned her lesson and will not wage the same kind of negative campaign that left her short of votes at the end. And he said McSally also will have the benefit of 2020 being a presidential election year, enabling her to take advantage of support from and for President Trump.