Arizona’s Senate race turned into an all-women contest Tuesday night after voters tapped Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally to represent their respective parties in November’s general election.
Both women are vying for the seat left open by Senator Jeff Flake, a notorious Trump dissenter who announced in October that he wouldn’t be running for re-election. The race is expected to be a fierce one, especially since Arizona is considered a battleground state this year, one of a handful where Democrats have a shot at picking up a Senate seat.
No matter who wins—Sinema or McSally—it’s a guarantee Arizona will soon send a woman to the Senate for the first time ever.
Sinema, currently representing Arizona in the House of Representatives, defeated newcomer Deedra Abboud in her Democratic primary, claiming more than 81 percent of the vote as of midnight Eastern standard time. Her victory marks a win for the Democratic establishment during an election year punctuated by upsets from political outsiders pushing the party further left. Whereas Abboud campaigned on a slate of progressive causes, earning her the backing of Justice Democrats, the Progressive Democrats of America and #VoteProChoice, Sinema aligns more closely with the party’s centrist wing, running on health care and immigration reform.
On the Republican side, McSally, also serving in the House, edged out opponents Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio in a messy GOP primary to clinch a double-digit percentage victory over them both. All three candidates had been vocal in their support of President Donald Trump, but McSally positioned herself as a slightly more moderate candidate, while Ward, a state senator, and Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff Trump pardoned last year, embraced Trump’s rhetoric and campaign style.
With Democrats’ much-promised blue wave and Trump’s competing red one hanging in the balance, Sinema and McSally’s gender may not be at the top of most voters’ minds. But nonetheless, experts keeping a close eye on women running this cycle say it will play a factor—even in an all-women race.
“There’s this sort of myth about ‘gender-neutral’ races,” Kelly Dittmar, the project director for Gender Watch 2018, a branch of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Broadly ahead of the primary results. “Some people have the idea that if you have two women running against each other, gender stops mattering.
“Arizona’s Senate race—in addition to reaching the milestone of sending the first woman to the Senate—will serve as reminder that gender doesn’t cease to be a factor just because a race is between two people of the same sex,” Dittmar continued.
Dittmar says she’s already noticed gender dynamics play out between Sinema and McSally, even before they became their party’s nominees.
In attempts to nail Sinema on what she sees as a more radical, “fringe” past, McSally recalled Sinema once protesting in a “Green Party–pink tutu” in an interview with AZcentral.com reporters.
"When it comes to my opponent, she has a lot of explaining to do if you look at her Green Party-pink tutu, proud Prada socialist past and her extreme makeover,” McSally said.
The day of the primary, McSally went on to call Sinema a “chameleon,” whose moderate positions she sees as evidence of a “Hollywood makeover.” McSally has tried to draw a sharp distinction between Sinema and herself, having campaigned heavily on her military record. "We’re going to spend the next 70 days making sure people see the contrast between a protestor or a patriot,” she told reporters Tuesday.
“McSally may be talking about Sinema’s record—that she’s a ‘protester,’ not a ‘patriot’—so it’s related to nationalism and her credentials on national security, but it very much cues gender,” Dittmar said, “especially when she uses the image of Sinema in a pink tutu versus herself in a military uniform. Whether she knows it or not, she’s pitting stereotypes of weakness against strength.”
Arizona’s Senate race is largely about what it means to run as a Trump ally in a battleground state in 2018, and what it takes as a Democrat to turn it blue. Dittmar says the contest—one of six all-women races so far—also holds a crucial reminder during an election cycle that’s been termed the next “Year of the Woman” for the record number of female candidates.
“Women relate to their identity and gender in so many different ways,” Dittmar said. “It’s important for us to remember that not all women candidates are monolithic.”