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Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair), left, with retired astronaut Mark Kelly outside the Woodland Park American Legion Hall on September 7, 2018 (NEW JERSEY GLOBE PHOTO)

Mark Kelly’s Arizona Senate bid could see boost from New Jersey

West Orange native would become New Jersey’s third Senator if he ousts appointed incumbent Martha McSally

By Nikita Biryukov, February 13 2019 6:50 pm

West Orange native Mark Kelly should be able to leverage his New Jersey roots to help fundraise for his bid to take the seat held by Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.).

“Combat veteran, astronaut, and born and bred in Essex County? There’s so much to be proud of,” said Michael Soliman, a Democratic strategist and fundraiser. “You bet New Jersey will come through for Mark Kelly.”

Kelly, a former astronaut who is the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona), has had no shortage of exposure since the close of his time with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

He has been actively involved in gun control advocacy since his wife was shot during an assassination attempt in 2011, and he was frequently seen on the campaign trail — including in New Jersey — in 2018, and Giffords will likely prove to be a blessing for him moving forward, said Rutgers University political science professor Ross Baker.

“She’s really his calling card, and although he has a distinguished career as an astronaut, I think there’s a lot of residual sympathy for Gabby Giffords, especially among progressives,” Baker said. “She’s a real asset. I don’t think he should have any trouble raising money.”

Kelly announced yesterday that he would challenge U.S. Senator Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican who was appointed to fill the seat of the late John McCain five weeks after losing the state’s other Senate seat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema by a 50%-48% margin.

But, with 2020 fast approaching and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-Newark) mounting a presidential run, New Jersey may also be asked to kick in for Kelly.

“Obviously large pools of candidates will probably place a strain on the ask for among consistent donors,” Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones, who does not personally know Kelly, said.  “I’m hoping everybody’s able to accomplish their fundraising goals, Booker more than anybody, because I think that’s good for Newark, it’s good for Essex County, it’s good for new Jersey and, ultimately, it’d be good for the nation.”

New Jersey has often been a strong source of campaign cash for candidates running in other states.

In 2018, New Jersey donors gave $340,000 to Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) Senate campaign, $233,000 to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Massachusetts) re-election campaign,  and $155,000 to Sinema.  The state also boosted the ultimately unsuccessful re-election prospects of U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) and Bill Nelson (D-Florida); each raised over a quarter of a million dollars in New Jersey.

Kelly has political ties to New Jersey too.  He campaigned for Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) and was once a student of Essex County Freeholder Pat Sebold, a longtime English teacher at West Orange High School.   Gov. Phil Murphy has called Kelly a friend.

In 2016, West Orange renamed an elementary school to honor Kelly and his brother, astronaut Scott Kelly.

If Kelly puts too much energy into fundraising from his home state, he could open himself up to attacks over carpetbagging, even though he has lived there for years, Baker said.

“It’s almost a predictable part of an attack ad for anybody who is not from the state,” Baker said. “So obviously, it would be nice to be able to have access to the New Jersey poll of money, but the downside is you want to improve your Arizona bonafides.”

McSally, who is already well-known to Arizona voters doesn’t have that same problem, and though the state has become bluer over time, Arizona is still largely a Republican state.

“Martha McSally is certainly a good candidate — a lot of experience: Former House member, Senate candidate,” Baker said. “She got beaten by Kyrsten Sinema, but she doesn’t have to introduce herself to the people of Arizona, so I think it’s going to be a tough race for Mark Kelly.”

Carpetbagger attacks haven’t always worked in Arizona.  In the 1982 GOP congressional primary, McCain was attacked at a debate for just recently moving to Arizona.

The response of McCain, who grew up as the son of a Navy officer and spent seven years in a POW camp, was legendary: “I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things.  As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

Former astronauts Mark Kelly, right, and Scott Kelly flank Essex County Freeholder Pat Sebold at the dedication of the Kelly Elementary School in West Orange in 2016. Sebold was Mark Kelly’s English teacher at West Orange High School (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
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