Ex-fighter pilot launches bid to replace Sen. Flake

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., waves from a T-6 World War II airplane as she leaves for Phoenix, Friday in Tucson, Ariz. McSally announced Friday that she is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Jeff Flake. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., waves from a T-6 World War II airplane as she leaves for Phoenix, Friday in Tucson, Ariz. McSally announced Friday that she is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Jeff Flake. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Republican congresswoman Martha McSally embraced President Donald Trump and his hardline immigration rhetoric as she launched her Senate bid Friday, Jan. 12, lashing out at the same establishment leaders who support her campaign to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.

The 51-year-old retired Air Force combat pilot attacked Sharia law and sanctuary cities while vowing to support Trump’s push to build a massive border wall. Her comments came amid a series of public appearances – in Tucson, Phoenix and Prescott – and social media posts as she trekked across the state flying a World War II-era fighter plane.

“I’m a fighter pilot and I talk like one,” she said in an announcement video, a fiery beginning to one of the nation’s premier Senate contests. “That’s why I told Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries and get the job done.”

Like few others, the Arizona election is expected to showcase the feud between the Republican Party’s establishment and its fiery anti-immigration wing in particular — all in a border state that features one of the nation’s largest Hispanic populations.

McSally is the early establishment favorite in the contest, even if she has recently adopted the same anti-establishment message that fueled Trump’s political rise in 2016. One of her primary opponents, outspoken Trump backer Kelli Ward, was quick to call McSally “a pretender” on Friday.

The race will test the appeal of the Trump political playbook — which emphasizes the dangers of illegal immigration and demands border security above all else — in a state where nearly 1 in 3 residents is Hispanic and roughly 1 million are eligible to vote, according to the Pew Research Center.

McSally, the first female fighter pilot to fly a combat mission, flew herself across Arizona on Friday. Her outfit for the big day: a blue flight suit.

She enters a dynamic Republican primary field that features a nationally celebrated immigration hardliner, 85-year-old former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by Trump last year after defying a judge’s order to stop traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. Another high-profile candidate, Ward, was an early favorite of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Little more than a year ago, McSally refused to endorse Trump, and she referred to his sexually predatory comments caught on the “Access Hollywood” tape as “disgusting.” On Twitter on Friday, McSally thanked Trump for attacking Democrats who are contemplating a government shutdown to protect young immigrants known as “Dreamers.”

She also co-sponsored an immigration plan released by House conservatives this week that would reduce legal immigration levels by 25 percent, block federal grants to sanctuary cities and restrict the number of relatives that immigrants already in the U.S. can bring here. The bill, which is unlikely to survive the GOP-controlled Senate, also provides temporary legal status for young immigrants enrolled in DACA.

Democrats see Arizona as a rare opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in 2018 as their party struggles to defend vulnerable incumbents in several other Republican-leaning states. Trump won Arizona in 2016 by less than 4 points.

The Democratic Party’s leading candidate, three-term incumbent Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, faces a relatively weak field, while McSally and her Republican opponents are expected to wage a bruising Republican contest until the state’s late August primary elections.