Capt. Mark Kelly has flown dozens of combat missions over Iraq, worked to expand gun control in a state defined by its “Wild West” image, and spent nearly two months of his life in space. But of all the unlikely accomplishments in his life, Kelly’s victory as a first-time Democratic candidate in Arizona could outrank them all.
Kelly was declared the winner of one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country early Wednesday, defeating incumbent Sen. Martha McSally in a special-election victory that has the potential to deliver control of the Senate to the Democratic Party for the first time in six years.
Kelly, who will be sworn into office as early as Nov. 30, will now complete the term through 2023.
A former astronaut and Naval aviator, Kelly retired from NASA following the 2011 assassination attempt on his wife, former congresswoman Gabby Giffords. As Giffords recovered from the shooting, Kelly became an ardent advocate for reforming gun laws, founding with his wife a nonprofit that campaigns for red flag laws and universal background checks.
Kelly broke fundraising records when he announced his campaign for the Senate in February 2019 with a viral four-minute video announcing his “next mission.”
“I learned a lot from being an astronaut. I learned a lot from being a pilot in the Navy. I learned a lot about solving problems from being an engineer,” Kelly said in the video, which brought in more than $1.1 million in the 24 hours after he announced his candidacy. “But what I learned from my wife is how you use policy to improve people’s lives.”
Kelly had held a steady and sizable lead over McSally for months in public polling as Arizona—once a Republican stronghold—began to sour on President Donald Trump. Despite the president’s plummeting approval ratings in the Grand Canyon State, and despite widespread disapproval of Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to appoint her to McCain’s seat after she failed to win on her own two years ago, McSally has clung to Trump like a lost child in a grocery store despite, a political liability that has likely ended the political career of the former two-term congresswoman.
McSally, who like Kelly is a former combat pilot, had worked to distance herself from her relatively centrist legislative record with a tight embrace of Trump—and by painting her opponent as a potential tool for far-left Democrats in the U.S. Senate.
“My race will decide the direction of the country—the radical left can take over in the Senate,” McSally said at a campaign rally in the state less than a week before the election, shortly after Trump hustled her onstage by telling her that the supporters assembled “don’t want to hear this.”
“If you want someone who’s going to be Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s 51st vote to take away our freedoms and Second Amendment rights, then you got a guy named Mark Kelly,” McSally continued. “But if you want to continue to have a fighter who is proud to work with President Trump for the great American comeback and a strong military and secure our borders and Second Amendment rights, then I’m your girl, Arizona. Vote Trump-McSally, let’s save the country!”
Kelly, on the other hand, followed a tried-and-true path to statewide electoral victory for Democrats in Arizona, pledging to be an independent voice in a broken Washington, beholden not to donors or party interests, but to Arizonans.
“Partisan politics has made this crisis worse, and partisan politics and partisan politicians are not going to get us out of it,” Kelly said during a debate with McSally in October. “We need independent leadership focused on solving the problems we face.”