Arizona’s Democratic Candidate in Senate Race Takes Heat for Radical Past, but Is Bulletproof on Israel

One is a former anti-war activist, the other a former combat pilot – but Kyrsten Sinema still hopes to defeat Martha McSally and flip the state from red to blue in November

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Republican candidate Martha McSally, left, and her Democratic rival Kyrsten Sinema, in a studio prior to a televised debate in Phoenix, Arizona, October 15, 2018.
Republican candidate Martha McSally, left, and her Democratic rival Kyrsten Sinema, in a studio prior to a televised debate in Phoenix, Arizona, October 15, 2018.Credit: Matt York,AP

The neck-and-neck race in Arizona between Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally is among the most closely watched Senate midterm contests. Democrats see it as a rare chance to flip a seat from red to blue if Sinema wins and replaces retiring GOP senator Jeff Flake. 

The fact that both candidates are female congresswomen – one a former air force colonel and combat fighter pilot; the other who entered politics as a fierce anti-war activist – has given the race a particularly dramatic cast. Polls over the summer gave Sinema a healthy lead over her rival, but the most recent poll, conducted by the New York Times last week, gave the GOP candidate a two-point lead.

With the race so tight, Arizona’s estimated 108,000 Jewish voters can have a decisive impact, if, as predicted, Jews turn out in high numbers: A recent Democratic-sponsored survey found that 74 percent of Jews are expected to cast their ballots in the midterms.  

The GOP’s McSally has been working hard to remind voters of Sinema’s past, in order to paint her as a radical left-winger who is “out of step with American values.” She has highlighted her rival’s politics preceding her run for Congress in 2012 – the year her positions, including those on Israel, shifted from far left to centrist. 

But McSally’s attacks on Sinema have generally refrained from criticizing her positions on Israel. 

GOP candidate Martha McSally addressing her constituents during a Get Out the Vote Rally in Gilbert, Arizona, October 12, 2018.Credit: Darryl Webb,AP

That is because “her record has been pretty bulletproof on Israel,” said Jewish Democratic Council Executive Director Ron Klein, with little for Republicans to attack as they have with progressive candidates in other states. “Her position has been very clear: She is supportive of the agenda of pro-Israel Democrats,” he added. 

The Republican Jewish Council’s Matt Brooks, however, begs to differ. “Sinema has a long history of holding anti-Israel views,” he charged. “She has been involved in organizations … that have been highly critical of Israel and opposed military aid.”

By contrast, Brooks says McSally “has been a life-long and ardent supporter of Israel,” lauding her “robust military assistance for Israel, supporting the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and a vocal opponent of the flawed Iran deal.”  

But on some of those key issues, Sinema’s voting record has not been significantly different from McSally’s, pro-Israel Democrats point out. Her centrism on foreign policy has been a clear departure from her the politics of her youth.

Since entering Congress six years ago, Sinema’s voting record has been viewed as one of the most conservative among House Democrats. She remains one of the small number of remaining Congress members of the Blue Dog Coalition – a caucus of centrist and conservative Democrats “dedicated to the financial stability and national security of the country, notwithstanding partisan political positions and personal fortune” (according to its official website).

For Israel watchers, the most significant of those choices were her decision to be among the minority of Democratic senators to oppose the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal in 2015; her co-sponsorship of  the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act in 2014; and, earlier this year, her backing of President Donald Trump's decision to strike Syria because of its alleged use of chemical weapons

Nonetheless, McSally, other Republicans and the conservative media have all made a concerted effort to draw attention to Sinema’s politics in the years before 2012 – when she was a young progressive activist opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a state politician affiliated not with the Democrats but the Green Party.  

Sinema’s transformation from anti-war activist to centrist politician with national aspirations included a major shift regarding her positions on Israel. That change took place during her run for Congress in 2012 – specifically during the party primaries, when she vied for the Democratic nomination against two Jewish competitors. 

During that hard-fought campaign, Tablet magazine reported on charges by her rivals that, in the early 2000s, Sinema organized for groups hostile to Israel, and that the group she co-founded and ultimately led, Local to Global Justice, was a friendly space for Israel’s enemies. In 2007-08, the group signed onto petitions against U.S. aid to Israel and condemned Israeli “human rights violations against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and against civilians in Lebanon.” 

Sinema was also reportedly part of Women in Black, a network founded in Israel during the first intifada to protest human rights abuses in the territories. The right-wing Washington Free Beacon slammed her in 2012 as an “anti-Israel activist” tied to Palestinian extremism, who was merely trying to “clean up” her image regarding the Jewish state.

Sinema pushed back against what she called “false attacks,” and even won support from the local branch of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. In her 2012 campaign position paper, she vowed that “as a member of Congress, I will vote for continued foreign aid to Israel,” including increases “as threats increase in the dangerous neighborhood in which Israel lives.”

Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema, left, with campaign volunteers in Tempe, Arizona, October 2, 2018.Credit: Ross D. Franklin,AP

Saying she had been moved by a visit to the Israeli border town of Sderot during the 2008-09 Gaza war, Sinema said “Israel has the right to defend herself from her neighbors and from terrorist organizations.” She added that she supported a two-state solution comprised of “a secure Jewish state of Israel and the other, an independent, demilitarized Palestine.”

Regarding Iran, she said she would be “aggressive in working with the administration” to impose and uphold sanctions on Iran, and “leaving all options on the table.” 

Sinema’s positions, in line with centrist Democrats, were lamented by the far-left website Mondoweiss, which called her positions “craven.” An article penned by Mondoweiss founder Philip Weiss portrayed her as a sell-out, blaming her shift on “money and the establishment, where the campaign financing is on the Democratic side, and where the party endorsements are.” 

Meanwhile, pro-Israel quarters viewed “Sinema’s new game” with suspicion. In the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in July 2012, Shmuel Rosner speculated that she may be “hiding her real views, but is going to go back to being very critical of Israel as soon as she’s elected.” Based on private correspondence between Sinema and a Palestinian activist, Rosner opined that she is not “instinctively pro-Israel.” 

But a look at her subsequent voting record belies that skepticism – so much so that it appears to have stymied any effort in the current Senate contest for McSally to attack Sinema as being anti-Israel while in Congress.

Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration, also characterized Sinema’s record as "fairly moderate with strong support for Israel and opposition to the Iran deal” and, as a result, “she hasn't left much room to attack her on that front."

Instead, McSally’s criticism has focused on Sinema's opposition to U.S. military action in the early 2000s – an issue in which McSally has the upper hand due to her military record. 

The RJC’s Brooks pointed to Sinema’s “troubling” decision during her activist days in 2003 to offer a “fervent embrace” of Lynne Stewart – an attorney sent to federal prison for helping Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman, a story published recently by Fox News. (Abdel-Rahman was a former client of Stewart’s who was charged and sentenced to life in the 1990s for plotting to blow up the United Nations, an FBI building, two tunnels and a bridge in New York City.)

In the candidates’ October 16 debate, McSally charged that Sinema had been a “supporter of treason” when she protested actions by the U.S. military. The accusation came following a CNN exposé on incendiary flyers distributed by a group Sinema led “depicting an American soldier as a skeleton inflicting ‘U.S. terror’ in Iraq,” and urging action against then-President George W. Bush "and his fascist, imperialist war." Sinema has dismissed the attacks as “ridiculous” and accused McSally of taking “a low road.” 

But Klein dismisses such charges as desperate last-minute attacks. “It’s not what she may have said or done once – it’s how she has voted,” said Klein. 

In places like Arizona, where both Republicans and Democrats are perceived as being pro-Israel, he said, other issues prevail – on which Arizona Jews, like the community nationally, skews heavily liberal and Democratic. 

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri, a Tucson dual citizen who lived in Israel for 16 years – and has a daughter living there now – agreed with Klein. 

“For me, Israel isn’t a factor in this race: it’s more about the issues of health care and immigration and education. More than anything else, it’s focused on stopping Trump than anything else. I’m just voting Democrat down the ticket,” she said.

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