Claims by McSally and Kelly in the Arizona U.S. Senate debate

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Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democratic challenger Mark Kelly met in Phoenix for their first and only debate Tuesday evening, sparring for nearly 90 minutes over health care, immigration and other hot-button issues.

Kelly criticized McSally’s record at every turn, saying she’d jeopardized the health of Arizonans with preexisting conditions and left unemployed workers hanging during the COVID-19 pandemic.

McSally, for her part, endeavored to paint Kelly as a radical leftist with ties to China, questioning his business dealings and slamming him as weak on border security. 

But, how accurate were their claims? 

Here’s a closer look at what each candidate said Tuesday, with analysis from The Arizona Republic.


Business ties 

The claim: McSally said Kelly “sold out to China in multiple business arrangements on his path to get rich quick.” She said she is “standing up to China” while Kelly is “doing business with them.” 

The facts: McSally and other Republicans have blasted Kelly for his ties to World View Enterprises, a Tucson-based company that uses high-altitude balloons for commercial and governmental mapping and surveillance.

Long-time investors in World View, which Kelly co-founded, include Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech company that operates the WeChat messaging and social media service. Like other tech companies in China, it has close working ties to the Communist Party in Beijing.

Media reports indicate at least three U.S.-based venture capital firms also have invested in World View: Norwest Venture Partners, Moment Ventures and Base Ventures. Pima County officials spent about $15 million to build facilities for its operations in hopes the company would produce significant economic impact, but the company has yet to meet its employment targets four years later.

Kelly’s 2019 financial disclosure forms showed World View stock holdings worth between $115,000 and $300,000 at the time. Records indicate Kelly’s campaign received at least $4,000 from World View employees and $5,000 from a Tencent executive.

As of August 2019, McSally also had invested in mutual funds whose portfolios included Chinese companies such as Tencent, according to a report from the Arizona Mirror. McSally sold off the investments last year, according to her campaign manager. 

‘Communist banner’

The claim: McSally said Kelly participated in Chinese “junkets” or “forums” in 2003, 2004 and 2005. When he went into space, she said, one of the few things he chose to bring with him was “the Chinese Communist banner from this forum.” 

McSally repeatedly brought up the “Communist banner,” indicating Kelly considered it one of his most important possessions.  

The facts: In the early 2000s, Kelly participated in the Young Leaders Forum — a four-day fellowship program that “connects exceptional Chinese and Americans under 40” to “explore substantive issues,” according to the New York-based National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. 

The committee runs the program in partnership with the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, which operates “under the leadership of the Communist Party of China,” according to its website. Other sponsors, such as Time Warner, UPS, Pepsi and Intel, assist with program costs.

Kelly met his wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, at the Young Leaders Forum. Both were fellows in 2003. He later took an event banner, not a Communist party flag, into orbit, according to the Committee on U.S.-China Relations,and called his participation “one of the absolute highlights of my life.”

The list of past YLF fellows spans political affiliations, as well as the public and private sectors. Former participants include Patrick Ventrell, communications director for former National Security Advisor Susan Rice; former Republican congressmen Erik Paulsen of Minnesota and Kevin Yoder of Kansas; U.S. Air Force Col. Erick Gilbert; Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr; Robin Goldstein, a food and wine critic; and Adam Kaplin, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at Johns Hopkins University, among others. 

Host cities alternate between China and the U.S., with Sedona hosting the 2004 fellows.


Senate ‘vacations’

The claim: Kelly said the U.S. Senate “has gone on vacation four times since this pandemic has started,” rather than staying to nail down details of aid packages for struggling Americans.

“I don’t think Sen. McSally has stood up once to her party and said, ‘Why are we going home?'” he said.

The facts: The U.S. Senate indeed recessed in March, July, August and October. The breaks varied in length. 

Recess decisions ultimately are up to Senate leadership, of which McSally is not a part. The Republic could not immediately find evidence McSally had weighed in on the recesses one way or another. 

Spring Break advice

The claim: Kelly said McSally told Arizonans to go on spring break after being briefed on the dangers COVID-19 “at some point, whether it was the last week in January, early February.”

The facts: During the debate, McSally did not say exactly when she was first briefed on the virus. She did contend that early in the pandemic, the advice was that the risk to the U.S. remained low.

McSally’s Facebook page indicates the Arizona Department of Health Services briefed her on COVID-19 in early March, telling her the risk of spread in Arizona was low at that time. On March 6, local news reports quoted McSally saying basic mitigation efforts were enough at the time.

“It doesn’t mean that everybody needs to stay home, not go to work, not go on spring break, not live their lives,” she said. “That definitely is too much of a panic reaction that could have negative implications.” 

An attack ad by a Democratic super PAC, Middle Class Fighting to Restore Arizona’s Unity and Decency, later used McSally’s quote to slam her COVID-19 response.

U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz. prepares to debate Democratic challenger Mark Kelly at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University on Oct. 6, 2020. (Photo: Rob Schumacher/The Republic)

Small business loans

The claim: McSally claimed that Kelly did not support creation of the federal Paycheck Protection Program.She said he complained it “wasn’t working while his company was secretly getting (a PPP) loan and taking advantage of it.” 

The facts: Congress created the Paycheck Protection Program as a lifeline for businesses affected by the pandemic, with banks and other financial institutions responsible for reviewing loan applications and distributing funds. The loans do not have to be repaid if businesses use them for payroll and other qualified expenses, such as most mortgage interest, rent and utility costs.

Kelly has not criticized the establishment of the program itself but hasraised concerns about the program’s management and oversight, saying it was mired in red tape and Congress needed to do more to hold banks accountable for ensuring money went where it was designed to go. 

“Washington needs to get out of its own way, immediately put more resources into this program, and fix some of the issues that have made it harder for Arizona small businesses to get this relief,” he said in April. 

McSally posted similar criticisms on Twitter about the same time, saying she was “troubled by reports of publicly traded companies with access to capital & bank relationships receiving money quickly while many ma & pa shops can’t even get a call back.”

As for the “secret” PPP loan, McSally didn’t specify the company. But it appears she was again eferring to World View Enterprises, which was approved for between $1 million and $2 million in aid in April, according to the Small Business Administration. Representatives for World View and Kelly’s campaign recently told PolitiFact he was not involved in the loan application process. 

Border security

Border Patrol handshake 

The claim: McSally said Kelly refused to shake the hand of a Border Patrol agent at an event last year, pointing to the interaction as evidence of Kelly’s disregard for border enforcement. 

The facts: McSally seemed to be referring to Art del Cueto, a border agent and vice president of National Border Patrol Council, a labor union that represents border agents and support staff. Del Cueto, longtime supporter of President Donald Trump, recounted the event recently on a radio show.

Kelly disputed the claim during the debate, saying: “I will shake anybody’s hand any time . … I don’t know where Sen. McSally gets this stuff from.”

The Republic was not able to definitively assess this claim because no footage of the alleged interaction seems to exist. During the debate, Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller posted on Twitter: “I’ve asked Art about this. He says it happened. But there are no witnesses, there’s no video, and Kelly denies it.” He then inserted a shrugging emoji. 

Support for David Garcia

The claim: McSally said Kelly endorsed 2018 gubernatorial candidate David Garcia, a Democrat who she claimed “said we shouldn’t have any borders, we should have no border security, no border wall.” 

The facts: Kelly and Giffords did endorse Garcia in 2018 when he challenged incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey. And Garcia took quite a bit of heat for his comments on border security that year. 

That summer, when federal agents’ separation of migrant parents from their children spurred international backlash, Garcia issued a statement that said: “Trump’s immoral actions — which Ducey has enabled — demand that we rebuild our immigration system top-to-bottom and start by replacing ICE with an immigration system that reflects our American values, values I and so many before have served to protect.”

Then, during a speech to the Netroots Nation in New Orleans, he told the convention: “Just imagine, no wall. No wall in southern Arizona. Just imagine that on Nov. 7 when Trump opens up his Twitter account, and sees that in Arizona of all places, the good people of Arizona have just elected a guy named Garcia governor of Arizona.” 

Garcia later told The Republic he wasn’t calling for an open border with Mexico at Netroots or suggesting that existing barriers be taken down — he was instead referring to Trump’s costly border wall proposal, he said. But attack ads seized on his “no wall” comment, among others. 

Climate change

Fossil fuels

The claim: McSally repeatedly said Kelly had vowed to “ban fossil fuels.” Her campaign later sent out a truncated television clip of a Kelly saying “We’ve gotta get off fossil fuels” as evidence. 

The facts: The clip is from an AZFamily interview Kelly did in early November 2019. His full quote indicates he was advocating for a reduced dependency on fossil fuels rather than an abrupt prohibition of them.

“We’ve gotta get off fossil fuels. We’ve gone from 240 to 415 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and we’ve got to tackle this,” Kelly said. “What that means is, we’ve got to get on to more renewable energy, like solar, which could be a good thing here in Arizona. It could be good-paying jobs. So, we could be on the winning side of this if we choose to do that.” 

Kelly has made similar remarks at campaign events, such as when he spoke at a senior living center in Tucson in May. 

Larry Bodine, president of Democrats of Greater Tucson, quoted him in a blog post as saying during that visit: “We’ve got to get off fossil fuel. Big utilities can get their power from renewable energy sources. The price of solar power is coming down. We need to speed up the price decrease in renewable energy. When you can make an easy choice to switch from fossil fuel to renewable energy, people will do that.”

Health care

Preexisting conditions

The claim: Kelly said McSally has repeatedly voted to “undermine or eliminate those protections for preexisting conditions” outlined in the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. 

The facts: McSally voted to repeal the ACA as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2015. Two years later, she voted to replace it with the American Health Care Act, which would’ve put older Americans and those with preexisting conditions at risk for higher premiums, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

McSally also has repeatedly avoided weighing in on Texas v. Azar, a lawsuit in which several Republican attorneys general — including Arizona’s top prosecutor, Mark Brnovich — argue the Supreme Court should eliminate the ACA, including its preexisting condition protections. 

In July, PolitiFact said nothing in McSally’s record supported the claim that she “will always protect those with pre-existing conditions.”

McSally’s campaign has pointed to the Protect Act, which McSally co-sponsored, in response as evidence of her fight on behalf of Americans with complicated medical histories. The legislation proposed to ban insurance plans from imposing “any preexisting condition exclusion with respect to … coverage.” 

But analysts have said such a ban would be ineffective without a mechanism to ensure plans that cover preexisting conditions remain affordable. 


PAC contributions

The claim: Kelly said McSally has accepted millions of dollars in contributions from corporate political action committees, alleging she is beholden to funders rather than Arizonans.

The facts: The Senate race, like other competitive Congressional races nationwide, has spurred massive amounts of spending this year. Kelly has raised more money than McSally throughout the campaign for the Senate seat. indicates McSally has accepted nearly $2 million from “business” PACs and another $621,000-plus from “ideological” PACs. While he has shunned money from corporate PACs, Kelly has headlined fundraisers hosted by corporate lobbyists and earned money on the speakers circuit from groups aligned with business interests. 

Candidates can choose which contributions they accept directly, but they do not have control over outside spending on ads. Both McSally and Kelly have been supported by ads funded by outside PACs. 

Tax giveaways

The claim: Kelly said “McSally voted for a $1.9 trillion tax giveaway to big corporations and the wealthiest Americans.” He said 80% of that “went to the wealthiest Americans and big corporations.” 

The facts: Kelly is referring to Trump’s tax cut package, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which McSally supported. The $1.9 trillion figure comes from a 2018 report issued by the Congressional Budget Office, which said the cuts would increase the national deficit by that much between 2018 and 2028.

More than 80% of the benefits from the tax cuts would go to the top 1% of Americans by 2027, but not immediately, according to a study by the Tax Policy Center. In other words, the 80% assessment reflects just one point in the life of a bill that spans 10 years. 

Republic reporters Ronald Hansen and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez contributed to this analysis.

Reach the reporter at or 602-653-6807. Follow her on Twitter @mpolletta.

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