Martha McSally Won't Take No for an Answer

Martha McSally Won't Take No for an Answer

By Emily Cadei

SourceDouglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty


McSally says she wants to bring the same leadership she brought to a 22-year Air Force career to Congress, an institution that could certainly use some guidance.

By Emily Cadei

Martha McSally has a habit of not looking before she leaps. 

As a Rhode Island teenager, McSally was all set to go to Cornell and spend her college years in upstate New York, when the Air Force Academy came calling. ”I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” McSally recalls, but after losing her father at 12, she decided the discipline would be good for her. So she packed her bags for Colorado Springs. 

Almost 30 years later, a decorated military career in the rearview mirror, McSally booked a round-trip ticket from Germany to Arizona to test the waters for a Republican congressional run to replace Gabby Giffords in the Tuscon area, where she’d made her home as an adult. She woke up that first morning back on American soil — a week’s worth of meetings with various advisors and officials on her schedule — and decided, without talking to a single person, that she was going to quit her professor gig at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies back in Bavaria and try her hand at politics.

This is the kid with motion sicknesses who grew up to be the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat.

”I know now that all of those meetings were intended to talk me out of it,” McSally laughs now. Like so many other choices she’s made in her life, her decision to run for office after 22 years in the Air Force was a gut decision. And it’s one that hasn’t worked out for her yet: She lost her first two races in 2012. 

Martha with her father standing behind her outdoors in the snow.

High Flying Republican

Source Will Seberger/Corbis

In running a third time, she’s once again trusting her gut — which is telling her she could be one of Congress’s newest members one year from now.

The retired Air Force colonel will readily admit that her first decision to run for Congress wasn’t exactly rational. What was she up against? For starters, the shortened time frame of the crowded special election to replace Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the three-term Arizona Democrat who was shot in the head by a deranged gunman in January 2011 (he killed six others). A year later, Giffords announced she was resigning her seat to focus on her recovery — causing a scramble for her seat.

McSally lost a GOP primary in the special election to replace Giffords in the spring of 2012. And then she lost again, to former Giffords aide Ron Barber, in a general election contest in the fall for a full term representing Arizona’s second congressional district. But she came within just 2,500 votes — one of the narrowest margins of the 2012 elections. And with the political tide turning against incumbents, no Democratic president on the top of the ticket and having campaign experience under her belt, McSally and Republicans are betting this third time’s the charm in a swing district. Political oddsmakers think so too — a bevy of them have listed Barber as one of the most vulnerable House members of 2014.

The reality for McSally is that she had little political experience prior to 2012 — with the exception of a year as a legislative fellow working for Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl in Washington, D.C.

 They turned me into a fighter pilot. This is who I am. When I see something messed up, I’m going to challenge it.

— Martha McSally

But her personal story is the kind that sells hardbacks: This is the kid with motion sicknesses who grew up not just to be a fighter pilot but the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and the first woman to command a fighter squadron — eventually receiving a bronze star in Afghanistan.

And then there was her headline-grabbing, eight-year fight against the Defense Department and its mandate barring women servicemembers stationed in Saudi Arabia from driving, per local laws, and requiring them to wear an abaya and head scarf — traditional Saudi female garb — when off base.

“I can fly a single-seat aircraft in enemy territory, but I can’t drive a vehicle,” McSally told CBS’s 60 Minutes in 2002, a year after she filed a lawsuit against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld challenging the abaya policy. ”They turned me into a fighter pilot. This is who I am. When I see something messed up, I’m going to challenge it.”

Ultimately, the military backed down and lifted those requirements, and Congress passed legislation affirming the change.

McSally swears she’s spent her whole life believing that one person can indeed make a difference, even in a place like Congress.

McSally’s congressional campaign plays up those experiences hard, emphasizing her leadership qualities; her determination; her willingness to challenge the status quo and work with anyone, Democrat or Republican, to get things done. And talking to McSally by phone reinforces the impression that this is a woman with a full head of steam — her voice virtually crackles with positive energy as she runs through her past experiences, her outlook on life and why she wants to take on Congress, all at high speed. The introductory video on McSally’s campaign has the one-time Ironman triathlete literally running in the Arizona desert, for chrissakes.

Veteran political commenator Stuart Rothenberg wrote a hard-hitting critique of that tendency after meeting with McSally in November, writing that if she is “as much of a straight shooter as she says she is, she ought to answer the question about how she would have voted” on the shutdown. Where she still falters is on the politicking — establishing and explaining political positions and, Arizona political watchers say, working a room or a campaign stump speech. It was clear when discussing immigration reform — a hot-button political issue not just nationally but at home in her Tucson district, which features a long stretch of border with Mexico — that McSally wasn’t comfortable talking policy nitty-gritty and wanted to avoid stating a firm position. That hasn’t escaped her Democratic critics or political pundits, who have swatted her for waffling on controversial issues like abortion — she initially answered a survey saying she supported a blanket abortion ban, then softened her stance — and whether she would have supported the government shutdown this past fall.

But McSally’s opponent, Barber, has his own challenges in a district that’s taken on a slightly Republican tilt with a large number of independents. He’s no born campaigner either, and the fact that McSally has had more time to raise funds and prepare for a campaign — without major Republican opposition — gives her a leg up from her race two years ago.

In the end, the political neophyte role could work for McSally, who swears she’s spent her whole life believing that one person can indeed make a difference, even in a place like Congress. It’s the sort of saccharine sentiment jaded politicos would laugh at. But coming from a woman who singlehandledly took on the Defense Department, it just may strike a chord with voters tired of all the negativity emanating from the professionals in Washington.