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PHOENIX – A show-stopping moment during last week’s Senate debate between Republican Sen. Martha McSally and her Democratic opponent Mark Kelly came when the senator accused Kelly of having a part in a "radical political organization" tied to the "extreme left" fringe of the Democratic Party.
Without explaining the nature of the group or naming it, McSally charged that Kelly, a retired NASA astronaut who is running as a moderate Democrat, had been “a political operative for a decade … Some of the most extreme, left-wing candidates in our country running for office, bankrolling them, endorsing them.”
Pressed to explain her attack, McSally punted to her rival.
“I think he knows,” she said, adding the group “has raised $57 million.”
Kelly responded that McSally was talking about Giffords, the national organization that is named after his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and was formed to end gun violence.
"Gabby was injured, shot in the head, in 2011," Kelly said. "The issue of gun violence is personal for Gabby and me, and I'll never forget what she went through for that year and a half. In the hospital for six months, a year of significant rehab … So we formed an organization to try to make communities, and help communities become safer from gun violence."
Kelly, a gun owner, noted his support of the Second Amendment, saying “Our rights and traditions are so important ... But we can never let a bunch of kids in the classroom get killed and think there is nothing we can do about it.”
Kelly’s wife has played a crucial role in Kelly’s front-running Senate campaign, making public appearances to testify about his character while rallying volunteers to get-out-the-vote.
Giffords is featured in Kelly’s new one-minute TV ad released Tuesday that centers on his commitment to her and their marriage. The ad was written a few weeks before it was recorded and Giffords practiced the script with Kelly and her speech therapist, according to the campaign.
Giffords’ public comments largely center on Kelly’s message of keeping the Affordable Care Act, and thereby maintaining insurance coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.
McSally’s attack at the debate thrust back into the national spotlight the story of Kelly’s wife, and the couple’s gun-control activism that followed the mass shooting by a mentally-ill man near Tucson that killed six and wounded 13.
The shot to Giffords’ head will result in lifelong medical issues for her. After the massacre of 26 people, including 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the couple emerged as two of the nation’s most prominent voices for stricter gun controls.
It was McSally’s most direct attack on the couples’ work and was watched by tens of thousands of Americans, many of whom agree with their calls for universal background checks on gun sales.
McSally sought to avoid invoking Kelly’s wife directly, instead tying the organization the couple created, known today as “Giffords” to be what she deemed a fringe element of the corners of the Democratic Party.
"This is about who Mark Kelly has spent the last decade supporting and sending to Washington: the most liberal Democrats who have been champions for infringing on our Constitutional rights, open borders, socialized medicine, defunding the police and the many other radical ideas that are now mainstream in the Democrat Party," said Caroline Anderegg, McSally's campaign spokesperson. "Mark has been on an unabashed crusade to open the door for these ideas and roll back our Second Amendment rights, and that he tries to claim otherwise further proves he'll say anything to get elected."
In 2013, Kelly and Giffords founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, a non-profit organization and super PAC that supports gun control measures and like-minded candidates.
The group, renamed "Giffords" in 2017, works through three entities to end gun violence in the U.S.: through policy and research and through the legal and political fronts, including a political action committee.
"Giffords works across the country to educate Americans about the need for gun safety and to enact solutions to keep Americans safer," Peter Ambler, the organization’s executive director, said in a written statement.
“We work on research and policy, organizing and advocacy, and voting and elections. Our goal is to bring people together from all walks — Democrats and Republicans, gun owners and non-gun owners, veterans, law enforcement, medical professionals and more — to pass commonsense reforms like universal background checks," his statement continued. "Giffords is driven by Gabby's goals, leadership, and values, and we're taking on special interests with Gabby's trademark grit and determination.”
The group’s committee has raised and donated tens of millions of dollars since its creation, according to the website Open Secrets, which tracks campaign financing.
Since 2014, the group has made nearly $60 million in contributions to both Democratic and Republican candidates, although the group favors Democrats.
Its beneficiaries in 2018 included dozens of contributions to federal candidates, such as $1,000 contributions to Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the year she won her congressional race to the U.S. House of Representatives. That year, the organization endorsed Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, but did not give her money.
That cycle, the committee also gave money to help the campaigns of Democratic Reps. Ruben Gallego and Tom O’Halleran of Arizona and to House Republicans Rep. Pete King of New York and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.
That same year, the committee also gave tens of thousands of dollars combined to groups that include the Arizona Democratic Party; the House Majority PAC, a super PAC linked to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and America Votes Action Fund, an independent expenditure political action committee affiliated with a nonprofit group that encourages progressives to vote.
Last cycle, the group spent an estimated $5.6 million to help defeat gun-friendly Republicans across the nation, including Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado and Rep. Jason Lewis of Minnesota.
Kelly stopped his unpaid work with the group shortly before announcing his run for the Senate in February 2019, his campaign spokesperson Jacob Peters said. Giffords continues her unpaid work with the organization, which is not participating in Arizona's U.S. Senate special election this cycle but is active in other races across the nation.
This year through the organization, Giffords is lending her voice to help elect Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and various House and Senate candidates as well as to help with the organization’s virtual tour advocating for universal background checks.
This election cycle, the group has raised nearly $8.9 million, according to Open Secrets.
It has spent $8.5 million, making contributions exclusively to Democratic candidates, as well as to state and local parties. The group has spent about $1.7 million against two vulnerable Republican senators, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
In the race for Arizona’s Senate seat, McSally was slower than some anticipated to make an issue of the couples’ gun-safety advocacy.
McSally repeated a variation of her debate attack over the weekend at a campaign stop in Yuma, where she spoke from the bed of a pick-up truck to supporters in comments that were streamed online.
"Mark is a combat veteran and gun owner who along with the majority of Arizonans supports common sense measures like background checks on all gun sales," Peters said. "This is just another one of the misleading attacks Arizonans have come to expect from Senator McSally."
Kelly's campaign would not comment on whether Kelly’s campaign was using Giffords’ fundraising list.
Both Kelly and McSally are military veterans and describe themselves as pro-Second Amendment, meaning they support the constitutional right for law-abiding people to own guns.
McSally’s previous campaigns for public office have been financially helped by the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby that works to hamper significant gun-control measures.
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Last year, after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, McSally said she was open to considering new legislation to prevent gun violence.
At the time, McSally said more needed to be done at the federal, state and local levels to act on warnings of violent tendencies or activities by those who may have access to guns. Her comments came after President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated they, too, were open to considering the so-called “red-flag” laws, viewed as a way to tighten gun laws.
“We’ll be looking at some federal legislation potentially to incentivize that type of activity,” McSally told The Arizona Republic in August 2019.
McSally tried to distance herself during the debate from that position, one that was criticized by many in the conservative wing of the party and her primary GOP opponent.
Democrats, including Kelly, have called for stricter measures.
Kelly’s wife has been a near-constant presence in his campaign — even if she’s not always physically present.
Behind the scenes, in the weeks leading up to the debate, Kelly prepared for the debate with his wife at their home. She often reminded him to slow down, according to his campaign.
When speaking about the centerpiece issue of his campaign — health care and coverage of pre-existing conditions — Kelly’s telling of how he and his family navigating the health care system and making medical decisions after the shooting, is a message that draws in viewers and potential supporters.
Giffords is a familiar face in Arizona, and especially southern Arizona, which she represented at the state Capitol and later in Congress.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the couples’ marriage, the 2011 shooting and her recovery.
But to voters, Kelly ties the tragedy to the family decisions he had to make during a traumatic time against the backdrop of a complex health care system, soaring medical bills, and pricey medications and procedures.
“Nothing can prepare you for a health care crisis,” Kelly said in a TV ad earlier this cycle, offering an unspoken reference to the attempted assassination of his wife.
At a campaign event over the weekend, Kelly was joined by his wife, who greeted supporters and passed out campaign yard signs. The appearance marked a physical return to the campaign trail for Kelly, who largely has campaigned virtually throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, Giffords attended backyard fundraisers at the homes of supporters. She has joined her husband writing fundraising letters to potential donors.
And Giffords makes frequent appearances on virtual phone-banking calls for “Mission for Arizona,” which is working on the ground to elect Kelly, Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California the presidential ticket, and other Democrats on the ballot.
“This election is so important,” Giffords told volunteers during an Aug. 22 virtual event. “Lowering drug prices, raising middle class wages, protecting Medicare and Social Security — it’s all at stake. That’s why I’m here to support my husband Mark Kelly.
“Mark focuses on facts, not politics. Mark is loyal and caring. Mark has always served our country in so many ways, now we need him in the Senate … This is so important for Arizona, for our country, we cannot do it alone. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: McSally attack puts spotlight on Giffords gun-safety group