It was a stunning charge Sen. Martha McSally lobbed at Democratic opponent Mark Kelly: that the former Space Shuttle astronaut, on his 2006 flight, took a Chinese flag as his sole personal item. And that he carried a Chinese communist banner on his motorcycle.
Mr. Kelly first tried to ignore the claim, but he pleaded ignorance when pressed by the moderator at their debate last week.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” he said. “She might have found something on the internet.”
Not in question are Mr. Kelly’s long-standing ties to China and the role Ms. McSally hopes they play in helping her fend off his Senate challenge in the Nov. 3 election.
Americans increasingly see China as the country’s top competitor, and many would say enemy, even besting Russia for that role. But there has never been a bloc of voters casting ballots on the China issue.
The Arizona race is shaping up as an early test of whether that can change.
“He sold out to China in multiple business arrangements in his path to get rich quick,” Ms. McSally said early in her debate with Mr. Kelly. She came back to that theme repeatedly, even when the question was far afield.
Her evidence, beyond the claims of a Chinese banner on the space shuttle, were his multiple trips to the communist country and his search for financial backing from Chinese corporations such as social media giant Tencent for his own space payload company, World View.
Mr. Kelly met his wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, on a trip to China in 2003.
The Arizona race is one of a number in which Republican incumbents are hoping to fend off strong Democratic challenges. Polling has shown Mr. Kelly consistently leading.
If he wins, Arizona will have gone in the course of two years from having two Republican senators to two Democrats. The last time the state had two Democratic senators was 1953.
Ms. McSally is sitting in the seat once held by the late Sen. John McCain. She was appointed to the seat after she lost her bid for the state’s other seat in 2018. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, topped Ms. McSally 50% to 48%.
Ms. Sinema in recent days has jumped into the election to back Mr. Kelly.
Neither the Kelly nor McSally campaigns responded to inquiries from The Washington Times for this article.
China also popped up in this week’s debate between incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia and his Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff, with the challenger saying it was “absolutely false” that his company has taken money from a state-supported Chinese firm.
And in Alaska, independent candidate Al Gross, who is backed by Democrats in his challenge to Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, on Monday accused the GOP lawmaker’s family company of doing business with a firm tied to Beijing. Mr. Gross said that revelation, in a story by Yahoo News, punctures Mr. Sullivan’s tough-talk approach to China.
“Dan Sullivan is just another hypocritical politician who talks tough on China in Washington while his family company is working with the Chinese government to enrich themselves,” Mr. Gross said.
And Republicans nationally have tried to use China against Democrats’ presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, whose son Hunter joined him on a 2013 trip to China. Ten days later, the younger Mr. Biden scored a business deal with the Bank of China, according to Peter Schweizer in a 2019 book.
Steven Mosher, who as president of the Population Research Institute has been a longtime China observer and critic, said business ties with China are a valid campaign issue.
“We hear the words ‘existential threat’ bandied about a lot. But China really is a threat to the continued existence of the U.S. as a constitutional republic,” Mr. Mosher told The Washington Times.
He said Tencent likely invested in Mr. Kelly’s company specifically so China could gain a window into NASA, with which Mr. Kelly’s company does business.
“Why doesn’t he sever his relationship with the company?” he asked.
Mr. Mosher said Americans used to think of China as an economic threat, but with the emergence of COVID-19 they now see China also as a health threat.
“For most Americans, the China threat is now personal and is likely to remain so,” he said. “China is not just a ‘competitor,’ as Biden now reluctantly admits. They are literally a mortal threat, having killed 200,000 Americans and sickened millions more.”
Ms. McSally pioneered her China attacks earlier this year, and they did seem to have a modest effect, said Mike Noble, the chief pollster at OH Predictive Insights in Phoenix.
He said his firm’s polling at the time showed Ms. McSally didn’t get any more likable, though some independents who had been backing Mr. Kelly took a “pause.” It was short-lived, though.
“Once the dust settled, those independents reverted back to Kelly. Conclusion: McSally did a hard China push but ultimately it didn’t stick,” he said.
During the debate last week, Mr. Kelly tried to turn the tables. He said he served on an aircraft carrier during one of his deployments in the western Pacific “dealing with the Chinese directly.”
“I’ve known China as an adversary my entire adult life,” he said.
He said Ms. McSally’s attacks were Washington-funded opposition research and that trying to link him to China was an attempt “to question my patriotism.” Yet he also seemed to acknowledge at least the business links with China. He said he was “never going to apologize for creating good-paying jobs.”
And he also said Ms. McSally didn’t complain when President Trump was congratulating Chinese President Xi Jinping in January for his handling of the coronavirus. Now, of course, Mr. Trump calls it the “China virus” — and says China is a bigger threat than Russia.
On that, at least, the public seems to agree, according to a Harvard Center for American Political Studies/Harris poll last month. The results showed 58% of voters put China over Russia as the more concerning nation and 62% of voters thought the U.S. should stiffen policies toward China.
The worries are bipartisan, though Republican voters are more hard-line, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. Among Republicans, 83% see China unfavorably and 38% call it an outright “enemy.” Among Democrats, 68% see China unfavorably and 19% call it an enemy.
The opinions of China are the worst Pew has recorded in data going back to 2005.