PHOENIX — Mark Kelly, a former astronaut turned Democratic Senate candidate, checked off the policy issues he expects to focus on as he campaigns to unseat the Republican Senator Martha McSally here: energy, health care, education and a strong national defense, in that order.
Conspicuously missing from that list: gun control, an issue that has defined him since his wife, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was critically injured in an assassination attempt in 2011.
Mr. Kelly’s Senate campaign in a state with some of the least restrictive gun laws in the nation could be a test of the enduring potency of the gun control debate, which for years proved toxic for Democrats, especially in states with large rural swaths.
Even after the horrific shooting that nearly killed Ms. Giffords and left six others dead, gun policy falls below health care, immigration and education as front-of-mind issues for voters here, the candidates and political experts agree, presenting more pitfalls than opportunities.
“I’m going to focus on the things that both Arizonans need and issues where I feel like, based on my personal experience, I can really help,” Mr. Kelly said after a recent round-table discussion with older voters.
The race in Arizona is currently seen as a tossup, with both parties viewing it as critical to control of the Senate in 2021, and with unpredictable political factors like the impeachment inquiry of President Trump and the role of Arizona as an Electoral College battleground that could influence the outcome.
Ms. McSally finds herself caught between trying to appeal to both primary voters on the right and increasingly moderate general election voters. Mr. Kelly is trying to position himself as a centrist in the mold of Senator Kyrsten Sinema, who last year became the first Democrat to win statewide here in a generation.
But as the White House and the Republican-controlled Senate contemplate new laws in response to a series of high-profile mass shootings this summer, and as Democrats running for president continue to advocate for gun restrictions, the issue of gun control is one Mr. Kelly and Ms. McSally will not be able to escape.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has suggested he could bring a gun control bill to the Senate floor, though the House Democrats’ move toward impeachment has slowed the momentum, for now. “Given the multiple horrendous shootings in August,” Mr. McConnell said last month, “we owe it to the American people to act.” This would force Ms. McSally to get on the record over an issue she has largely been able to avoid for years.
With many Democrats running for president talking openly about gun control after years of retreat on the issue, Mr. Kelly often finds himself fielding questions about their positions on the campaign trail.
His role as a high-profile gun control advocate with an intensely personal connection to the issue rivals his status as a former astronaut and combat veteran as his primary identity in the state, even as he tries mightily to broaden the aperture of his biography. He and Ms. Giffords co-founded Americans for Responsible Solutions, now called Giffords, a nonprofit and super PAC that promotes gun safety.
Recently, the head of the Arizona Republican Party, Kelli Ward, sent out a fund-raising note saying supporters needed to stop Mr. Kelly “dead in his tracks,” which stirred criticism. (Mr. Kelly sent his own fund-raising message to supporters highlighting the attack.)
“The fact that Mark Kelly’s wife is one of the most famous shooting victims here plays a role,” said Paul Bentz, a pollster and consultant here. But, Mr. Bentz added, “I just don’t think he wants to be defined by the issue.”
Ms. McSally, a retired fighter pilot and former House member who was appointed last year to fill out the late Senator John McCain’s term, has been evolving on her gun positions since the summer’s shootings, and as Mr. Trump has called vaguely for tougher gun laws.
A longtime gun rights advocate who has enjoyed heavy support from the National Rifle Association, Ms. McSally said in an interview that she was “looking for meaningful legislation that can actually be turned into law.”
She said she was in “many conversations with the White House and fellow senators,” but she would not provide specifics about any potential bills beyond her own, which would make domestic terrorism a distinct federal crime.
One complication for her is an emergent Republican primary opponent, Daniel McCarthy, a cosmetics executive who says he believes gun rights is “the most important topic of this election.” He has tried to elevate the issue even as Republican primary voters in a recent meeting in Mesa, a solidly conservative city, seemed more interested in talking with him about the filibuster (he loves it), the 10th Amendment (saved you the Google) and how much money he can raise (“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he said).
Mr. McCarthy somewhat ostentatiously canceled a meeting with Gov. Doug Ducey, a fellow Republican, last month because of Mr. Ducey’s support for so-called red-flag laws, which permit law enforcement officials to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed dangerous.
“McCarthy wants to run to the right on guns,” Mr. Bentz said, “but I don’t believe that is where the electorate is at. Every time we have tested gun control issues, the Arizona electorate has been fairly supportive of increased limitations.” Ms. McSally has already been endorsed by Mr. Trump and the entire Republican establishment, which tried and failed to get Mr. McCarthy to go away.
Years of mass shootings, a sharp increase in suicides, increased attention to links between domestic violence and gun crimes, and other factors have blurred the lines on gun control, especially among suburban voters. Myriad polls show ample support for congressional action on guns and expanded background check laws.
Mr. Kelly “has not spent much time talking about the issue, but if he does, it will not hurt him as much as Republicans think,” Mr. Bentz said. Ms. McSally, he predicted, “would be fine” if she opted to vote for a bill that would expand background checks for gun buyers.
The 2018 midterm elections demonstrated that voters in districts previously held by Republicans were open to Democrats who supported gun control, like Representatives Lucy McBath of Georgia, Max Rose of New York, Angie Craig of Minnesota and Jason Crow of Colorado.
“It has turned out to be a winning issue,” said Mr. Crow, whose state has been the site of numerous mass shootings. “Not a week goes by where a parent or student or teacher doesn’t come to me in tears and tell me they are scared to go to school. When balloons pop at pep rallies, kids jump out of their seats. That’s the environment we have created. Four or five years ago, it was a very different environment.”
Mr. Kelly is nowhere near as aggressive about gun control as, say, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, a presidential candidate who has talked openly about confiscating certain automatic weapons. “I do not support that,” Mr. Kelly said. “I think we need to approach this with what most of us agree on,” such as expanded background checks.
“I own a bunch of firearms,” he said. “I don’t hunt a lot now, but I used to. I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. But we can’t ever get to the point where we think a bunch of kids getting shot in the classroom is something that is just normal.”
Ms. McSally, who is trying to raise her profile with voters around the state who know her best for her loss last year to Ms. Sinema, said she wanted “to do something that is actually going to make a difference” and that she thought red-flag laws were promising as long as they involved due process for offenders.
Still, she said, her main focus is her current Senate term. “I look at every day as if these are the last days of my life, thinking about what I can do and giving every ounce of energy to make things better.”