Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly on Saturday urged Arizonans to let go of “conspiracies of the past,” calling for unity a day after being re-elected to a crucial Senate seat.
Arizona played a pivotal role in former President Donald Trump’s effort to void the 2020 election and cast doubt on the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s victory.
Kelly insisted on ignoring the false allegations of a fraudulent election that have shaped state policy for the past two years.
Kelly defeated Republican Blake Masters, who, along with most of the other GOP slate, was endorsed by Trump after pushing the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
“After a long election, it can be tempting to stay focused on the things that divide us,” Kelly said in a victory speech at a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. “But we have seen the consequences that arise when leaders refuse to accept the truth and focus more on the conspiracies of the past than on solving the challenges we face today.”
Kelly won after distancing himself from Biden and building an image of an independent lawmaker not beholden to his party. He cast himself in the mold of his predecessor, the late Republican John McCain, whose influence is still felt in Arizona politics four years after his death. He said he remembered every day sitting in the seat McCain once occupied.
Kelly was elected in a special election two years ago to complete McCain’s term. His win this year gives him a full six years from January.
“Sen. McCain embodied everything it was to be a leader at a time when our state and our country remain divided,” Kelly said.
Kelly, a former NASA astronaut who has flown in space four times, is married to former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who inspired the nation as she recovered from a gunshot wound to the head during a assassination attempt in 2011 that killed six people and injured 13. Kelly and Giffords went on to co-found a gun safety advocacy group.
Giffords, whose promising political career was cut short by the shooting, sang to the music as Kelly was introduced on Saturday and stood beside him, beaming as he spoke.
Kelly and Giffords were at an Elton John concert in Phoenix on Friday night when they learned the Associated Press and other news outlets had called the race.
Kelly’s victory put Democrats one win away from controlling the House for the next two years of Biden’s presidency.
With Vice President Kamala Harris’ decisive vote, Democrats can retain control of the Senate by winning either the race in Nevada, which remains too early to call, or next month’s runoff in Georgia. Republicans must now win both races to take a majority.
Masters did not back down, saying in a statement that his team will make sure every legal vote is counted.
“If, in the end, Senator Kelly has more than me, then I will congratulate him on a hard-fought victory,” Masters said. “But voters decide, not the media; let’s count the votes.
The AP declared Kelly the winner after the release of results from 75,000 ballots in Maricopa County made it clear that Masters could not make up its shortfall.
Hours earlier, Masters told Fox News that Maricopa County, by far the largest in the state, should stop counting ballots and start over because election officials had inadvertently mixed up counted ballots and not counted.
Megan Gilbertson, spokeswoman for the county election department, confirmed that ballots were mixed up at two voting centers, but said there were contingencies to reconcile each batch and get an accurate tally. She said similar mistakes had been made before, that the process had been in place for decades and was overseen by observers from both sides.
“There is no legal process in place to stop counting and start over,” Gilbertson said. “In Maricopa County, we follow the laws as written.”
The closely watched gubernatorial race between Democrat Katie Hobbs and Republican Kari Lake was too early to be announced on Saturday.
Maricopa, Pima and Yavapai counties, which account for the overwhelming majority of uncounted ballots, continued counting them on Saturday and were due to release new results that evening.
About 50 conservative protesters gathered outside the fence around the Maricopa County Election Tabulation Center at noon Saturday to draw attention to their concerns about the vote as about 30 reporters watched.
The scene was loud but peaceful, with a number of nearby county sheriff’s deputies keeping the compound fenced off.
A few protesters wore ballistic vests or carried handguns. Some carried American flags, campaign signs for Lake, or signs with slogans such as “Kari Lake Won”, “Count The Votes” and “Hobbs is a Cheat”.