Mark Kelly: Retired astronaut launches Senate bid for McCain's old seat with gun control as a top priority

Chris Riotta

Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut who rocketed to the national spotlight when his congresswoman wife Gabrielle Giffords was shot in a failed assassination attempt, announced on Tuesday he’s running to finish John McCain’s last term in the US Senate.

Mr Kelly is viewed as a top Democratic recruit to take on Republican Martha McSally in one of the most closely contested Senate races of the 2020 election. He discussed the shooting in a moving campaign announcement video posted to his Twitter on Tuesday in which he is seen talking to his wife. “You know, I thought then that I had the risky job,” he said to Ms Giffords as she nods her head. “Turned out that you were the one who had the risky job.”

If he wins the Democratic primaries, the race would pit the Navy veteran and astronaut against a trailblazing Air Force pilot in the contest to replace Mr McCain, himself a legendary Navy flyer who was famously shot down and held captive. The longtime senator passed away last year after ending treatment for a rare form of brain cancer.

Ms McSally is a former Republican congresswoman who was appointed to Mr McCain’s seat last year after she narrowly lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. The conservative leaned heavily on her record as the first woman to fly a combat mission as a fighter pilot, but she was hurt by her embrace of Donald Trump.

Democrats are eagerly watching the Arizona contest, having already defeated Ms McSally in a Senate race just a few months ago.

Mr Kelly and Ms Giffords have for years pushed Congress to enact gun-control measures with little success. They shifted their focus to state legislatures in recent years, helping to strengthen background checks and domestic violence protections, among other modest protections.

Ms Giffords was severely wounded in a mass shooting on 8 January 2011. The shooting at a meet-and-greet event hosted by Ms Giffords outside a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, left six dead and 13 injured. The shooter was sentenced to life in prison. Mr Kelly's twin brother and fellow astronaut, Scott Kelly, has also spoken out about gun violence in the wake of Ms Gifford's shooting.

Governor Doug Doucey appointed Ms McSally to the vacant Senate seat after his first appointee, Jon Kyl, resigned after only a few months in office.

The seat is a top target for Democrats because Ms McSally just lost a Senate race in November and Democrats posted a strong showing in the 2018 midterms, winning three statewide contests and picking up legislative and congressional seats.

The 2020 election will decide who serves the last two years of Mr McCain’s term. The winner would be expected to run for a full six-year term in 2022.

Mr Kelly may be joined in the race by Ruben Gallego, a Democrat representative in Phoenix, Arizona, who is reportedly considering a Senate run.

Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, a lifelong Republican who became a Democrat and a fierce critic of Mr Trump, announced last week that he won’t run, saying he didn’t want to fight in a contested Democratic primary.

Additional reporting by AP