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Former astronaut Mark Kelly projected to win Arizona Senate race, flipping Republican seat

CBS News projects that Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kelly will win his race against Republican incumbent Senator Martha McSally in the historically red state of Arizona. The win flips a key seat in Democrats' efforts to gain control of the Senate. 

The Arizona race was a special election to finish the term of late Senator John McCain. McSally, a longtime ally of President Donald Trump, was appointed to the seat after McCain's death in 2018 — just months after losing the race for the state's other seat to Senator Kyrsten Sinema. 

Kelly would assume office likely as soon as official results are certified, rather than waiting for the new Congress to convene in January. 

Kelly, a former astronaut, flew on four space shuttle missions between 2001 and 2011 before retiring from NASA. Over the course of his campaign, he emphasized his experience as a U.S. Navy pilot and an astronaut, even comparing the Senate race to his time in the space program.

"This mission does not end when the last vote is counted. It is only the beginning. When I was at NASA, we would train for two years for a space shuttle mission," Kelly said on election night. "Two years before we were on the launch pad ready to go, and then the work starts. And now, the work starts." 

Kelly is also the husband of gun control activist Gabby Giffords, a former congresswoman who was shot in the head and severely wounded in a 2011 rampage. Kelly thanked Giffords on Tuesday night, crediting her for teaching him about public service and advising him throughout the campaign. 

Kelly proved to be a fundraising star, significantly outpacing McSally. He raised $38.7 million in the third quarter after spending more than $43 million over the three months that included the August primary. 

Mark Kelly speaks in Tucson by Captain Mark Kelly on YouTube

Kelly has stuck to mostly virtual outreach during the coronavirus pandemic, blasting McSally and President Trump for how they've handled the pandemic response. On Tuesday night, he called slowing the spread of the virus his "top priority." 

Kelly's win gives Democrats both Senate seats in Arizona for the first time in nearly 70 years. His win, in addition to Sinema's, points to growing signs that the state is no longer a Republican stronghold.

"Tonight is not about celebrating. Tonight is about getting to work," Kelly said late Tuesday night. "Our state doesn't need a Democrat senator or a Republican senator, we need an Arizona senator. A senator like John McCain, who I looked up to as a young Navy pilot."

McSally has not yet spoken publicly, nor has she conceded. 

"Hundreds of thousands of votes have still not been counted," McSally's spokesperson Caroline Anderegg tweeted early Wednesday morning. "Every Arizonan deserves to have their voice heard and vote counted. We continue to monitor returns. The voters of Arizona decide this election, not media outlets." 

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