Rep. Ruben Gallego’s (D-Ariz.) entrance into the Arizona Senate race has supercharged many Democrats’ hopes of ousting Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) while putting others in a tough position.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Democratic senators and the party’s aligned campaign arm will need to decide how to handle what could be a three-party race with Gallego, Sinema — a newly-minted Independent — and an unknown Republican.
Either they endorse Sinema, who often stalls their agenda and late last year bucked their party but still caucuses with them, or they back Gallego, who skews progressive against a sitting senator. Either decision risks splitting their base’s vote and handing a purple state seat to a Republican.
So far, very few want to take the bait.
“I am no longer the chair of the DSCC,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), referencing the party’s Senate campaign committee, when asked by reporters about the endorsement predicament.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the campaign committee’s current chairman, called Sinema a friend but noted that “it’s still real early.”
“I don’t know what her intentions are. We’ll have to wait and see what happens,” he added.
Sinema’s fellow Arizona senator, Mark Kelly (D), told The Hill, “I’m not going to get ahead of anything. … I’ve worked very closely with Sen. Sinema for a long period of time very effectively. She’s a very effective member, but I’m not going to get ahead of her on 2024.”
“It’s a long way to the election in 2024,” he said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) used the word “premature” four times when asked to choose a lane.
“We don’t know who’s running,” she reiterated.
Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who aligns with Gallego ideologically, hedged. He hasn’t “asked me to back him yet,” the Vermont senator said.
When Gallego announced his candidacy on Monday, he drew instant interest from Democrats who had long eyed 2024 as a potentially change-making year.
Even before Sinema officially left the Democratic Party, some progressives had urged Gallego to challenge her as a way to usher in a senator who more closely aligns with President Biden’s policies and vision.
“I’m most excited about Gallego drawing contrasts with Sinema on who the seat should serve,” Angelo Greco, a progressive campaign operative who worked for Sanders, said Monday. “He’s going to have so many examples of when Sinema hid behind the filibuster to protect corporate power or gave her famous thumbs down on the Senate floor, denying hundreds of thousands of Arizonans a raise.”
The enthusiasm on the left is palpable, and the Gallego camp is plowing ahead.
“The rich and the powerful, they don’t need more advocates,” Gallego said in a campaign video announcement. “It’s the people that are still trying to decide between groceries and utilities that need a fighter for them.”
Allies close to the congressman say his appeal is far-reaching: a young, working class Latino close with both mainstream Democrats and activists.
They also say the 43-year-old embodies much of what Democrats want in a future senator. He’s a military veteran who works to advance the president’s agenda and pushes it further to the left. A new face who represents fresh leadership. A team blue player as Democrats look to retain the White House and Senate and recapture the House.
In other words, not Sinema.
“Other than [Sen. Joe] Manchin (D-W.Va.), there’s been no one as responsible for lessening the pro-worker elements of the president’s agenda,” Greco said.
But less than 24 hours into Gallego’s kickoff, it’s clear that his bid comes with some immediate political challenges.
Sinema has been coy about her plans, declining to say whether she’ll seek a second term as an Independent and throwing a degree of uncertainty into the race that could have hefty ramifications for the party’s direction and control of the upper chamber.
She made only a vague reference to her thinking Monday afternoon.
“I’m continuing to do what I’ve done for the last 20 years – deliver results for AZ,” she wrote on Twitter. “Last Congress we delivered landmark laws to make Arizonans’ lives better. I’m excited to keep up the momentum in the 118th Congress and secure even more wins for our state.”
And she declined to answer any further questions while leaving the Capitol in the evening.
Still, progressives have been waiting to take down Sinema for a long time. They view her as politically meddlesome, always working the angles. To her more fervent detractors, she’s an impediment to both their ideology and Biden’s priorities, particularly when big ticket items like voting rights come up.
Gallego, they say, is their best shot at taking hold of her seat.
“The thing about Ruben is he knows exactly who he is,” said Joe Sanberg, a prominent Democratic donor and activist who’s close friends with Gallego. “This campaign isn’t about any individual personality.”
But a blue win in swingy Arizona is far from certain. Biden narrowly won the state against former President Trump in 2020 after a campaign-long investment. And while Democrats got more good news recently when Democrat Katie Hobbs won the midterm governor’s race against Trump-aligned Kari Lake and Kelly won a second term, it’s still very much a battleground.
Where Gallego, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is to the left of many in his party, Sinema is a known entity to voters, and usually falls more in the middle. She was first elected to the House, then the Senate, as a Democrat before changing her party registration late last year. She has since presented herself as an independent-minded lawmaker in the state where voters liked the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)’s maverick style.
And while she’s no longer technically with the party, she still votes with the majority, which could factor into some calculations when up against the eventual GOP nominee.
While most Democrats skirted the question of their support into the evening, she did find a reliable ally in her fellow Senate nonconformist.
“Whatever she wants to do, I support her,” Manchin said in a gaggle.
“I’m not going to tell them what to do but they should support someone who brings basically some peace, if you will, or some rational thinking on some of this stuff without being pushed far left,” he added about who leadership should embrace.
“I trust her,” he went on. “I understand where she’s coming from, and she’s always going to try to find the middle, and that’s all I can ask for.”
Republicans were also assessing their options on Monday.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said on Capitol Hill when asked by a reporter about whether he would endorse a GOP challenger to Sinema.
“Obviously, we’d love to have her become Republican,” he said. “Or at least caucus with Republicans.”