Democrat in Arizona Will Seek Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate Seat

Representative Ruben Gallego of Phoenix is set to challenge Ms. Sinema from the left, after she resigned from the Democratic Party.

Ruben Gallego speaks into a microphone while standing behind a lectern. Behind him are two men and two women, and a large American flag.
Representative Ruben Gallego has been one of Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s sharpest critics.Credit...Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The announcement on Monday that Representative Ruben Gallego, a progressive Democrat from Phoenix, would run for the Senate in 2024 sets up a potential face-off with Senator Kyrsten Sinema over a seat that carries immense stakes for Democrats’ control of the upper chamber.

Ms. Sinema left the Democratic Party in December to become an independent, though she has kept her Democratic committee assignments. She has not yet announced re-election plans, but if she runs again, national Democrats will have to decide whether or not to support her, even as the state party has strongly rebuked her and some polling has shown her to be deeply unpopular among Arizona Democrats, signs of a possibly divisive battle to come.

The state, once a bastion of McCain Republicans, has transformed into one of the nation’s pre-eminent political battlegrounds, fueled by demographic shifts and a Republican Party that has lurched far to the right. The Senate race is set to be closely watched by both parties, and Mr. Gallego, a 43-year-old former state lawmaker and U.S. Marine veteran, instantly caught national attention with his challenge to Ms. Sinema.

He began his campaign with a video declaring his run to a group of fellow veterans at American Legion Post 124 in Guadalupe, Ariz., near Phoenix. In it, he highlights his humble Chicago origins and his combat experience in Iraq, and he pledges to fight to extend the American dream to more families.

“It’s the one thing that we give every American, no matter where they’re born in life,” he says, crediting belief in the dream for his own climb into the halls of Congress.

Mr. Gallego is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and organizations and activists on the left have long been eager to see a credible challenge to Ms. Sinema. But in his video, he leaned into economic arguments around supporting the working class rather than center-left ideological battles, and his allies expect he will also continue to emphasize his military experience.

In his campaign ad, Mr. Gallego sought to draw sharp contrasts between himself and Ms. Sinema, taking subtle swipes at the first-term senator over her leadership and ties to corporate interests. Ms. Sinema’s opposition to key elements of her party’s agenda has repeatedly angered Democrats.

“We could argue different ways about how to do it, but at the core, if you’re more likely to be meeting with the powerful than the powerless, you’re doing this job incorrectly,” he says in the video, which was released in English and Spanish. “I’m sorry that politicians have let you down, but I’m going to change that.”

Mr. Gallego’s campaign team includes veterans from Senator Mark Kelly’s re-election bid in Arizona, as well as Democratic consultants who served on the successful 2022 Senate campaigns for Raphael Warnock in Georgia and John Fetterman in Pennsylvania. Mr. Gallego’s campaign also has taken on Chuck Rocha, a longtime Democratic strategist focused on mobilizing Latino voters.

Representative Greg Stanton, a Democrat who had also shown interest in running for the seat, said this month that now was “not the right time,” helping clear the path for Mr. Gallego in the primary.

“The Arizona Democratic Party wishes Congressman Gallego the best of luck,” said Morgan Dick, a representative for the party, in a statement. “In continuing with tradition, for the 2024 general election, the Arizona Democratic Party intends to endorse and support the Democrat on the ballot.”

A representative for Ms. Sinema declined to comment on Mr. Gallego’s entry into the race, and Ms. Sinema waved off the prospect of the challenge in an interview on Friday.

“We just got through a really grueling election cycle, and I think most Arizonans want a break,” Ms. Sinema said in an interview with the Arizona station KTAR News. “I’m incredibly proud of the work I’ve been able to accomplish in the United States Senate in the last couple years, and I’m going to stay focused on the work that I have ahead of us.”

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Credit...Rebecca Noble for The New York Times

But a matchup between Mr. Gallego and Ms. Sinema in the general election is likely to split the coalition of Democrats and independents who have powered Democratic victories in Arizona in recent elections.

The divide could provide an opening for a Republican to retake a seat that has helped Democrats retain their narrow majority in the Senate.

Among the Republicans weighing Senate runs are Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed news anchor who last year narrowly lost her race for governor, and Blake Masters, who was defeated in a Senate race by Mr. Kelly. Already, Republicans are seeking to paint Mr. Gallego as radically left-wing, and signaling that they intend to make immigration a focal point of their criticisms.

“The Democrat civil war is on in Arizona,” said Philip Letsou, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Nora Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, noted that the state had moved away from Republicans in several recent statewide elections.

“Republicans have suffered resounding Senate defeats in Arizona the last three election cycles in a row,” she said. “We are confident we will stop Republicans in their effort to take this Senate seat.”

She declined to comment on the committee’s plans for the race beyond that.

For both Mr. Gallego and Ms. Sinema, the greatest factor will be the Republican nominee, said Mike Noble, a longtime nonpartisan pollster based in Phoenix.

A center-right candidate could consolidate Republican and right-leaning independent voters, most likely narrowing the chances for both Ms. Sinema and Mr. Gallego. A hard-right candidate like Ms. Lake or Mr. Masters, on the other hand, would most likely intensify the contest between Mr. Gallego and Ms. Sinema for moderates and the state’s large independent electorate, about one-third of voters.

“Heading into next year’s election, Kyrsten Sinema would like nothing else for Christmas than to have Kari Lake as the Republican nominee come 2024,” Mr. Noble said. “They both would love it.”

Ms. Sinema was elected to the Senate in a groundbreaking victory in 2018, in the first Democratic triumph since 1976 in a contest for an open Senate seat in Arizona. Her victory pointed to broader political shifts in the state. Once a longtime conservative bastion, Arizona has become fiercely competitive as the state’s Republican Party has veered further right, while growing numbers of Latino and independent voters have pushed the state to the center.

Ms. Sinema embraced solidly centrist positions in defeating her Republican opponent. Voter drives to register more Latinos, who generally vote Democratic in Arizona, also paid off for Ms. Sinema. But distaste for the senator has been growing among Latino activists and other parts of her Democratic base as she has positioned herself as a bulwark against major parts of her former party’s agenda, mainly attempts to increase taxes on corporate America and Wall Street.

National Democrats have been tight-lipped about their approach to the 2024 race, as some worry that a full-on offensive against Ms. Sinema in the general election might inadvertently help elect a Republican.

Mr. Gallego, who has been among Ms. Sinema’s fiercest critics, had been fielding input from his family over the holidays over whether he would run. He would be the first Latino senator from Arizona should he prevail. (He is of Colombian and Mexican descent.)

In his campaign video released Monday, he describes his hard upbringing as one of four children raised by a single mother in Chicago. He made it to Harvard and worked to pay his way through school before enlisting in the Marine Corps. His combat experience on the front lines in Iraq, where he came under heavy fire and lost some of his closest friends, left him with post-traumatic stress disorder but also inspired him to go into public service, he said.

The ad positions Mr. Gallego as an advocate of strong government and a fighter for working-class families who he said “feel they are one or two paychecks away from going under.”

“The rich and the powerful, they don’t need more advocates,” he said. “It’s the people that are still trying to decide between groceries and utilities that need a fighter for them.”