Gallego’s early Sinema challenge squeezes Senate progressives


Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand stick together on many issues. They might go their separate ways when it comes to Kyrsten Sinema.

Rep. Ruben Gallego’s (D-Ariz.) campaign launch this week is forcing progressives to weigh an awkward choice: whether to support their newly party-switched colleague, or a more liberal challenger who’s denouncing Sinema while the party still needs her vote in a 51-49 Senate.

Sinema hasn’t yet decided whether to run again next year, and most Democratic senators would prefer to avoid the topic of the Arizona race while she’s undecided. If she does run, though, progressives like Gillibrand may ultimately side with the newly minted Independent: “I haven’t given any thought to it yet,” the New Yorker said this week. “But I suspect I’d support my colleague.”

On the other hand, longtime Sinema critic Sanders (I-Vt.) is suggesting that he’d be open to backing Gallego: “I’ve not heard from Gallego, but it’s something we would certainly look into.”

Arizona’s 2024 Senate contest is already testing the power of incumbency among Democrats — a dynamic felt most acutely on their left flank in the chamber. Liberals aired their share of frustration with Sinema during the last Congress, when she wielded her majority-making vote to cut sweeping bipartisan deals. But coming out early for Gallego risks making life harder while Sinema still serves.

Progressives who are behind Gallego, a fifth-term House Democrat, hope they can eventually secure endorsements from Sanders and other upper-chamber liberals, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Merkley declined to comment on Gallego this week. Meanwhile, Warren said it’s “too early.”

For now, the Senate Democratic campaign arm is refraining from talking about a potential Gallego-Sinema matchup. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also demurred this week, only saying it’s “much too early” and praising Sinema as an “excellent” senator.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee can help in races with independent candidates who would caucus with the party, even without officially endorsing them. In 2012, the campaign arm took out ads against GOP nominee Charlie Summers in Maine, despite never formally endorsing Angus King, who ran as an independent and continues to caucus with Democrats. The party also backed Independent Al Gross in the 2020 Alaska Senate race.

But it’s been years since the DSCC had to confront a serious Democratic challenge to an independent senator who, despite the ire she sparks on the left, more often than not votes with the party.

Progressives see plenty of reasons for frustration with Sinema, who voted against changing the filibuster, supports business-friendly tax policies and opposed a push to raise the minimum wage to $15 in the 2021 coronavirus relief bill. She’s also rubbed some of her colleagues the wrong way on a political level: for example, she backed her friend and former colleague Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy when he challenged Markey in the party’s 2020 Massachusetts Senate primary.

But Sinema’s also played a central part in some of President Joe Biden’s biggest legislative accomplishments so far, including laws on infrastructure, same-sex marriage and gun safety. That’s not lost on Senate Democrats who recognize the value of her affable relationship with Senate Republicans and ability to shape significant bipartisan legislation.

While the incumbent has $7.9 million in the bank for a potential run and Gallego blasts her as in the pocket of big donors, he isn’t just hunting in the grassroots for money to spend against Sinema. Gallego is set to host a high-dollar fundraiser in Washington on Feb. 28, with the suggested contributions starting at $500, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO.

Larry Cohen, board chair of the Sanders-aligned Our Revolution, said that “Democrats have an obligation to support the Democratic nominee and build the Arizona Party.” Yet even as outside organizations push for more Gallego endorsements, spokesperson Rebecca Katz said that’s not where the candidate is devoting his attention.

“While a number of Ruben’s colleagues have reached out to offer their encouragement, this decision belongs to the people of Arizona, and that’s who he’s focused on,” Katz said. “Caring more about what powerful people in D.C. think than actual Arizonans is kind of the whole problem with Sinema.”

Only a small group of Senate Democrats are willing to even entertain questions about Gallego, all while declining to talk about a potential Sinema reelection bid. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called Gallego a “very impressive and effective legislator” and welcomed the Arizonan’s interest in a move across the Capitol. But Blumenthal also made clear that he rarely endorses in primaries and highlighted that Sinema’s reelection plans are up in the air.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Sens. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), could also face pressure to back Gallego, according to a Democrat close to the Arizona congressman. Luján said Wednesday that “Ruben’s a good person, cares about people” but was noncommittal about the race, only observing that “at the end we’ll see how this all plays out.” Menendez declined to comment and said he’s focused on his own reelection.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are more than happy to watch it all from the sidelines, continuing to publicly hope Sinema ends up with switching caucuses and joining them on the other side of the aisle. Republicans have lost the last three Senate races in Arizona, most recently in 2022, when Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) defeated Blake Masters.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that the Gallego bid is a “big dilemma for the Senate Democratic majority.”

“I’m pretty sure you were asking a bunch of questions along those lines right before we came out here,” McConnell told reporters gathered for his weekly press conference. “I look forward to reading which answers, if any, you got.”

Zach Warmbrodt and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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