The progressive star running against Kyrsten Sinema for Senate

Gallego stands while speaking in front of a podium.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) speaks to supporters on November 8, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Ruben Gallego’s 2024 Senate race against Kyrsten Sinema could shape the future of the Democratic Party.

Ruben Gallego, the Democratic representative for Arizona’s 3rd congressional district, hasn’t been quiet about just how bad of a job he thinks Kyrsten Sinema has been doing as a senator from their state, even before she left the Democratic Party to become an independent in December. While he’s been coy about challenging Sinema in the past, today he made it clear: He wants her Senate seat and will be running for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2024.

As Democrats head into the 2024 campaign cycle staring down improbable odds to hold their Senate majority, Gallego’s race will be a stand-in for bigger debates over just how progressive the Democratic Party should become. Gallego isn’t the typical progressive candidate, though, and he will have to define a new kind of political identity that doesn’t compromise his beliefs and can win a race in a historically Republican stronghold.

Gallego made his announcement through a video he shot in his home district in Phoenix in both English and Spanish. “You’re the first group of people that are hearing this besides my family. I will be challenging Kyrsten Sinema for the United States Senate, and I need all of your support,” he says in a clip while talking to fellow military veterans at an American Legion post in the predominantly Latino and Native American town of Guadalupe.

Gallego’s news isn’t exactly surprising. He was long considered the leading primary challenger Sinema would face if she decided to run for reelection as Democrat. He’s a rising star in the Democratic Party and the future of the party as a vocal young Latino politician from the Southwest, and he’s long behaved like a candidate aspiring for higher office, including in August, when I profiled him for Vox.

Since Sinema’s party switch, that posture intensified. He and his allies began to release internal polling showing what a three-way race between him, Sinema, and a Republican like failed gubernatorial candidate and election denier Kari Lake might look like, and began to build a team of strategists, pollsters, and consultants to help him build out a campaign operation.

And when his biggest rival for the Democratic nomination, fellow Phoenix-area representative and former mayor Greg Stanton, bowed out of the contest this month, the field was clear for Gallego to run.

Sinema hasn’t made a decision about running, though she has filed preliminary paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission to run. Still, she’s only provided more fodder for Gallego since December. Just last week, when Sinema was in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of corporate leaders, economic experts and gurus, Gallego criticized her on Twitter, saying, “Kyrsten Sinema hasn’t held a town hall in Arizona for years. Instead, she flies to Switzerland for a town hall with the rich and powerful,” and “Guess this is why we missed her at all the MLK events in Arizona this week.”

He’s long leveled the same critiques of her tenure: not being accessible or transparent, cozying up to corporate interests, betraying the hopes of progressives who worked to get her elected in the first place, and embracing a role of obstacle to her former party’s economic and social agenda in Congress. And he references that list in his video: “The rich and the powerful, they don’t need more advocates. It’s the people that are still trying to decide between groceries and utilities that need a fighter for them.”

Being a fighter is a theme that defined the many conversations I had with Gallego during the 2022 midterms, and will define his campaign for the next two years. He’s long worried that elected Democrats are too quiet, reserved, or apprehensive to take credit for accomplishments, to lay out their vision for America, and to use the power and mandate that voters have given them. “People aren’t excited for Democrats because they never know what they’re going to get,” he told me in August. “We get into power and we’re afraid to use that power. We get into this vicious cycle where we sometimes only win because the other people are that bad, when we need to show that by us winning, this is what you get: you get a middle-class lifestyle. You get to live the American dream.”

That theme is evident in his announcement. But he faces a challenge in Arizona to explain that vision beyond the third of Arizonans who are registered as Democrats. The state is split nearly evenly into thirds between the two major parties and registered independents, and candidates who can appeal to the political center have tended to do better in statewide races. It helps that Gallego doesn’t look like he’ll have to survive a bruising primary campaign against Stanton or Sinema and he can spend the next year defining himself as a pragmatic progressive who understands progressive politics, but knows when to compromise and when to fight.

And the senate race may become a bit of a proxy war for the future of the Democratic Party regardless. Sinema was the first Democratic senator elected in Arizona since the 1980s, and she ran that race by positioning herself as an independent and relying on progressive groups to turn out the Democratic base. Some political strategists have wondered whether Gallego might be too progressive to win a general election, despite the state’s Democratic trend since the Trump years. This election will be an opportunity for the liberal wing of the party to show that radical centrism isn’t necessary to win statewide — and that Gallego’s own identity as the Marine veteran son of a working-class Latino family can convey an influential message to the state’s booming blue-collar Latino population.

Republicans also don’t have a clear frontrunner. Kari Lake, the most well-known Republican in the state, is still litigating her electoral loss to Governor Katie Hobbs, and seems to promise to reveal groundbreaking revelations every week as she tries to keep election denialism and distrust in the state’s electoral process alive. She is reportedly interested in running for Senate, but the state Republican Party is continuing to go through an existential crisis as the MAGA movement splinters but establishment Republicans have yet to regain influence. With Trump on the ballot in 2024, this election might be further confirmation that MAGA Republicanism is toxic in the state.

For now, the 2024 senate race has started. Gallego is taking on the mantle of a champion for the working class. What kind of challenge he awaits from Republicans and Sinema is now an open question.

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