'It's a strange situation': Democrats in DC quiet so far on Ruben Gallego's Senate run

Standing adjacent to some brick-and-mortar reminders of his life’s course in Phoenix, Arizona, Rep. Ruben Gallego zipped through a rags-to-respectability life story to explain his interest in the U.S. Senate.

Then he turned to the other reason that pushed him and the hundreds of Democrats on hand to this moment: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz.

Gallego, D-Ariz., said he backed her in 2018 expecting her to fight to raise the minimum wage and ensure tax fairness.

“That’s the senator I thought I voted for. That’s the senator you voted for,” he said. “But that is not the senator we got.”

Some muttered their disapproval of Sinema, a former Democrat, during Gallego’s stump speech. Others were hurt or even angry at what they view as Sinema’s political betrayal.

Whatever their thinking, it wasn’t hard to guess as Gallego rolled out his Senate campaign in Arizona. It stood in contrast to the measured response — when there was one at all — in many corners of Capitol Hill.

In various interviews with reporters throughout the past week, figures like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a hero to the liberal left, all passed, at least for the moment, on backing the only high-profile candidate seeking their party’s nomination.

It’s part of a delicate new dynamic in the Senate, where Sinema is known as and remains a needed partner in a narrowly divided chamber on confirmation votes and new legislative efforts.

“Sen. Sinema is expected to provide a crucial vote for Democratic priorities over the next two years,” said Jim Manley, a 21-year staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

“So for those on the left that were expecting Senate Democrats to come out quickly against her, they’re going to be disappointed. … For right now, I expect everyone, including Sen. Schumer, to go out of his way to avoid having this debate.”

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., sidestepped the issue Friday in an interview.

“I’m not following every single thing my colleagues may or may not say about the Arizona Senate race," Kelly said. “To a large extent, their approach is the same as mine. We just had an election and we’re thinking about challenges our country is facing and how we solve those. … 2024 is a long ways off.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego speaks during a public rally at Grant Park in Phoenix on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, kicking off his U.S. Senate campaign.
Rep. Ruben Gallego speaks during a public rally at Grant Park in Phoenix on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, kicking off his U.S. Senate campaign.

Sinema has yet to formally say she is running, though she has taken preliminary steps to do so. She repeatedly has declined to discuss her election plans, instead maintaining that she is focused on seeking bipartisan agreement on issues like immigration reform and border security.

Several Republicans are weighing a run as well, which could put the state on a path to a contest with no precedent in Arizona’s Senate history.

Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Democrats would be underdogs to hold the seat in a three-way race, but Sinema’s presence is not guaranteed.

“We’re really in a strange territory here. It’s entirely possible that Kyrsten Sinema will not run for reelection,” he said. “She is in a kind of limbo position right now, and we know that there’s an awful lot of hostility toward her, especially from Democrats."

A Republican would seem the favorite in a three-way race where Sinema could plausibly pull in significant support from Democrats and independents, he said. But the prospect of likely defeat could shape her decision, too, he said.

“So I’m skeptical that she’ll run again,” Ornstein said.

Such is the uncertainty of a race already overflowing with intrigue.

For now, Gallego’s early entry gives him a head start on fundraising for a campaign that was all but declared months ago. His campaign noted that he raised more than $1 million on his first day in the race.

Gallego has never been among the more prolific fundraisers in the House of Representatives, mostly because he never needed to be. He never pushed much past a few million dollars raised in his five successful House campaigns.

His south Phoenix-based district is safely Democratic, and he never faced any serious challenges after winning his first U.S. House primary in 2014 over former Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.

Now he is running statewide in a race that could be among the nation’s most expensive.

For context, consider the price tags of Arizona’s Senate races in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

In the 2018 Senate race, Sinema and Republican Martha McSally each spent more than $20 million. Outside groups poured another $64 million in that race.

In 2020, McSally, then an appointed senator, spent $74 million. Kelly spent $100 million and outside groups spent $83 million.

In 2022, Kelly spent at least $92 million, while Republican Blake Masters spent at least $15 million and outside groups spent $128 million.

Through late November, Gallego’s House campaign had $1.1 million in cash. Sinema, who was not on the ballot last year, reported $7.9 million in cash through September.

Gallego and his supporters have already woven Sinema’s status into a narrative of privilege versus populism.

With a few hundred supporters on hand in Grant Park, Gallego raised a familiar complaint from Democrats.

“She has not had a town hall in three years to answer questions,” he said. “But, she’ll go to Davos and meet with billionaires anytime.”

It was a reference to Sinema’s appearance last week at an annual global economic forum in Switzerland. It was her first time at a conference that the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., attended more than once.

Supporters listen to Rep. Ruben Gallego speak during a public rally at Grant Park in Phoenix on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, kicking off his U.S. Senate campaign
Supporters listen to Rep. Ruben Gallego speak during a public rally at Grant Park in Phoenix on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, kicking off his U.S. Senate campaign

Like many in Congress, Sinema has not held in-person town hall events, even before the pandemic. She has held many small group meetings.

Gallego was not the only one to accuse Sinema of being unavailable.

Former three-term Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., said he has endorsed Gallego in part because Sinema was unavailable after his efforts to make her the first Democrat from Arizona since he left office in 1995.

In 2018, “I supported Sinema big time and did a reception for her, raised money, maxed out and … I’m just very disappointed in her,” DeConcini said in an interview. “I called her six times. I only talked to her one time and that was right after she was elected before she took office. I asked her chief of staff to call me, and she just never did call me.”

He said he has known and liked Gallego for years after meeting him through Gallego's work for Wilcox years ago.

DeConcini is unsurprised Democrats in Washington are slow to weigh in on Arizona's Senate race. “They need her,” he said. “It's a strange situation.”

DeConcini predicted it would be “a hard race for the Democrats if she stays in the race as an independent.”

Gallego held his first Senate campaign rally in Phoenix at a park adjacent to the veterans post, where he came as a former Iraq War veteran, and next to a restaurant owned by Wilcox. On Saturday, Wilcox, a former Phoenix City Council member and county supervisor, stood with Gallego as he now makes his Senate run.

Gallego’s attacks on Sinema played well with a crowd that included people displaying their support for labor unions and liberal activists.

Ruth Shea, a 66-year-old activist from Scottsdale, practically shouted her longstanding contempt for Sinema. She said she voted for Deedra Abboud, Sinema’s opponent in the Democratic primary in 2018.

“I knew from the get-go what she was. You could smell it on her,” Shea said of Sinema. “You can take what Ruben Gallego says to the bank.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rep. Ruben Gallego's Senate run has Democrats in DC notably quiet