On Monday, Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego made it official: He formally announced his intention to run in 2024’s Arizona Senate race. The decision is hardly a shock: It has been expected that he would declare his candidacy for many months. Indeed, his likely entry into the primary is widely believed to be the leading reason why Kyrsten Sinema, the state’s widely despised senior senator and fashionista, chose to leave the Democratic Party last month as she knew she was likely lose to Gallego, a progressive Democrat and former Marine, in a Democratic primary.
To better his chances, Gallego has assembled an Avengers-style campaign team, led by several high-profile veterans of John Fetterman’s winning campaign in Pennsylvania. And judging from his announcement video, the campaign will emulate Fetterman’s in a number of respects, emphasizing Gallego’s life story and authenticity. “Growing up poor, the only thing I really had was the American dream, an opportunity. It’s the one thing that we give every American, no matter where they are born in life. It was actually something to believe in and to fight for. The odds that a single immigrant mom with a Latino boy … statistically, I was never supposed to end up even in college,” Gallego narrates in an introduction ad that stresses his impoverished upbringing, his service in Iraq, and his subsequent struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
It’s easy to see why Democrats in Arizona are excited about Gallego. A rising star within the party, he’s young and charismatic, with a compelling life story. He’s also the anti-Sinema—there’s no worry that he will, say, put the private equity industry ahead of Arizonans, hold up the party’s agenda for opaque reasons, or, for that matter, leave it altogether when the going gets tough. Barring a catastrophe, the Democratic primary will likely be a cakewalk.
The general election, however, may very well be another matter. Arizona’s Senate race is set up to be 2024’s second most chaotic race—only the Republican presidential primary can compete with it in terms of sheer zaniness. Should Sinema run as an independent—and right now that seems likely—it will be a three-person contest, featuring Gallego, Sinema, and a Republican, perhaps Kari Lake, a Trump disciple who has declared herself Arizona’s “real governor,” despite losing her race in November. For Democrats, it will also be a headache—and an unnecessary one at that.
Sinema and her allies have attempted to depict her decision to be an independent as some kind of shrewd reflection of contemporary mores. Voters are, after all, said to be abandoning political parties in droves. Yet most independents are self-styled but still largely vote with one of the two parties, even if they don’t formally belong to one. And Sinema’s own set of political proclivities—though largely inscrutable, she consistently supports lowering taxes for corporations and policies that favor business interests—could hardly be described as either populist or widely popular. Sinema may be selling herself as a maverick, but unlike John McCain, who was best known for that descriptor, she has little political constituency within the state. A poll released late last night found her only receiving 13 percent of the vote in a hypothetical three-way race.
But that’s enough support to make the potential race bonkers. Even if Lake doesn’t win the nomination, far-right Republicans have taken over Arizona’s GOP, meaning that the state’s ultimate nominee is likely to be a conspiracy theorist of one or several varieties. Sinema, meanwhile, doesn’t bring a compelling message: “Send me back to Washington so I can continue doing nothing except enriching corporations” is hardly the stuff of placards. But she will inevitably attempt to play that maverick card, positioning herself as voters’ only hope of saving themselves from the excesses of the right and left—a continuation of her explanation for leaving the Democratic Party.
Naturally, Sinema is only really out for herself. But the possibility of her ganging up with the eventual Republican nominee to attack Gallego—and, ultimately, for her to play spoiler in the state—will cause many Democrats to sweat in the coming months. Thirteen percent isn’t much, but it may very well be enough to hand the election to a candidate like Lake—if not Lake herself.
Could this be this election cycle’s most brutal race? There’s always the chance it won’t come to that. Sinema may very well not run. She is, at 46, still young and connected to a wellspring of plutocratic interests, and presumably wishes to have some kind of career after her time in the Senate is over. If she continues polling as she is now, she risks a truly disastrous end to her time in Congress: not only with a humiliating defeat but also as a potential spoiler for her former party who turned loose another lunatic in the Senate. Should she bow out, there will be doors on K Street and Wall Street open to her; doing so in the months before the election would give her a good shot at taking the money and running. And with no realistic path back to power if Gallego remains in the race, this would be a good time to make this move. But Sinema has been known to zig when everyone expects her to zag. This time out she could once again do what she does best—upend politics.