Ruben Gallego is left’s favorite to take on Sinema

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.)leaves a closed-door House Democratic caucus meeting on Friday, October 1, 2021.
Greg Nash

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) has emerged as an early favorite to primary Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) in Arizona as fury on the left grows over her opposition to the party’s sweeping reconciliation package.

As Democrats’ patience with Sinema runs out amid negotiations over the $3.5 trillion social policy and climate change package, Gallego, a 41-year-old in his fourth term representing a Phoenix-based district, has found himself at the center of an effort to oppose Sinema’s reelection in 2024.

Progressives are already laying the groundwork for a potential primary challenge, and one campaign, Run Ruben Run, has set its sights specifically on recruiting Gallego into the race.

For now, at least, many Democrats remain wary of the early efforts to challenge Sinema from the inside. They’re holding out hope that she reverses course and gets behind the reconciliation bill. But in conversations with The Hill, half a dozen Democratic activists and party insiders said that a primary is not off the table and pointed to Gallego as a top prospect if Sinema continues to hold out on the party’s key legislative priorities.

“Ruben is a strong progressive leader who has accomplished a lot of things in a short time,” Steven Slugocki, the former Maricopa County Democratic Party chair, said. “He’s passed a lot of bills, he’s a veteran, he’s a Latino. He’s a strong voice in Congress who’s getting things done. He has a lot of support in the party as well as with Democrats across the state.”

Slugocki said that it’s “too early” for Democrats to consider fielding a primary challenge in 2024 and expressed hope that “Sinema will do the right thing” when it comes to supporting President Biden and Democrats’ agenda. But he cautioned that for the time being, Sinema is on notice.

“This next week is going to really, really determine what’s going to happen here in the future,” he said. “If this whole thing falls apart, I may have a very different answer for you in a week.”

Slugocki isn’t alone in his frustration with Sinema. A poll from the Phoenix-based firm OH Predictive Insights released last week found that nearly one-third of Arizona Democrats hold an unfavorable opinion of the state’s senior senator. At the same time, the Arizona Democratic Party’s State Committee has threatened a no confidence vote on Sinema if she doesn’t change her stance on key Democratic priorities.

The standoff between the Arizona senator and Democratic leaders has prompted some in the party to look for potential alternatives to Sinema — and Gallego’s name keeps coming up.

“Will he run? I don’t know, but he’d be a strong person if he does consider it,” one Arizona Democratic strategist said. “If that’s something he decides to do, I think he’d have a lot of support. He’s very popular.”

Several Democrats who spoke with The Hill pointed to Gallego’s personal story — he’s a Harvard-educated combat veteran who grew up poor in Chicago and quickly rose through the ranks of Arizona politics — as a major strength should he decide to mount a statewide campaign.

“You have a great candidate who is a Latino combat veteran, who is a Marine who served overseas on tours of duty seeing some of the most active and horrific things in war, who literally came from nothing, who has this redemption story,” said Chuck Rocha, a political consultant whose super PAC, Nuestro PAC, launched a campaign last week to draft Gallego into running.

“I’ve been doing campaigns for 30 years,” he added. “I could sell that to a Republican.”

At the same time, one Arizona Democrat noted that while Gallego and Sinema have reached a “detente,” their relationship with one another is “not one to where he wouldn’t run against her.”

Of course, Sinema has a record of winning in Arizona, having successfully flipped a Republican-held Senate seat in 2018 that Democrats hadn’t won since George H.W. Bush was elected president. She has built a reputation as fiercely bipartisan in a state that has only recently become competitive and where registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats. The same OH Predictive Insights poll found her overall favorability rating roughly even with fellow Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly (D), with Sinema making up ground with a 40 percent favorability among Republicans.

And with more than two years to go before her name will appear on a primary ballot, Sinema boasts nearly $3.6 million in the bank — more than five times the amount Gallego currently has in his campaign account.

Yet, Democrats say that Gallego has plenty of fundraising potential should he ultimately decide to run for Senate in 2024. Rocha said that the purpose of his effort to recruit Gallego into the Senate race is to raise money that could be “turned over to him the day he announces” a campaign.

Other groups in Arizona are taking a less-focused approach to a 2024 primary challenge to Sinema. Primary Sinema PAC, which launched last week, said that it would raise money to fund grassroots groups in Arizona that could lay the groundwork for a potential primary campaign “when a strong challenger emerges.”

Gallego has so far brushed off the calls to challenge Sinema. In a statement, a spokesperson for Gallego said that the congressman is focused on passing Biden’s agenda and making sure Democrats hold their House majority in 2022.

“Congressman Gallego is focused right now on passing President Biden’s infrastructure packages, ensuring Arizona’s redistricting maps are fair to the state’s entire electorate, and working to keep the Democratic House majority in 2022,” Jacques Petit said. “For Congressman Gallego, 2024 is about holding the White House and reminding voters which party showed up for them with solutions to grow the economy and build back better.”

Still, Gallego has eyed a Senate bid before. He ultimately decided against running in 2019 after Kelly entered the race. Kelly went on to beat former Sen. Martha McSally (R), putting both of Arizona’s Senate seats in Democratic hands for the first time since 1953.

For some Democrats, though, Sinema is different.

Garrick McFadden, a former vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, railed against Sinema as an “obstructionist” whose opposition to key parts of Biden’s agenda had undermined the very work that helped secure Democratic victories in Arizona in recent years.

He warned of a “brain drain” within the state Democratic Party leadership, predicting that party members and officials would leave in order to support efforts to primary Sinema.

“Grassroots groups, advocacy organizations, unions, etc. will not work for her and will work against her,” McFadden tweeted. “She has betrayed her friends and the promise she made to the Arizona people. She wants to play games, well in 2023 we start playing games with her.”

One Arizona Democratic operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about state party dynamics said that Sinema has few remaining allies in Arizona.

But the prospect of a 2024 primary challenge also raises a dilemma for Arizona Democrats. While Gallego has a “really compelling story” and is well-liked by insiders in both Arizona and Washington, “he’s probably not a good fit for Arizona on a statewide basis,” the operative said.

“You can see how he would do well in a primary against Kyrsten Sinema, but there’s a near zero chance he would win statewide,” the operative said. “He just doesn’t have a record of winning Republican votes. And that’s something Democrats will really have to ask themselves in seeking to defeat Sinema, is do they want someone to primary her who will almost certainly hand the seat to Republicans?”

Yet it appears unlikely that the talk of primarying Sinema will settle down any time soon. The Democratic operative noted that even if Sinema agrees to support the reconciliation bill, there are still other sticking points, such as her opposition to reforming the filibuster in the Senate.

“I think reconciliation will pass, but she’s still going to have the filibuster after that,” the operative said. “This conversation is not going away. This isn’t going to be the last time she’s going to be in this position. It’s just not.”

Tags Joe Biden Kyrsten Sinema Mark Kelly Martha McSally Ruben Gallego

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