The congressman believes fears that the votes of the left will be cannibalized are completely misplaced. In his view, Sinema, who was a Democrat until last month, will instead break the vote on the right.
“Let’s get one thing straight. Sinema will not split the Democrats,” Gallego told POLITICO. “She’s even more unpopular with Democrats than Republicans, and actually has a better chance of taking votes away from them if they nominate another MAGA candidate — which they probably will.”
That Gallego has grappled with these voter permutations underscores just how unusual and unpredictable the Arizona Senate race already is. It also reflects the complexity of the campaign he has to carry out.
As a progressive in a state where registered Democrats outnumber both Republicans and independents, he risks being squeezed between two other candidates on either side in a general election. Assuming he wins the Democratic nod, he also won’t know who his Republican opponent is until the August 2024 GOP primary, unless a candidate clears the field. And Sinema herself has not yet revealed whether she will stand for re-election or resign.
Gallego advisers said they believe either scenario could materialize. However, the congressman wasted no time in attacking Sinema – a move which at this point is almost certainly more aimed at raising money than attracting voters. In a donation email this week, he wrote that “Sinema has used her position of power to help those who already have everything” and “got in the way of raising the minimum wage.”
Sinema’s change of party and defense of the filibuster have made her an unpopular figure among liberals across the country, and Gallego’s campaign said it raised more than $1 million from over 27,000 donations in the first day and a half after he entered the race . The key question is whether that enthusiasm will lead to a mass exodus of Arizona Democratic voters away from the senator. Many Republicans in the state are betting on the opposite.
“Sinema has been a Democrat her entire career,” said Corey Vale, an Arizona-based GOP strategist who advises Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who is considering a Senate bid. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario where she doesn’t get a significant segment of Democrats to back her even though she’s now running as an independent.”
With the general election nearly two years away, Gallego’s advisers are beginning to roughly outline what his unorthodox path to victory might look like. They believe that Gallego, who will be Arizona’s first Latino senator, would create excitement among Democratic voters in addition to benefiting from high turnout in a presidential election.
“Ruben can build on the winning coalitions put together by Mark Kelly and Katie Hobbs while improving turnout/margins among Latinos, young people, Native Americans, veterans and the working class,” said Rebecca Katz, a top strategist for Gallego, regarding the Arizona senator and governor who won for Democrats in 2022 in what is likely to be a tougher climate.
Gallego’s team argues that he also has a sizable sliver of independent voices, a majority of whom they say are Latino. According to an analysis of the campaign’s voter database, about 40 percent of Latinos in Arizona are registered independents. And his advisers believe his authenticity and experience as a Marine combat veteran on the House Armed Services Committee will appeal to independent voters.
“When Washington talks about independents, they don’t usually think of Latinos, but there’s actually a big Latino independence streak, people who feel like the Democratic Party hasn’t spoken to them in a long time,” Gallego said. “We can win over these voters.”
To attract Republican voters, Gallego promises to fight in conservative areas, and his advisors believe his military background will find favor. But his team also calculates that a far-right Republican will win the primary, and that person will share a majority of the GOP votes with Sinema if she runs for re-election.
John LaBombard, a former Sinema advisor, said Arizona “has never elected a progressive partisan or a liberal incendiary statewide,” while Sinema has proven she can win competitive races with the votes of independents and even some Republicans.
“I worry about an untested candidate,” he said, “and I think that’s probably a similar calculus that the Democratic Party is sort of grappling with nationally as well.”
In addition to Lamb, GOP candidates reportedly eyeing the seat include former unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, failed 2022 Senate nominee Blake Masters, Rep. Juan Ciscomaniand businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson, who lost to Lake in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Gregory Stanton recently said he’s taking up running, a boon for Gallego. Another possible Democratic candidate is Tucson Mayor Regina Romero.
A spokesman for Sinema declined to comment on the story, citing the senator’s recent statements that she is not currently focused on campaign politics.
Given how early in the cycle it is, polling on the Arizona Senate race has been sparse. But a December poll by Morning Consult showed that Sinema is one of the least popular senators in the country and that a larger percentage of Republicans (43 percent) said they approve of her than Democrats (30 percent) after she changed her party registration . 42 percent of independents agreed with her, while 43 percent disapproved and 15 percent said they didn’t know or had no opinion.
Andy Barr, a Democratic adviser who is a veteran of the Arizona campaigns, acknowledged that Democrats in the battleground state are concerned about the possibility of the Democratic vote being split between Sinema and Gallego.
“Is that why people are nervous? Yes,” he said. “But we live in a state of nervousness.”
At the same time, Barr, who has worked for Gallego in the past but is not involved in the Arizona Senate race, said he thinks it’s unlikely Sinema will receive many votes from Democrats if she runs for the Senate again.
“I don’t think there’s going to be anything like Democrat ticket splitting,” he said. “I think the question is how close can [Gallego] Zeroing Kyrsten’s vote among Democratic voters? Obviously she’s going to get some, but before she left she was really spiteful [the party]and I think that has only gotten worse.”
Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based GOP strategist, said Gallego’s challenge is seen as progressive in a still-conservative state. Both Sinema and Kelly competed in their election victories as independent-minded candidates and were not chest-pounding liberals, he said.
But the lack of a Democratic primary could allow Gallego to forego some of the harsh appeals he would otherwise have to make to progressives and instead give him some time to brush up on his credentials with independents and even Republicans. And Marson acknowledged that the GOP also faces serious challenges in the Senate race.
“A traditional conservative Republican out there championing the economy, border security and reducing inflation would easily win the Senate seat,” he said. “The problem will be getting that person across the primary finish line. At this particular time, just last August, we saw that former President Trump still has a firm grip on Arizona’s Republican primary voter.”