Arizona journalist explains why Ruben Gallego could become Kyrsten Sinema’s biggest 'headache'
Senator Kyrsten Sinema during a 2019 event. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona once again infuriated the liberal/progressive wing of the Democratic Party when she not only restated her opposition to ending the filibuster, but also, made it abundantly clear that she even opposes creating a filibuster exception for voting rights bills. Some progressive Democrats are calling for a primary challenge to Sinema in 2024, and the liberal they have in mind is Rep. Ruben Gallego.

But if Gallego defeats Sinema in a Democratic primary, could he win a statewide race in Arizona? Journalist Laurie Roberts grapples with that question in an op-ed published by the Arizona Republic on January 21.

Arizona’s political landscape has changed considerably from what it was 30 or 40 years ago. Once deeply Republican, Arizona was closely identified with conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater and later, Sen. John McCain — who considered himself a “Goldwater conservative” or “Goldwater Republican.” But Arizona has evolved into a swing state. While Gov. Doug Ducey is a conservative Republican, Arizona now has two Democratic U.S. senators (Sinema and Sen. Mark Kelly) and favored Democrat Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump in 2020’s presidential election.

But here’s the thing: Sinema, Biden and Kelly are all centrists. So is Democratic ex- Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. There is no example of a true liberal or progressive winning a statewide race in Arizona in recent years. And while Sinema is wildly unpopular with progressives, independents and Never Trump conservatives have a much more favorable opinion of her. GOP activist and Trump critic Meghan McCain, who is Sen. McCain’s daughter and a former co-host of ABC’s “The View,” is an ardent Sinema cheerleader. And the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board vigorously defended Sinema as “principled” in an editorial published on January 23.

In 2021, McCain warned, “If (Manchin and Sinema) are out, a Democrat’s not coming in. A Republican is.”

Roberts observes, “Liberals are furious with (Sinema’s) refusal to vote to suspend the filibuster so the voting rights bill she supports could pass on a party-line vote. In the past, their fury hasn’t mattered. It was either Sinema’s way or the Republican highway. Democrats didn’t have a viable Plan B. Until now, perhaps.”

The “Plan B” that Roberts is referring to is Gallego.

“Rep. Ruben Gallego was all set to run for the Senate in 2020 until old-school party leaders waved him off, calculating wisely that the more moderate Mark Kelly stood a better chance of winning,” Roberts explains. “He did. But like Sinema, he didn’t beat McSally, in her second run for the Senate, by much. Gallego’s been grumbling all week about Sinema’s disloyalty, telling CNN that ‘more than one’ Senate Democrat has approached him about challenging her in a primary.”

Roberts believes that if Gallego challenged Sinema in a Democratic primary in 2024, he would win. But the general election, Roberts stresses, could be a much heavier lift for the liberal congressman.

“Gallego could beat Sinema in a primary,” Robert says with confidence. “Probably, at this point, Krusty the Clown could beat Sinema in a Democratic primary. Gallego has a great story, and he’s a rising star on the left. The question is: Could he win the general election? Two years ago, no way. But two years from now? That’s the calculation Democrats need to make.”

How well Gallego would perform against a Republican in 2024’s general election, according to Roberts, would depend on how crazy that GOP nominee is.

“If Republicans regain their sanity in the next two years and put up a candidate with broad appeal,” Roberts argues, “Gallego would have a hard time pulling out a win. Democrats would have no choice but to stick with Sinema or risk losing the seat altogether. If, however, Republicans continue their bizarre obsession with Donald Trump and nominate, as Arizona Mirror’s Jim Small put it, ‘a Big Lie-spouting, pandemic-downplaying, misinformation-peddling Republican?’”

Roberts continues, “If state GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward is the nominee, hoping the third time’s the charm, or someone like her? Gallego’s fortunes would dramatically improve. And since, at this point, there appear to be precious few Republicans outside of Team MAGA who could win a Republican primary — well, you can see why Sinema might be feeling a headache coming on.”