Leading Senate Democrats deflected and dodged questions about Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego’s decision to challenge independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, reflecting the party establishment’s wait-and-see attitude towards a crucial contest as they hope to hold the Senate in 2024.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said it is “way too soon” to say whether he would back Gallego or the eventual Democratic nominee in the race.
“We don’t even know who’s going to file for any office in any state,” he added on Monday.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who worked closely with Sinema on legislation protecting same-sex marriages late last year, also said it was too early to comment.
“We don’t know who’s running. It’s premature,” Baldwin said. She repeated the word “premature” four more times as reporters peppered her with questions as she walked into a Senate elevator.
Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party has put leading Democratic officials, from President Joe Biden to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to fellow Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), in a tight spot: Do they back Sinema, whose vote may be needed to confirm crucial Biden nominees? Or back Gallego or another eventual Democratic nominee, who will almost certainly have the backing of the state party and the vast majority of Arizona’s rank-and-file Democrats.
So far, their answer has been unanimous: Ask me later. In a statement, for instance, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee declined to address either Sinema or Gallego.
“Republicans have suffered resounding Senate defeats in Arizona the last three election cycles in a row, and we are confident we will stop Republicans in their effort to take this Senate seat,” spokeswoman Nora Keefe said.
Schumer also declined to comment when asked about the matter on Monday.
Sinema has so far declined to say whether she plans on running for a second term after winning her first as a member of the Democratic Party in 2018, becoming an independent and leaving the Democratic caucus only after an unexpectedly strong performance for in-state Democrats in the 2022 midterms.
That’s led some Democrats to quietly hope she decides to retire instead of running. Recent early polls of the race have shown her in a distant third behind Gallego and a Republican candidate.
“Someone in the administration should be looking for a wine-producing country that needs an ambassador,” said one Democratic operative, requesting anonymity to avoid antagonizing Sinema, a known oenophile.
Still, Gallego has been able to quickly assemble a top-tier Democratic consulting team: New Deal Strategies, which quarterbacked the successful 2022 bid of Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), is his general consultant. GBAO Strategies, a top Democratic firm, is his pollster. And Aisle 518, another widely respected firm, is handling his digital fundraising.
If Democratic leadership wanted to block a Gallego bid, they could have sent out signals to leading party consultants not to work for him. They pointedly did not. Instead, two leading Democratic consulting firms have ceased working for Sinema in the past year, and she is set to lose access to NGP VAN, the party’s voter database, at the end of the month.
“The second she left the Democratic Party, it opened up the entire Democratic operative field to Gallego,” said a source familiar with Gallego’s campaign who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the campaign’s internal operations.
The hands-off approach also reflects a revised Senate Democratic strategy of staying out of primaries and internal party fights. For years, Schumer was famous for offering early endorsements of key candidates and working to clear the field for his picks.
But after a somewhat disappointing 2020 Senate cycle, the DSCC and the broader party apparatus largely backed off of early endorsements in 2022. With Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) returning to run the committee for a second straight cycle, the party is expected to continue to avoid picking sides in 2024.
Even if the party’s D.C. establishment continues to hold off, the party’s base is making their desire to out Sinema clear: On Monday, the day Gallego announced his bid, online donations to the the Replace Sinema PAC ― a progressive group dedicated to Sinema’s ouster ― were up 300%.
Sinema declined to comment when asked about Gallego’s entry into the race and whether she planned to run for reelection.
“I wish I brought a coat because it’s very cold tonight,” the senator said as she left the Capitol on a blustery evening in Washington.