Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), an Iraq War veteran and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will not run for Senate in 2020, an adviser confirmed to HuffPost on Monday.
Gallego’s decision is likely a boost to overall Democratic hopes of defeating GOP Sen. Martha McSally and winning control of the Senate in 2020. The third-term House member was headed for a potentially contentious primary against Mark Kelly, a gun control advocate and former astronaut who is married to former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was wounded in a 2012 assassination attempt. With Kelly unlikely to face any serious opposition in a Democratic primary, he’ll be free to hoard resources for a general election and focus on defeating GOP Sen. Martha McSally without guarding his left flank against a more progressive candidate.
“I don’t want to engage in a bitter primary all the way until the general election, and then turn around and try to run, whether it’s me or Kelly, against McSally in a year when the Democrats need to win the Senate seat and take the state,” Gallego told the Arizona Republic, which first reported the news. “If Republicans are excited to see a spirited and nasty primary, they’re going to have to look somewhere else because I’m not going to take part in that.”
The decision is a blow to progressive and Latino groups, including Democracy for America and Latino Victory Fund, which had worked to draw Gallego into the contest. It also shows the continuing ability of Senate Democratic leaders to avoid contentious primaries in key races ― no progressive challenger has won a Democratic primary in a major swing state since then-Rep. Joe Sestak’s victory over party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in 2010 in Pennsylvania.
Kelly, in a statement, praised his fellow veteran and seemed pleased to avoid a primary.
“As a Navy guy, I know it’s always better to avoid a fight with a Marine,” Kelly said. “I have a lot of respect for Congressman Gallego’s service to our nation. I look forward to working with him to stand up for Arizona families.”
The decision shocked Democrats in Arizona. Gallego’s team had already met with consultants to prepare for a potential run, and many assumed he would launch his campaign not long after his ex-wife, Kate Gallego, won Phoenix’s mayoral race last week. Local elected officials had already begun preparing to run for Gallego’s safely blue seat, which includes much of central Phoenix.
Gallego, who had about $459,000 in his campaign account at the end of 2018, would’ve faced a steep challenge matching Kelly dollar-for-dollar in fundraising. In just 24 hours after announcing his run in February, Kelly’s campaign raised more than $1.1 million.
Kelly, a retired Naval aviator who has been to space four times, remains largely ideologically undefined. He ran the high-profile gun control group named after his wife, helping a slew of Democratic candidates win races in 2018, and has spoken extensively about the need to combat global climate change. But his actual policy positions are still unclear. While Gallego was on the record as a supporter of “Medicare for all,” Kelly has yet to take a position on the issue many left-leaning Democrats hope to turn into a litmus test.
He’s likely to face McSally, a fellow veteran and the first American woman to fly in combat. McSally went from a swing-seat moderate House member to a Trump loyalist while running for Senate in 2018, eventually losing to moderate Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. After her loss to Sinema, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey appointed her to the fill out the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s Senate term.
Republicans believe Sinema was able to triumph over McSally in part because McSally needed to fend off two GOP primary challengers and didn’t claim her party’s nomination until late August, while Sinema was able to spend months messaging to the center of the electorate. The GOP hoped to turn the tables in 2020, with McSally free to appeal to swing voters while Gallego and Kelly battled in a Democratic primary.
Arizona is considered one of the Democrats’ best opportunities to flip a Senate seat in 2020. Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the upper chamber, and Democrats need to gain at least two seats to win control, provided the party’s presidential nominee defeats President Donald Trump. Republicans are confident about defeating Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), while Democrats feel the same about Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). Control of the Senate is likely to come down to Republican-held seats in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, and Democratic seats in New Hampshire and Michigan.
Though Gallego’s decision not to run is unquestionably a blow to the party’s left, Sen. Tom Udall’s retirement announcement on the same day could provide them with an opportunity in safely blue New Mexico. Democrats in the state said Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a member of the House Democratic leadership, could clear the field if he decides to run.
In a statement, Luján called Udall a “giant of the U.S. Senate” and praised his work on public lands, climate change and voting rights before acknowledging his interest in a run.
“I am humbled by the outpouring of support I received today,” he said. “In the weeks to come, I will speak with my family, New Mexicans, and supporters about the opportunity to serve our state in the U.S. Senate.”
If Lujan doesn’t run, Rep. Deb Haaland, a progressive favorite and one of the first Native American women ever elected to Congress, could make a bid, as could Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a Latina and avowed moderate who won a Republican-leaning district covering the southern portion of the state in 2018. Attorney General Hector Balderas, who narrowly lost a primary to now-Sen. Martin Heinrich in 2012, could make a second run for the Senate.
An opening in New Mexico also gives Latino groups a second chance to add to their ranks in the Senate after Gallego’s decision not to run. New Mexico is 49 percent Latino, according to census figures.
“It’s crucial that the next U.S. Senator from New Mexico be Hispanic,” Adrian Saenz, a senior adviser to Latino Victory Fund, said in a statement after Udall announced his retirement. “Latino Victory Fund is committed to continuing to increase Latino representation in Congress, and we will be there every step of the way to help elect a Hispanic Democrat from New Mexico to the United States Senate.”
This article has been updated with comment from Mark Kelly and Rep. Ben Ray Luján.