Arizona’s political odd couple reveals two distinct paths for Democrats

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
<span>Photograph: Alexander Drago/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Alexander Drago/Reuters

When Democrat Mark Kelly was sworn in to office late last year it marked the end of a nearly 70-year drought of Arizona being represented by two Democrats.

But since then Kelly, a former astronaut, and his counterpart senator, Kyrsten Sinema, have plotted decidedly different paths in the Senate. Despite being from the same party and the same state and representing the same electorate, the pair of Arizona Democrats have become a sort of political odd couple.

Related: ‘We’re gonna win the second half’: the Texas Democrat eyeing 2022 victory

The twists and turns that each Arizona Democrat took to get into office – and the moves they are making to retain their seats – reveal two distinct paths Democrats can take to win and retain tough Senate seats. But they can also give differing answers as to how Democrats might keep power, or even extend it.

Sinema, a longtime Arizona lawmaker and former Democratic member of the House of Representatives, has carved out a reputation as one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus in the chamber. Her name is almost synonymous with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and bucking the Democratic party on key sticking points.

Sinema has split with her fellow Democrats on a minimum wage hike to $15 and support for an overhaul to the legislative filibuster. Among the press corps she is also notorious for avoiding virtually all interviews.

Kelly himself offered levity when asked about their similarities and differences.

“She can run a marathon at a 7.30 pace,” Kelly said. “I cannot do that.”

Meanwhile, Kelly, 57, the husband of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords and a naval aviator turned astronaut, has plotted a more low-key course in the chamber. He talks to reporters. He hasn’t committed to overhauling the filibuster but he hasn’t come out in opposition either. He joined with other Democrats in supporting a minimum wage increase.

Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly at the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia in July 2016.
Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly at the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia in July 2016. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Neither Democrat is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, but the fact that they differ both stylistically and on key policies illustrates both the viability of Democrats in a state that for years has seemed out of reach to liberals and also the debate over what kind of Democrat can take root statewide.

Both Sinema and Kelly are essential to Democrats retaining their slim majority in the chamber and, effectively, passing any legislation in the chamber. Kelly is considered more of a reliable party-line vote than Sinema but there are moments when they agree with each other and, in the process, buck the party at large.

Kelly, in the hallway interview, said he couldn’t speak for how Sinema approaches legislating, but said in the five and a half months he’s been in Congress “our country is best served by trying to work across the aisle”.

They have both bristled at Joe Biden’s approach to border security. Kelly called out Biden on the subject in response to the president’s address to Congress.

“While I share President Biden’s urgency in fixing our broken immigration system, what I didn’t hear tonight was a plan to address the immediate crisis at the border, and I will continue holding this administration accountable to deliver the resources and staffing necessary for a humane, orderly process as we work to improve border security, support local economies, and fix our immigration system,” Kelly said in a statement shortly after Biden’s speech.

They have also both participated in a bipartisan group of almost two dozen Republican and Democratic senators sometimes referred to as the G20. They have also recently been working on a bipartisan agreement on semiconductors, alongside some of the more conservative senators in both parties.

They also both like to invoke the late Senator John McCain, a Republican, as an icon.

But even to colleagues, it’s clear that Sinema and Kelly are different in key ways.

“I think they are two unique and distinct characters,” said Senator John Hickenlooper of Colorado. “And I use the word character freely.”

Hickenlooper described Kelly as “one of the most grounded and thoughtful people”, adding: “He sees things that other people just don’t see.

“He’s very intuitive,” Hickenlooper said. “They are so different and they are both – I think they’re both really smart and I think they’re both really good.”

Mark Kelly on Capitol Hill in March 2021.
Mark Kelly on Capitol Hill in March 2021. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Asked if Kelly was slightly more liberal than Sinema, Hickenlooper said: “It’s hard to say. Their values are the same. Both are very progressive in terms of they think this country should be based on equality. We should have equal opportunity and schools should work for everybody.”

But on policy positions, like the minimum wage, Hickenlooper said they have a “difference of opinion on tactics”.

The backgrounds of Sinema and Kelly could only be more different if they were from opposing parties. For years Giffords was the political standard bearer of their family with Kelly in the background with a somewhat non-partisan air to him. His election to the Senate in 2020 was his first foray into electoral politics as a candidate.

Sinema, by contrast has been in politics for years and her allegiances have shifted over time. She associated with the Arizona Green party before joining the Democratic party. She served in the state legislature and found success passing legislation by working with Republicans – even when Republicans held a supermajority. Jonathan Patton, who served with Sinema in the state legislature, recalls her finding success by keeping a single-minded focus on passing legislation.

“If you’re in the legislature in Arizona, you’re not getting any bills passed,” recalled Paton.

But during her time in the legislature, Sinema managed to do just that. She was able to get Republicans to work with her. “I don’t think she’s particularly ideological and I think it was a mistake on both sides for people to think she was. Now does that mean I agree with her on things? No it does not but my point is she was single-mindedly focused on getting things that she wanted, that was important to her for whatever reason,” Paton said.

Kyrsten Sinema at the US Capitol in May 2020.
Kyrsten Sinema at the US Capitol in May 2020. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sinema also taught at Arizona State University and served as a criminal defense lawyer. On the Hill, Sinema has at times been photographed in brightly colored wigs and a bright pink sweatshirt that reads “Dangerous Creature”.

Kelly, a twin, spent his earlier years in life as a naval aviator and then a Nasa astronaut. He announced his retirement from spaceflight in 2011. In 2013, years after an assassination attempt on Giffords, the former congresswoman and Kelly founded the gun control advocacy group Americans for Responsible Solutions, which, in the process, made Kelly more visible to the political community. Until 2018 he was a registered Independent. In 2020 he won the special election for Senate, defeating the former senator Martha McSally.

In recent years they have both had their eclectic moments – Sinema interned at a California winery and Kelly has been a brand ambassador to a Swiss luxury watchmaker. Sinema has also completed Iron Man triathlon competitions.

Between the two senators, though, Sinema is the one with a bigger question mark over her head on key pieces of legislation like filibuster reform and the destiny of Biden’s roughly $2tn infrastructure package. She was one of a series of one-on-one sit downs Biden had with senators this week as the president pushes forward with attempts to find some kind of bipartisan infrastructure deal.

Kelly meanwhile, is up for re-election next year and, alongside the Georgia senator Raphael Warnock, is essential to Democrats’ hopes of retaining control of the Senate. Sinema has a little more time before she has to run again.

“Mark is in cycle, he’s up for re-election in 2022,” noted Kirk Adams, a former Republican speaker of the Arizona house of representatives. “And a primary challenge from the progressive left would be very problematic for him – not that he wouldn’t win the primary but the effect that he would have in the general – being forced to move more left in what I think is truly a purple state. So that’s the first lens that I would apply to the differences between those two.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting