Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race

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Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) speaks to Manu Raju of CNN as he leaves the Capitol following a cloture vote regarding a nomination on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) speaks to Manu Raju of CNN as he leaves the Capitol following a cloture vote regarding a nomination on Wednesday, January 5, 2022.


Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is relying on a tried-and-true strategy of raising boatloads of money while keeping his head down on hot-button issues in a bid to win his Senate race, a contest that is a linchpin for both parties' strategies to win control of the upper chamber.

Kelly hasn't staked out firm positions on issues like filibuster reform and President Biden's sprawling social and climate spending bill, keeping with a successful approach he employed when he first ran in 2020. But despite remaining vague on some of Democrats' top issues, he still raised nearly $9 million in the final quarter of 2021 and started 2022 with more than $18.5 million in the bank, maintaining his reputation as a financial juggernaut.

The strategy's shelf life is being thrown into question as Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) says he'll force floor votes on Senate rules changes and some form of Biden's Build Back Better plan, which would push Kelly to go on record. But the Arizonan is anticipated to stay the course for as long as he can.

"He's holding his water on some of those issues that could be troublesome," said Arizona Democratic consultant Bill Scheel. "Sen. Kelly has not gotten either the attacks from the right or the skepticism from the left so far during the campaign, and that's certainly worked to his advantage."

Kelly was first elected to the Senate in 2020 to finish the term of the late Sen. John McCain (R), serving entirely under a 50-50 Senate marked by brutal Democratic infighting.

Following a productive 2021, which saw the passage of both a coronavirus stimulus package and a bipartisan infrastructure package, Democrats are now mired in an internal battle over Biden's spending plan and changing the Senate rules in order to pass voting rights reforms.

But Kelly has held his fire on those hot-button issues and more - a tactic that could make sense in the state that handed Biden his narrowest margin of victory in 2020.

The Arizona Democrat has repeatedly declined to clarify what changes to the Senate's 60-vote filibuster he supports, saying recently, "if there's a real proposal, I'll take a look at it and evaluate it based on what's in the best interests of the country." And while he has voiced support for some provisions to be included in Democrats' spending package, he hasn't specified a top-line figure he could support.

In the meantime, Kelly has fiercely promoted the popular packages passed last year - possible boons to a state in need of improvements to its roads and water infrastructure.

"The pace at which the world is shifting its attention, he's just keeping his head down and trying to avoid these extraordinarily polarizing hot-button issues," Arizona Democratic strategist Stacy Pearson said. "Having Sen. Kelly talk about those things that actually matter to everyday Arizonans, I think it's brilliant."

The gambit is unique among front-line Senate - Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto (Nev.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.) have all taken firmer stances on filibuster reform, for instance.

But the strategy is similar to one Kelly employed in 2020, when he only gingerly broached issues like the filibuster or if he'd confirm then-President Trump's Supreme Court nominees. And so far, the plan is working, with recent polling showing him with edges over his Republican challengers.

This time, too, Kelly has an added layer of protection: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

While Kelly has kept his head down on Democrats' top priorities, Sinema has done anything but. She was a constant thorn in the White House's side as it tried to cobble together a spending deal and has been among the firmest opponents of changing the filibuster, despite supporting voting rights.

That maneuvering has fueled a wave of calls for someone to primary her in 2024 but also provides cover for Kelly, with Sinema "taking up all the oxygen" in Arizona, according to Scheel.

"I don't think she's changing her strategy anytime soon. I think that's another part of the calculus, is let her get all the incoming fire, and he can just stay under cover until he's absolutely forced to do something," added one Arizona Democratic operative.

Also working to Kelly's favor is a divisive GOP primary filled with candidates racing to the right - handing Kelly a possible contrast between a headline-grabbing Trump acolyte and a mild-mannered incumbent.

All the while, Kelly has been padding a fearsome campaign account, with operatives anticipating an unceasing ad blitz.

"It's absolutely an advantage to have all that cash," said one Western-based GOP strategist. "And Republicans are about to enter a Republican civil war. So, they're going to be shooting at each other, and that gives Kelly an opportunity to put some additional meat on his bones and beat the crap out of somebody."

Still, the strategy brings with it risks.

Republicans have been hammering Kelly over his evasiveness over the filibuster, with the Republican National Committee (RNC) highlighting in an email "15 times" Kelly gave a "canned" answer on the filibuster. And in the absence of firmer stances on top issues, the GOP boasts it has an opportunity to define Kelly and tie him to an unpopular president in a possible red wave.

"I think he's a little more of a boat in the ocean this time and that the wave could catch him because he hasn't dropped an anchor the size of Sinema to define himself. So, I just think that makes him more susceptible," the GOP strategist said.

"It's not rocket science," the source added. "They have to tie him to Biden and [Vice President Kamala] Harris as much as possible."

To be sure, Kelly has staked out a handful of positions on lower-priority issues that break from Biden, including supporting sanctions on a Russian gas pipeline that the White House opposes.

But the jig may soon be up for Kelly, whose hand could be forced in the coming weeks.

The Senate is expected to vote on Tuesday on a voting rights bill the House passed on Thursday. Should the effort fail as expected, Schumer has forecasted he'll force a vote on filibuster reform and later potentially on a spending bill - squeezing Kelly and handing Republicans possible ammunition.

"Chuck Schumer looks set to smoke out vulnerable Senate Democrats like Mark Kelly by forcing them to vote on unpopular items like the filibuster and 'Build Back Broke,' " said RNC spokesperson Ben Petersen. "Time is running out for Kelly's re-election strategy of avoiding taking any positions on tough issues and letting Kyrsten Sinema run interference."

To be sure, given Manchin and Sinema's consistent opposition, any Senate rules change is expected to be watered down from a complete filibuster repeal, potentially offering Kelly some cover. But still, given the chamber's current 50-50 setup, both parties are looking for the narrowest of advantages - and Kelly going on the record could usher in a new dynamic in the race.

"It puts him into kind of uncharted territory. So far, he's been very held back, more behind the scenes, letting Sinema take all the attention and fire while he's building up a massive war chest," said pollster Mike Noble. "But for him, having to make a decision, I feel like that could be a position that he's maybe not as comfortable with."

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