Who is Ruben Gallego and could he win in Arizona?

Ruben Gallego and Kyrsten Sinema
Ruben Gallego and Kyrsten Sinema Illustrated | Gettyimages
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Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) recently announced that he was running for the Senate seat currently occupied by independent Kyrsten Sinema. In a 3-minute video, Gallego highlighted his hardscrabble immigrant background and military service in Iraq, and positioned himself as a champion for working people. But Gallego, should he win the Democratic nomination, will have the unusual task of taking on not just a Republican opponent, but possibly Sinema as well. Who is Gallego, what does he believe in, and what are his chance of winning in 2024? Here's everything you need to know about the Arizona congressman and his Senate bid.

What is Sinema's plan?

In December, embattled Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced she was leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent. Because she planned to caucus with the Democratic majority, her maneuver didn't change Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) calculus for passing legislation, but it had an immediate effect on her 2024 race for re-election. Sinema is deeply unpopular with Democrats for her role in preserving the Senate's filibuster rule and scuttling core party priorities like raising the minimum wage, implementing paid family and medical leave, and codifying Roe v. Wade. It has been clear for some time that she has virtually no chance at winning re-nomination through the Democratic primary process, and her party shift was a gambit to retain her seat anyway.

To succeed, Sinema would have needed to clear the field of other Democrats by convincing them that a three-way race could throw the seat to the GOP. Gallego's entrance in the race means Sinema failed at that critical task. With Sinema polling in the teens in a three-way race against Gallego and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, the question remaining is whether Sinema will make a kamikaze run or step aside with dignity. That's where Gallego comes in.

Who is Ruben Gallego?

Gallego, a 5-term member of the House of Representatives, is the son of Hispanic immigrants from Mexico and Colombia who divorced when he was young. He grew up poor in Evergreen Park, Illinois, a Chicago southside suburb, where his single mother struggled to keep him and his three sisters afloat. Gallego excelled in school and eventually graduated from Harvard University with a degree in international relations before joining the Marines in 2000 and deploying to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Gallego served in a combat unit that took particularly heavy casualties, experiences he recounted in his 2022 memoir, They Called Us "Lucky."  He fought PTSD when he returned, but in 2010, he ran for the Arizona State House and won, before running for the U.S. House in 2014 and winning.

Gallego's background is appealing in a state with a large and growing Latino minority as well as almost 20,000 active-duty service members. But some analysts have discounted Gallego's chances of winning in swing-state Arizona due to his membership in the leftist Progressive Caucus in the House. Arizona Republican strategist Barrett Marson told Politico that "a traditional conservative Republican who is out there campaigning on the economy, on border security, on reducing inflation would easily win the Senate seat." But like other GOP analysts, Marson is worried that the state's primary voters will nominate another extremist MAGA candidate like Lake, who still has not conceded her loss to Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs and wants a judge to declare her the "rightful winner."

What does Gallego stand for?

Gallego has distanced himself from his party's identity politics in ways that might benefit him in Arizona. As conservative writer Phil Boas writes for Arizona Central, "Gallego actually has a healthy skepticism for white liberals, and their Bryn Mawr ethics and heavy-handed social justice." Gallego has been an outspoken critic of neologisms like "Latinx" as well as his own party's tendency to take Latino voters for granted. After the 2020 election, when Donald Trump won a higher percentage of the Latino vote than expected, sending shock waves through the Democratic coalition, Gallego wrote on Twitter that "we have to be in front of them year round not just election years. That is what we did in AZ."

He co-sponsored a bill with Republicans called the "Collegiate Freedom of Association Act" that would have barred colleges and universities from taking any adverse actions against students who are members of single-sex clubs and organizations, a response to a controversial policy at Harvard University enacted in 2021. By staking out the occasional "anti-woke" stance without joining the growing anti-trans panic on the right, Gallego might be able to neutralize these issues in Arizona and focus on things like the economy and immigration.

On most other policies, he has been a stalwart supporter of party priorities, if not one of the most left-wing Democrats. The University of California Los Angeles ranking system DW-Nominate pegs him as just the 58th most liberal member of the House, ideologically closer to conservative Democrats like Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) than to Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). But his opponents will probably use his "party loyalty" score of 99 percent to tie him to the less popular aspects of President Biden's agenda. During the Democratic governing trifecta from 2021-2023, Gallego voted for every big-ticket legislative victory.

Can he win?

Gallego, a social media firebrand, has hired veterans of Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman's successful 2022 campaign against Mehmet Oz, in which the Democrat aggressively painted Oz as an out-of-touch, out-of-state dilettante and highlighted his own authenticity and working class roots. The New Republic's Alex Shephard called the battle for Arizona's Senate seat potentially "this election cycle's most brutal race." Like many others on the left, Shephard worries that even if she draws only 13 percent of the vote, Sinema could throw the election to a MAGA Republican. There isn't much polling yet, but what's out there suggests Gallego would narrowly beat Lake heads-up and narrowly lose with Sinema in the race.

Gallego's easiest path to the Senate, therefore, might be a sustained attack on Sinema that further drives down her approval ratings and convinces her to leave the race. The Los Angeles Times' LZ Granderson argues that Gallego needs to convince party leaders that he's a more viable candidate than Sinema to keep the seat away from Republicans. Granderson says it comes down to fundraising, and that "if his first-quarter numbers are strong, the national party will have to back him." Even if Sinema bows out it will be a tough fight — Sen. Mark Kelly (D) barely beat back a challenge from MAGA Republican Blake Masters last year. Much may depend on what the national environment looks like for Democrats, and who Republicans put forward.

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