Arizona Senate candidate Ruben Gallego holds a press conference outside of Silicon Valley Bank's (SVB) Tempe regional office in Tempe, Arizona USA on March 14, 2023. Gallego held the press conference to call out Senator Sinema for taking millions from Wall Street and voting for banking deregulation that led to SVB's collapse. (Photo by: Alexandra Buxbaum /Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

For all of its national importance, the 2024 U.S. Senate race in Arizona could shape up not only as a critical battle in the war for control of the chamber but as a crucible for a next-generation style of American politics. That model is being presented by Representative Ruben Gallego, the congressman on track to be the Democratic nominee. Skepticism is warranted, but what Gallego and other Democrats are building could help the national party rally fresh support among Latinos while also charting a confident, center-left path that drains support from at least small numbers of Republicans fed up with the MAGA bandwagon while navigating political landmines like race and immigration. 

Arizona, the 48th state to enter the union and the sixth largest state by area, has always been known for its flinty, bull-headed independent streak. That was on display in the doomed 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater—and it gave the country John McCain and his at-times maverick, at-times just ornery politics, as well as Democratic characters like the late Representative Morris Udall and Governors Bruce Babbitt and Janet Napolitano, who forged a provocative but pragmatic liberalism and national profiles amid the red state’s politics. Now the state is purple. It has one Democratic U.S. Senator and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats and a Democratic governor, but a GOP statehouse and some of the most out-there House Republicans, including Representative Paul Gosar, who is often dubbed a white nationalist. The conditions could be ripe for the ambitious Gallego, who shares much in common with Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman—blue-collar roots, Harvard cred, and a top advisor, Rebecca Katz. But the 43-year-old Marine who served combat duty in Iraq brings his Mexican and Colombian) roots and a low tolerance for elitist fads. His take on the phrase “Latinx” that only 3 percent of Latinos use? “Don’t use Latinx,” he famously said. 

Incumbent Kyrsten Sinema, the leftie-turned-moderate Democrat-turned-independent, will have to win on her own if she runs at all. Unlike U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, who pulled off an independent bid in Alaska, Sinema won’t have the benefit of ranked-choice voting or a name that’s part of a political dynasty. (Murkowski’s father was governor and senator.) Given how Arizona Democrats have soured on the 46-year-old Sinema, it’s hard to see how she could draw enough moderates to win, à la Joe Lieberman in 2006 when he turned losing his Democratic primary into a successful independent bid to keep his U.S. Senate seat. But the truth is that, especially in an era of social-media-driven unpredictability, we can’t be sure who will prevail in a three-way race in a closely divided state.  

What we do know is that Gallego is the frontrunner in the Democratic primary and the almost certain nominee. He’s helped himself by loudly complaining about Sinema as she played Hamlet over supporting President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill. She eventually voted for its more moderate spawn, the Inflation Reduction Act. “He definitely has this energy that he is 100 percent against Kyrsten Sinema,” Francesca Martin of the Keep AZ Blue student organization says, echoing activist sentiment in the state. “I think people are excited because so many people do hate Kyrsten Sinema. They’re excited to see a candidate that really is going to be a fresh voice compared to the way that Sinema has treated Arizonans for the past so many years. … What I hear from Democratic youth voters, especially, is that they’ve just been betrayed by Kyrsten. They want someone that’s going to say, ‘I’m not going to be a corporate sellout like Kyrsten Sinema.’ They want someone that’s going to say, ‘I’m going to be representing you.’” 

Arizona pols expect Kari Lake to seek the Republican nomination for the Senate race. The former Arizona TV newsperson turned indefatigable MAGA supporter continues to insist that she won her 2022 gubernatorial bid and that victory was stolen from her just as it was from Trump in 2020. Weeks have passed since Time ran a piece: “In Arizona’s Senate Race, Everyone is Waiting on Kari Lake.” They’re still waiting, but really, where else can Lake go? Maybe she calculates that, after one or two or even three more indictments, Trump might decide it’s time for her fiery loyalty and select her as his Vice Presidential running mate even before securing the nomination. If Lake doesn’t sign up for Arizona’s Senate race, Blake Masters, who lost by 100,000 votes to Arizona’s other U.S. Senator, former astronaut Mark Kelly, might find running irresistible. 

Whatever the Republicans decide, Gallego remains the most interesting candidate. His team hopes his working-class background and military service will help him hold his own with independents and even some Republicans. He comes off as a guy who has drawn hard lessons from childhood, raised in Chicago with his three sisters by a single mom, a youth spent sleeping on the floor as a child and scrubbing toilets to earn enough to eat. But Gallego, the father of a newborn, seems less interested in the politics of grievance and more in the politics of hope. His second wife, Sydney, delivered a baby girl on July 3. He had a son with his first wife, Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego. 

“Arizona is now a very welcoming state,” Gallego told me, not in a chamber-of-commerce way but in drawing the kind of contrast a Mississippi Democrat might in looking back on their state’s grim past. Gallego points to 2010—when self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio, a vociferous immigrant basher, still held office in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous by far. That year, the statehouse passed the notorious anti-immigrant SB 1070, which proved too radical for the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down many of its provisions, ruling that state police must have reasonable suspicion to investigate someone’s immigration status.  

“Some of the worst divisive politics was really happening in Arizona,” Gallego tells me. “Now, Maricopa County is the fastest-growing county in the country. We have first-generation, second-generation, and third-generation Latinos, but we also have people coming in from all over the world that are really trying to make their American dream in Arizona. I think that’s the one thing that is a very big unifier: Everyone in Arizona is just trying to live their best lives. And that’s something that is very much unifying—versus before, there wasn’t a unified Arizona idea. (Now) everyone wants to buy a house in Arizona. Everybody wants to be successful. They want to have a stable life.” 

The Gallego style relies on what the smartest Democrats do—campaign everywhere. (When you’re showing up in Jerome, a hamlet in central Arizona tucked into the Prescott National Forest with a population of 467 that’s 94 percent white, you’re clearly getting in the mileage to reach beyond your base.) Gallego has quick-reaction social-media prowess, spiked with a love for political scrapping and a positive vision.  

History shows that optimism holds tremendous appeal with voters. California Governor Gavin Newsom has been pulled into national political fights. Still, at home, he was reelected by a wide margin, in part because of the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic makeup but also because of his irrepressible optimism amid problems such as housing costs and homelessness. Most recently, Republicans in Florida were stunned to see Democrat Donna Deegan win a mid-May election for Mayor of Jacksonville, a dramatic setback to the DeSantis program of enflaming the culture wars. In her victory speech, Deegan couched her win as a case of choosing “not to go with division. We would go with unity.” 

Although result after result shows voters are tired of election denialism and similar strains of overheated rhetoric, Gallego may find it challenging to stay positive. For one, he’ll have to play both offense and defense, never easy against a Lake-style MAGA politician willing to, let’s just say, get creative when it comes to asserting what might constitute reality. Gallego’s answer is to go all in on authenticity, echoing Fetterman and sounding like a regular guy talking about stuff that matters, not a puffed-up Washington self-caricature. That’s great when it works, but not everybody loves salty language during a policy discussion. 

Gallego faces the problematic issues of the U.S.-Mexico border and immigration more broadly, and he may have found the lexicon to help Democrats manage the perception that the border is chaos. “First of all, it’s not fair to the border communities there to call it a mess,” Gallego told me. “Just because a portion of this country has a problem, we don’t call that whole area a mess. This is very unfair. These small towns are thriving. They have some of the lowest crime rates in the country. This idea that this is such a war zone being put up by a Republican politician really affects these families down there and these businesses down there, and it’s not fair to them. […] You don’t marginalize and make these areas look like they’re not a part of America for your personal gain, right? You got politicians that are walking around in broad daylight, wearing flak jackets, right? Next to the border wall, when literally, if they had turned the cameras, there’s a Starbucks right next to that border wall.” 

So, to practical steps: Congress has to act. 

“We’re going to talk about the need for immigration reform and for sane border security, but we’re not going to engage in these histrionics of just scaring the shit out of people,” he said. The Biden administration, he said, needs “to be talking more about what the path forward looks like and be aggressive about it. I think immigration reform is a winning message, no matter what year you’re doing it. I think when you don’t talk about it, it’s easier for the other side to slander and to suppress.”  

Gallego’s right to want to push for border security, and once again, events seem to be breaking in his favor. As Bill Scher wrote here last month, the reality on the ground has shifted. “Has southern border security collapsed? Hardly. Unlawful entries have dropped by 70 percent in the last few weeks, according to the Department of Homeland Security, after Biden implemented a new border management policy,” Scher wrote. Critics hyperventilated over Biden’s plan to end the emergency measures Trump pushed through in 2020, dubbed “Title 42,” and warned of a surge in migrants. As Scher noted, the opposite happened. 

It might fall to a new generation of Latino leaders like Gallego to ignite momentum for a rational immigration policy. All the elements of immigration reform have been in play in Washington for years—a path to citizenship for those who are undocumented, a restoration of H1B visas for high-skilled workers, a sensible policy for those seeking refugee status, and a better way to process those coming here while deferring to those who would come here en masse. This magazine has praised the Biden approach, which, thus far, has met with success. The feared wave of immigration following the repeal of Title 42, the Trump-and-Biden policy allowing easier deportation, never materialized because the Biden administration put in place a much more orderly process that, at least initially, is working. The problem for Gallego seeking to win statewide instead of in a south Phoenix Congressional district that’s more than 60 percent Hispanic and less than 20 percent white—and went for Biden 63-36—is to show he’s not just pushing ideas that date back to John McCain. He cannot appear indifferent to those justifiably uncomfortable with many undocumented migrants. The state’s Democratic governor has bussed some out of state, and Senator Kelly has shown that you can support immigration reform in a way that doesn’t seem like you favor open borders. Gallego appears to have the political dexterity to do this across the state, but we’ll see. 

When Gallego declared his candidacy in January, he faced questions about whether he could neutralize the incumbent Sinema, the former Green Party member turned independent turned Democrat turned independent again—and (soon enough, perhaps, a highly paid lobbyist. Gallego pulled in a solid $3.7 million in donations in his first quarter, compared to $2.1 million for Sinema, a sign of his campaign energizing the voters he’s targeting to win the Democratic nomination. His background, Gallego, has been “helpful in terms of also connecting with Arizonans of all walks of life, whether it’s working-class people, whether it’s Latinos, whether it’s veterans. I think at this point, I hit the right moment at the right time.” 

After switching her designation in Congress to Independent (although she still caucuses with the Democrats like Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders), whether Sinema will seek reelection as an independent remains uncertain. She is widely loathed by Arizona Democrats, from centrists to progressives, who nearly universally see her as selfish, untrustworthy, and motivated primarily by how she can best enrich herself.  

“I don’t think Sinema has any chance to be reelected—none, she’s gone,” veteran Democratic political operative David Doak, now retired in Arizona, told me. “The history of candidacies like hers is they don’t tend to grow; they tend to wither. My guess is she’s probably going to end up withering away more than she’s growing.” 

Sinema now calls herself a “moderate” and claims she always was. Still, in 2000, as a spokesperson for the Arizona Green Party, she focused on “disaffected young people” and talked about working for long-term progressive change. “Real political change takes decades,” she told the Arizona Republic that year. “We’re at the start of the movement.” By running for Phoenix’s city council as an unknown 25-year-old social worker focused on poverty and toxic waste the following year, Sinema told the Republic: “I don’t believe in accepting money in exchange for votes. That’s bribery.” In 2002, preparing to run for the state legislature, she published a letter to the editor in the Republic, reading, “Until the average American realizes that capitalism damages her livelihood while augmenting the livelihoods of the wealthy, the Almighty Dollar will continue to rule.” Most Arizona voters think Sinema learned to love the Almighty Dollar a little too much.  

In the likely scenario that a MAGA-type Republican enters the contest, Sinema is widely expected to pull more votes from Republicans than Democrats, to the extent that her remaining vote-getting potential is relevant. My guess is Sinema (whatever her staff leaks to reporters) won’t end up running since the prospect of a third-place defeat might diminish her earning power as a to-the-top-bidder Washington lobbyist.  

Another intriguing 2024 race in Arizona pits entrepreneur and former Arizona state Democratic Party chair Andrei Cherny, once the youngest White House speechwriter in history, against a crowded Democratic field. His opponents include former TV journalist Marlene Galán-Woods, orthodontist Andrew Horne, nonprofit executive Kurt Kroemer, and state representative Amish Shah in the Democratic primary to see who can knock off David Schweikert, the Republican U.S. Representative from North Phoenix. The incumbent’s record of shenanigans is so vast that he paid a $50,000 fine in 2020 after being investigated by the House Ethics Committee and paid a $125,000 fine to the Federal Election Commission in 2022 for misuse of campaign funds.  

Schweikert was nearly ousted in 2022 by Black 28-year-old Democrat Jevin Hodge, who lost by fewer than 3,200 votes, running on infrastructure, health care, and voting rights. Including northwestern Maricopa County, the district was one of 18 that went for Joe Biden in 2020 but elected a Republican to the House. Although the 1st District—Arizona’s wealthiest, including Scottsdale and Tempe—features an edge in Republican registration (28 percent Democrat, to 33 percent independent, to 38 percent Republican), —Democratic Senator Kelly carried it in 2022 with more than 52.5 percent of the vote. In 2024 Democrats sense a substantial pickup opportunity as more affluent, white college-educated voters move into the Democratic column. Cherny, whose parents emigrated from Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, has a huge network of Clinton, Obama, and Biden officials and supporters, including former White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain. Cherny is expected to have an edge in fundraising and looks like the early favorite. 

Cherny and Gallego have a lot in common. Both were raised under challenging circumstances by immigrants, went to Harvard, served in the military, and both have written acclaimed books dealing with war and conflict in their own ways. They are hardly rebels arguing their visions of Arizona’s future, but theirs is an anti-politics politics that tamps down divisive rhetoric in favor of practical solutions. That gets harder as races heat up and fundraising deadlines loom. I’ve seen candidates evolve their [appeals for donations] based on the need to fundraise online with end-of-cycle overnight, attention-getting messages.” 

Sinema’s preening makes this kind of “get ‘er done” politics more appealing. Her weird thumbs-down gesture on the Senate floor, signaling her vote against raising the minimum wage, won’t soon be forgotten. The sunny talk of Cherny and Gallego deserves a serious hearing in Arizona. The state that helped launch so many angry politicians might be just the place to try something else. 

“Arizona previewed the Donald Trump approach, and it’s previewing the post-Donald Trump approach,” Cherny told me. “What we’re seeing now among not only Democrats but also Republicans and independents is people looking for what comes next, looking for a new kind of politics that’s built less on wedge issues and more on web issues—on the types of policies that can actually tie people together. People in Arizona are not ideological for the most part, they’re pragmatists, and they’re looking for results and solutions and just not getting that from a lot of the typical politicians in today’s Arizona Republican Party.” As Arizona becomes more Hispanic and affluent, its politics will become even more hospitable to the likes of Gallego and Cherny. The question for 2024 is whether they’re ahead of their time or hitting it just right.  

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Steve Kettmann, a former staff reporter for New York Newsday and the San Francisco Chronicle, lives in Santa Cruz, California. His most recent books is: Remember Who You Are: What Pedro Gomez Showed Us About Baseball and Life.