Mark Kelly Arizona Senate bid sends liberal Democrats scrambling for AOC 2.0 alternative

February 19, 2019 GMT

When former astronaut Mark Kelly said last week he would run as a Democrat to try to unseat a sitting Republican U.S. senator in Arizona, the news sent liberal activists scrambling to try to come up with a candidate of their own.

Left-wing groups urged Rep. Ruben Gallego, a vocal member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to join the race to give liberals a more palatable option as they prepare for 2020.

Across the country, those same liberal groups are eyeing next year’s elections with anticipation, hoping to prove that stunning primary season upsets in 2018, such as freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ousting of a 20-year party leader, were just an opening act.


And with President Trump likely leading the Republican ticket, they figure the stars are aligned.

“I know in Michigan, there is a lot of new energy and hope for the 2020 election,” freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Michigan Democrat, told The Washington Times, crediting that energy for helping her state approve ballot initiatives to loosen restrictions on voter participation, overhaul the redistricting process, and legalize marijuana.

“A lot of people like myself are running for office and that is igniting a wave of people that tended not to vote in the past are now voting,” she said. “They feel a sense like that not only does it look different to have someone like me here, but it also feels and speaks differently to them, and I think that is really important. That’s what is incredible about our democracy is being able to have those diverse voices.”

One prominent Democratic-primary target for liberal activists is Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas, and there have been rumblings about a challenger to Rep. David Scott in Georgia.

In Illinois, Rep. Dan Lipinski is gearing up for another Democratic primary challenge and quite possibly a rematch against Marie Newman, a pro-choice challenger who nearly defeated the pro-life incumbent last year.

“The Democratic Party right now is going through a lot of turmoil and issues on where the party is going much like the Republican Party has gone through, and in some sense are still going through,” Mr. Lipinski told The Times. “So I expect I will have a primary challenge again, but you know I am confident I will do well and come through it again.”

The GOP’s turmoil has been well-covered, dating to the tea party resistance against President Barack Obama, which saw a number of high-profile newcomers defeat establishment favorites in primaries in 2010. Among them were Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mike Lee.


Two years later, Sen. Ted Cruz rode the echo wave, defeating an establishment GOP candidate in the Texas primary then going on to win the general election.

Progressives hope for the same echo wave to strike for them in 2020.

But that means winning primary battles against establishment-minded Democrats, which is why the nascent Arizona Senate race is so important.

Mr. Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is already fairly well-known despite lacking experience holding political office. His wife’s experience as the victim of a mass shooting and now as the leader of a gun-control group have given him a profile and a platform.

Yet for liberals, he’s the wrong guy to challenge Sen. Martha McSally, appointed to the seat that had been filled for decades by the late Sen. John McCain.For many of those liberals, Mr. Gallego is the answer.

“I think Ruben is likely seeing a lot of pressure from the far left and progressive groups because if he doesn’t run now when will there be an opportunity in the future to claim a coveted Senate seat?” said Mike Noble, an Arizona-based pollster.

Yet Mr. Noble said they might want to study last year’s election, which saw moderate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema win the state’s open Senate seat, while proud liberal David Garcia was swamped in the governor’s race.

“David Garcia ran hard and to the left, compared to Sinema who planted her flag in the middle and never moved,” Mr. Noble said. “It clearly shows a roadmap if Democrats want to be successful that you have to run center or even center-right. Ruben could beat Kelly in a primary, however, in a general election it is going to be more of an uphill battle.”

Mr. Gallego, though, said he saw other forces at work in Ms. Sinema’s victory, saying she was able to fend off accusations of being an anti-war liberal activist in her youth.

“They mostly ran commercials against her being liberal and wearing a pink tutu,” he told The Times. “At the end of the day what actually mattered was the fact that like more than a hundred thousand new Latino voters came out and voted for the first time.”

Fellow Rep. Raul Grijalva, also of Arizona and a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has vowed to support Mr. Gallego and says that Mr. Trump’s polarizing rhetoric, including on immigration, has energized minority communities ahead of 2020.

“I really believe that those frontline communities that feel oppressed by this president are going to be very active ... and motivated,” Mr. Grijalva said. “The urgency will still be around to get Trump out is going to be huge and that is going to create huge turnout just as it did in 18.”

Mr. Lipinski said the same voter dissatisfaction and desire for something new and different that led to the election of Mr. Trump is generating the internal party battles.

“Everything is different, especially in Washington today since the election of Donald Trump,” he said. “I think that search is still going on in the public, and that brings to the floor a lot of different politicians with different ideas who say this is where we should be going for a better future for our county and those solutions vary in a wide way from right to left.”

“Those are just the political times we are in now,” he said.