- Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, a Democrat, is up for re-election this year.
- His colleague, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, just blocked key voting rights legislation in the Senate.
- Arizona Democrats worry controversy over Sinema will overshadow Kelly’s 2022 campaign.
Arizona Democrats are growing increasingly alarmed that the drama surrounding Sen. Kyrsten Sinema will make it harder for her counterpart, Sen. Mark Kelly, to win re-election in November.
It’s an unintended side effect stemming from the intra-party outrage that Sinema kicked up after her decision last week to block a major voting rights bill that sits atop President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
Now, Sinema is the talk of Grand Canyon State politics when Democrats very much would rather the focus be on Kelly, a former astronaut running in a tough 2022 midterm cycle where Republicans need to pick up just one Senate seat to win back the majority.
“I do think that Kyrsten Sinema is making it significantly more difficult for Mark Kelly to get re-elected,” said one Arizona Democratic Party official, who requested anonymity to speak bluntly about the race.
“This is not what we wanted to talk about right now,” the official said. “It’s like a vacuum that’s taking away from the focus that needs to be on Mark Kelly right now … instead we’re fighting against ourselves here.”
Kelly is a gun safety activist and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who in 2011 was shot outside a grocery store in her district during a constituent event. He beat the Republican incumbent in a 2020 special election to serve out the final two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s term and now is running for a full six years in Washington. To do that in swing-state Arizona, Kelly will need to win over independents and moderate Republicans.
So far, Kelly is miles ahead of his potential Republican challengers in the fundraising race. He pulled in $9 million in the fourth quarter of 2020. But the Cook Political Report rates the Arizona 2022 Senate race as a toss-up, meaning the political winds could blow either way in November.
That’s why Democrats would very much prefer the main story out of Arizona to be about the contrast between themselves and Republicans. Instead, intra-party friction within the Democratic Party is soaring after state officials took the unusual step of censoring Sinema on Saturday for voting against a change to the Senate’s filibuster rules and effectively blocking a bill her party says is essential to protecting democracy and the 2022 election’s integrity.
“I share that concern as long as we continue to focus on Sinema,” said Priya Sundareshan, who volunteers on the Arizona Democratic Party’s Asian American and Pacific Islander caucus. “I think that the focus is rightly shifting back on Senator Kelly now.”
Republicans on the attack
Arizona Republicans will pick their nominee to run against Kelly during an August 2 primary.
Notable Republican candidates vying to take on Kelly include Blake Masters, a chair of the Thiel Foundation, businessman Jim Lamon, and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
Amalia Halikias, Masters’ campaign manager, told Insider that the Senate filibuster will be a “huge issue” in the 2022 race to take out Kelly, who her boss said in a statement had “betrayed Arizona.”
“He is disgusting and he’s got to go,” Blake Masters said.
No matter who wins the primary, Republicans are also already busy highlighting the contrasts between Kelly and Sinema. “Kelly is no moderate,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Katharine Cooksey said after last week’s vote. “He is a far-left senator who will do whatever Joe Biden and Washington Democrat leadership tell him to in order to pass a radically liberal agenda.”
While Kelly voted with his party to change the filibuster rules, the Arizona Democratic Party official said Sinema’s refusal to do the same means that Kelly will ultimately have fewer accomplishments to tout to voters come November.
“Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly could have joined with their 50 Democratic senators and passed significant legislation on health care, on voting rights, on environmental issues, on climate change, and gone back to the people of Arizona in October 2022 and said, look at all of the things we have passed,” he said.
“Kyrsten Sinema’s decided to block all of it,” the official said. “So Mark Kelly doesn’t have as much material to work with in his re-election.”
Ann Heitland, chair of the Coconino County Democratic Party that includes Flagstaff, downplayed the ultimate effect Sinema could have on Kelly. “I think Democrats worry too much,” she said. “We just have to move on and deal with the elections that are on the ballot in 2022.”
For his part, Kelly brushed off a question about whether he had concerns Sinema would negatively hurt his own reelection chances.
“I spent 25 years flying airplanes off an aircraft carrier, and flying a space shuttle,” he told Insider. “Politics — that’s not my focus, my popularity in the state, or hers. I’m focused on making smart decisions that help the folks in Arizona and this country.”