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Ruben Gallego passes on Arizona Senate run

Democrat Mark Kelly is already in the race to take on GOP Sen. Martha McSally

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is passing on a run for Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., is passing on a run for Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego has decided not to run for Senate against appointed Republican Sen. Martha McSally.

A spokeswoman for the Phoenix congressman confirmed his decision to Roll Call, and Gallego told The Arizona Republic he was passing on the race to avoid a divisive primary.  

Democrat Mark Kelly, a Navy veteran and former astronaut, is already running and has proved to be a strong fundraiser. Kelly is married to former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. He entered the race in February and his campaign said it had raised more than $2 million during the first two weeks after his announcement. 

In 2011, Giffords survived an assassination attempt at a constituent event in the Tucson area that left six dead and the congresswoman gravely injured. In 2013, she and Kelly formed Americans for Responsible Solutions, a gun control advocacy organization now known as Giffords: Courage to End Gun Violence. 

Also watch: First 2020 Senate race ratings are here

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Gallego told reporters off the House floor Monday night that he had conducted polling that showed the path to winning a primary was to go negative, which he did not want to do.

“The general is actually not the problem. It’s that, to win you’d have to run just a very bitter, bitter primary,” Gallego said. “I don’t want to do an 18-month bitter primary and give up time with my family, time doing better work when it comes to working here in Congress.”

Gallego said he has known Kelly for several years and respects him. He stopped short of endorsing Kelly, saying he wanted to first talk with him to make sure he has “the right plan” but declined to provide specifics on what he wants to ask him.

“I’m going to definitely support the Democrat who can win this, no matter what, and I think that’ll be Mark Kelly,” the congressman said. “But the most important thing is we got to stop Martha McSally.”

Gallego said he informed Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of his decision. He said the New York Democrat did not discourage him from running but asked to keep the primary “as gentlemanly as possible.”

Some pressure not to run had come from Democrats in Arizona, who were concerned that a lengthy and divisive primary could hurt their chances in the purple-trending state.

The Arizona primary is not until the end of August 2020, and early voting starts in early October. So candidates who win contested primaries have little time to turn around and wage a strong general election campaign.

Gallego said he had heard of other Democrats considering a Senate bid in Arizona, but declined to offer names. He said he would not discourage them from running. 

McSally is among the more vulnerable senators up in 2020. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates next year’s Arizona Senate race a Toss-up. President Donald Trump carried the state by just 4 points in 2016.

McSally will be running for the remaining two years of the late GOP Sen. John McCain’s term. Arizona’s Republican governor appointed her to the seat in December, a month after she lost a hard-fought race for the state’s other Senate seat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. McSally had battled through a nasty GOP primary in that race, while Sinema had the Democratic contest largely to herself. 

Sinema had crafted a moderate profile in the House after a more liberal stint in the state Legislature, which some operatives say helped her become the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Arizona in 30 years. Gallego dismissed a question about whether he took the state’s political leaning into account when deciding not to run, since he is among the more progressive lawmakers.

“Any idea that Democrats won’t vote for a progressive after Sinema wins is ridiculous,” Gallego said.

Speculation has swirled around Gallego running for the Senate for years. First elected in 2014, he represents the solidly Democratic 7th District, anchored in Phoenix. He won a third House term last fall with approximately 85 percent of the vote. 

A Harvard-educated Marine combat veteran, Gallego serves on the House Armed Services and Natural Resources committees.

Gallego acknowledged that he had also waited too long to decide to run for Senate. Kelly jumped into the Senate race in mid-February. Gallego meanwhile had held off on making a decision because he did not want to interfere with his ex-wife Kate Gallego’s campaign for Phoenix mayor, which she won earlier this month.

Gallego said the decision not to run in a hotly contested Senate race does mean he can spend more time with his two year-old son.

“I’ll be able to do this later if I want to,” Gallego said. “In the meantime, I get to spend time with him.”

Kelly said in a statement Monday night that he had “a lot of respect for Congressman Gallego’s service to our nation.”

“As a Navy guy, I know it’s always better to avoid a fight with a Marine,” Kelly said. “I look forward to working with him to stand up for Arizona families.”