In Arizona’s Crucial Senate Race, a Liberal Fighter Courts the Center

As Representative Ruben Gallego campaigned for Arizona’s vital Senate seat last week, he did something that might seem unusual to those who know him as a fierce liberal combatant: He struck a moderate tone.

Speaking to retirees in Goodyear, a politically divided Phoenix suburb, Mr. Gallego, a Democrat, addressed the surge of migrants at the border, suggesting that the asylum system was “being abused” and calling for more support for Border Patrol agents so they could “really focus on those bad guys.”

It was a shift from the Ruben Gallego of years past, when he slammed former President Donald J. Trump’s border wall plans as “stupid” and accused him of “scapegoating immigrants.” The new message — stemming in part from an intensifying crisis under a far different president — represented a tacit acknowledgment that winning over Arizona voters may require a slide toward the middle.

Delicately turning to the political center is a time-honored tradition for candidates of both parties. But Mr. Gallego, who represents a liberal district in Phoenix and has a long history of identifying as a progressive, could face a tougher challenge than most in redefining himself in a battleground state with a decades-old conservative bent — even after a major court decision on abortion this week put Democrats firmly on offense in the state.

“In this era of hyper-partisanship — and there will be national money flooding into Arizona in this Senate race — people will be flinging stereotypes around like crazy,” said Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who served two terms as the state’s governor in the 2000s.

Ms. Napolitano, who noted that Mr. Gallego’s status as a Marine Corps veteran could help him, said that to win statewide as a Democrat, he needed to demonstrate that “you’re there to problem-solve, and you’re there to work hard, and you’re there to represent all Arizonans.”

Mr. Gallego does have several key advantages in Arizona, though.

A ruling on Tuesday from the State Supreme Court, which said an 1864 law that bans nearly all abortions could be reinstated, turbocharged Democrats’ attempts to put abortion at the center of the November election. That decision, combined with the likelihood that a ballot measure protecting abortion access will be on the ballot in Arizona, left Democrats hopeful of soaring liberal turnout.

Mr. Gallego is also poised to run against a Republican who is straining even harder to widen her appeal: Kari Lake, the former television anchor and Trump ally whose divisiveness and election lies helped lead to her narrow defeat in the 2022 governor’s race.

And Arizona has shifted blue in recent years, with Joseph R. Biden Jr. flipping the state in 2020 and a host of Democrats winning statewide elections: Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, and Gov. Katie Hobbs, who beat Ms. Lake.

Those candidates, however, had spent more time crafting cautiously moderate, pragmatic images, while Mr. Gallego has built a reputation as a blunt-spoken liberal who is politically in tune with young progressives and lacerates his opponents with profane social media posts.

Mr. Gallego’s success could hinge on his ability to present a new side of himself to Arizonans. While Ms. Lake is widely known, Mr. Gallego is less well-defined in the state, giving him a chance to pitch himself as a no-nonsense veteran focused on local priorities like prescription drug prices and health care while highlighting her history as an election denier.

Mr. Gallego said that he was up for the challenge of appealing to voters of all political persuasions, and that he was reaching out to Republicans and visiting redder parts of Arizona.

“We’ve been going to not the easiest areas of the state when it comes to being a Democrat, but we’ll continue to do it,” he said in an interview last week. “I don’t see it as a move to the middle. We’re here to talk to voters, and we have to earn their support.”

At the same time, Ms. Lake and her allies are highlighting some of Mr. Gallego’s past votes and positions that they say are out of step with Arizonans, like his cosponsoring of a bill that would have established a “Medicare for all” universal health care program; his enthusiasm for ending the filibuster in the Senate; his suggestion to “take a scalpel” to military spending; and his criticism of Mr. Trump’s border wall proposal.

“Ruben Gallego is a far-left progressive who has accomplished nothing for Arizona over his 10 years in Congress,” Alex Nicoll, a spokesman for Ms. Lake, said in a statement, pointing out that Mr. Gallego has voted with Mr. Biden 100 percent of the time.

Mr. Gallego has tried to parry these criticisms. His campaign noted that he had voted for tens of billions of dollars in appropriations bills over the years funding national security projects and hiring Border Patrol agents, and that he supported the bipartisan bill that would have tightened restrictions on the border but was tanked by Republicans this year.

His spokeswoman, Hannah Goss, said Mr. Gallego “has always put Arizonans first” and attacked Ms. Lake’s record on abortion, saying she would “do or say anything to gain power for herself.”

Mr. Gallego also ended his membership in the Congressional Progressive Caucus last year, a move that was first reported by Politico. He said last week that he left the caucus because of the increased cost of dues, and did not directly respond when asked whether he still considered himself a progressive.

“These terms are kind of D.C. terms. I consider myself someone that’s been working very hard for Arizona,” he said. As for Republicans’ criticisms of his record, he challenged them to “bring it.”

Mr. Gallego, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, has maintained a slim lead in most polls over Ms. Lake, who made baseless claims about election fraud in 2020 a key part of her 2022 campaign for governor, then filed lawsuits seeking to overturn her own defeat after she lost. Ms. Lake has a big lead over her main Republican challenger, Mark Lamb, a right-wing sheriff, ahead of the July 30 primary election. While she has a core of ardent supporters, she is laboring to earn the backing of more moderate Republicans.

Mr. Gallego has a financial edge, having out-raised Ms. Lake late last year and tallying $7.5 million in campaign contributions in the first three months of this year; she has not yet announced her total for the same time period. He entered the race well before her and has maintained a busy campaign schedule, vowing to visit all 22 federally recognized Native American tribes in Arizona before the election.

One of those visits occurred last week, when Mr. Gallego toured the Yavapai-Apache Nation reservation near Sedona. Courting the Native American voters who helped turn Arizona blue, he squelched through the mud and cottonwood trees on the bank of the Verde River while discussing the importance of tribal water rights with the chairwoman of the nation’s tribal council.

Mr. Gallego, a 44-year-old of Colombian and Mexican descent, has a compelling personal story. Growing up poor in Chicago, he worked a variety of jobs as a teenager while his single mother supported him and his three sisters on a secretary’s salary.

That helps him understand, he said, “what people are feeling right now, the frustration, the hurt, the feeling of betrayal.”

He attended Harvard, enlisted in the Marines and was deployed to Iraq, where his unit suffered heavy losses. Dozens of Marines were killed, including his best friend, and Mr. Gallego talks openly about suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning home. He served in the Arizona Legislature before being elected to Congress in 2014.

There are also aspects of his life that Republicans view as damaging. He and his first wife, Kate Gallego, divorced in 2016, weeks before she gave birth to their child. A conservative news outlet is suing to unseal their divorce records and Ms. Lake has accused him of “abandoning his wife & baby.”

Ms. Gallego, now the mayor of Phoenix, has endorsed Mr. Gallego, who has since remarried and has said his P.T.S.D. contributed to their divorce. The pair are co-parenting their child, and Mr. Gallego said there was “nothing at all” that would come out of the divorce records.

Both Mr. Gallego and Ms. Lake say they are aggressively courting Arizona’s sizable populations of independent voters and moderates, some of whom felt left without a political home when Ms. Sinema announced last month that she would not run for re-election. Ms. Sinema’s office did not respond to a question about whether she would endorse Mr. Gallego.

With Ms. Lake continuing to hammer issues where Republicans have an edge among voters, like the border crisis, Mr. Gallego could have his work cut out for him among independents.

Jon Lindstrom, 77, a Democrat at the Goodyear event, said he was backing Mr. Gallego. But the congressman would have to work to earn others’ support, he suggested.

“I think when it comes to immigration, he’s going to have a challenge,” Mr. Lindstrom said.

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