There’s nothing new about politicians shape-shifting and changing their public images. But voters in Arizona’s 2024 Senate race are already getting a particularly heavy dose of it, from both the Left and Right, in a contest key to deciding which party wins a majority in the chamber.
A three-way race is on the table in the Grand Canyon State — home to transplants, snowbirds, retirees, and assorted other new residents from all around the country, along with young people, many of whom don’t identify with either major political party. Registered independents are now the biggest voting group, having passed Republicans over the summer.
Victory in the Senate race, which still has an unsettled lineup, is likely to go to the candidate able to break off a larger chunk of the state’s large independent base.
Both Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and Kari Lake, the 2022 Arizona Republican gubernatorial nominee, have joined the race for the seat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) won in 2018. Sinema, who left the Democratic Party in December 2022 to become an independent, has yet to announce her reelection bid.
Sinema still caucuses with Senate Democrats, giving the party its 51-49 edge over Republicans. A 2024 GOP win in the Senate seat would decimate Democratic chances of holding the majority, already a challenging task with seats up in the Republican-leaning states of Montana and Ohio and the deep-red bastion of West Virginia, among other competitive contests.
Should Sinema run for reelection, it’s possible that the Democratic and independent votes could be split. Independents make up the largest voting bloc in Arizona, at 34.55%, according to the Arizona secretary of state, compared to 34.42% for Republicans and 30.02% for Democrats.
“Arizona has a long-standing history of being really independent,” Arizona GOP strategist Lorna Romero told the Washington Examiner. So, Sinema, previously a six-year congresswoman and state legislator before that, has a good chance to appeal to Arizona’s voters who may not focus on party politics.
“She gets to be a free agent,” Romero said. “That’s something that’s going to work to her benefit.”
The race’s other two prominent candidates, however, have the opportunity to reintroduce themselves to voters this cycle and to try and move away from images embedded in the minds of at least some voters — Gallego as a fire-breathing liberal out of touch with Arizona’s sensible center, and Lake being an acolyte of former President Donald Trump and mindless parrot of his false claims about voting in his 2020 loss to President Joe Biden.
Lake, who ran unsuccessfully for Arizona’s governorship against then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in 2022, has also become known nationally for her debunked claims that she won her 2022 race — though, like Trump, she’s lost practically every court case.
However, signs are showing Lake could be trying to change her public persona for the Senate race. During her campaign launch, the former television journalist largely avoided talking about her 2022 loss, focusing instead on election integrity as a bipartisan issue.
“Fighting for honest elections is not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democrat issue. It’s an American issue,” Lake said.
Lake, a former local television anchor in Arizona, still aligns herself with Trump. It’s practically a necessity since Trump is the likely 2024 GOP nominee, in a rematch against Biden. Yet Lake has made efforts to connect with establishment Republicans ahead of her Senate campaign launch, another sign that she may be tamping down her firebrand image.
Lake also secured the backing of Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, a boon as she seeks to appeal to the wider Republican base.
Gallego, on the other hand, will be tied to Biden, with the 2024 presidential and Senate races in Arizona overlapping, making it a crucial state for both parties. Biden won Arizona in 2020 by 10,457 votes out of nearly 3.4 million cast (49.36% to 49.06%), making him only the second Democrat to claim its electoral votes since 1948.
Gallego, elected to a safely Democratic Phoenix-area House seat in 2014, spent the early part of his congressional career as an acerbic critic of Republicans. He’s a member of the House Progressive Caucus, representing the furthest-left faction of House Democrats.
But for the Senate race, Gallego, too, is moving toward the center. He’s a stalwart supporter of Israel in its defensive war against Hamas, triggered by the Palestinian terrorist group’s raids from the Gaza Strip that led to the 1,400 deaths of Israelis.
Gallego also was among the first Democrats to join Republicans in calling on the Biden administration to freeze $6 billion in Iranian assets that were unfrozen as a condition of a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap deal.
“As we learn more about Iran’s role in these horrific terrorist attacks against Israel, one thing is clear: we should immediately freeze the $6 billion in assets and use available tools to discourage Iran’s illicit conduct,” Gallego said in his statement. “Our ally Israel is at war, and while the conflict continues, we must stand united.”
Gallego already looks to have the backing of Democrats in his state as well. He received a $10,000 donation from the Arizona Democrats earlier this month.
Long a deep Republican state, Democrats in Arizona now have a fighting chance in statewide elections. Democrats hold both Senate seats for the first time since the early 1950s, along with the governorship and offices of state attorney general and secretary of state. Though Republicans have a significant edge in Arizona’s House delegation, 6-3, and control both chambers of the state legislature.
Having two Arizona Senate candidates so intrinsically tied to partisan politics is abnormal for the state, said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. Arizona has been “known for its maverick candidates” such as late Republican Sen. John McCain, and Sinema herself, Bannon told the Washington Examiner.
“But instead of that,” Bannon added, “it looks to be a race between a progressive Democrat and a Trump Republican.”