‘You only win if you fight’: Will Gallego unseat Sinema?

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This week Playbook co-author Ryan Lizza is in Arizona to dig into a few big plotlines ahead of this year’s elections. Trump narrowly lost the state in 2020, Senator Mark Kelly — the Democratic incumbent — is one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection this year and strategists are already looking at the 2024 Senate election to see who will run against Kyrsten Sinema. On this week’s Playbook Deep Dive Episode, Ryan joins Rep. Ruben Gallego for a long dinner and a few drinks. They discuss Gallego’s fraught history with Sinema, a potential campaign against her in 2024, the political environment in Arizona ahead of midterms and his deployment in the Iraq war.

Mentioned in the show:

Congressman Gallego’s book about his time in Iraq: They Called Us "Lucky": The Life and Afterlife of the Iraq War's Hardest Hit Unit","link":{"target":"NEW","attributes":[],"url":"https://www.harpercollins.com/products/they-called-us-lucky-ruben-gallegojim-defelice?variant=39785510404130","_id":"00000180-5267-da9e-a1c3-d6f7fcb50002","_type":"33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df"},"_id":"00000180-5267-da9e-a1c3-d6f7fcb50003","_type":"02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266"}”>They Called Us “Lucky”: The Life and Afterlife of the Iraq War's Hardest Hit Unit

Transcribed excerpts from that conversation are below, edited for length and readability.

On Senator Kyrsten Sinema and potentially running against her in the 2024 primary:

Ryan Lizza: Do you think you've passed the point of no return where you are definitely going to jump in that primary or it's still a decision for the future?

Congressman Ruben Gallego: Well, I think the decision is going to be made by Arizonans. Politicians don't decide this on their own vanity. It's like, “Do you have a chance to win? Do you have a chance to make a difference?” And what we're looking at right now may be different than what we're looking at next year.

Lizza: In other words, you're not going to mount a suicide mission.

Gallego: No, the difference is, look… I care about the Arizona Democratic Party. I have done everything, some of the hardest time, to keep this party alive. But I'm not going to do something that's going to harm the Democratic Party. In 2018, in 2020, I thought for a long time about running against [Mark] Kelly.

Lizza: Oh really?

Gallego: At the end of the day, I realized that two things are going to happen. We're going to have a blowout fight all the way up into the primary, and the most likely thing is that whoever won that primary was going to lose that general because we're going to fight each other. I literally have done everything I can to keep this party alive in this state, and I was not going to do it.

Lizza: What is it like when you interact with her [Sinema] now?

Gallego: I mean honestly, we just haven't. She's not here that often, so I would have to interact with her. But look, we have to interact with each other. I'm a professional.

Lizza: Alright. But I understand there's a pretty significant Senate race in Arizona this year, and a significant governor's race. A lot of the time there are events where all the Democrats who are up for election get together and they put their hands together and like, “Unity. Yay!” So is that going to happen with you and her?

Gallego: Oh no, because she doesn't do that.

Lizza: You don't think she'll be on stage with Mark Kelly? Doing events?

Gallego: No. I mean, look, honestly, she's not going to be out here stumping for Democrats. She's all about herself. She's not going to help Mark. She's not going to help Katie Hobbs or whoever the Democrat is. It's all about herself. Like, I'll be out there helping whoever is the nominee. It's just like she cares about herself. She doesn't care about the Democratic movement. She doesn't care about working class people. She's not going to be out there with Mark. She's not going to be out there with our gubernatorial nominee. It's not her nature.

So look, I wish she would. I would love to be on the stump with her helping Democrats win, but she's not going to do it. Because I'm a good Democrat, I want us to win. I think we have the values that are going to make Arizona better. I don't think she's going to do it with me because I mean, honestly, I think she cares more about her career than she cares about what we can do with our elected office, right?

Lizza: When did that become apparent with her?

Gallego: I think it for me, it became apparent in the 2016 election where she nominally endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Lizza: Like, she wasn't a full-throated endorsement?

Gallego: No. I was stumping for Hillary all over the state, all over the country. She, You know, in my opinion, and I look, I will say this. I believe that I saw the existential threat to Trump before a lot of people did.

Lizza: You thought he could win?

Gallego: Number one, Yes, he could win. Number two, what he was in terms of danger to this democracy, And I told people and I said, “This guy can also win the general.”

Lizza: Why did you think that at that time? What did you see in him?

Gallego: I looked at the numbers and I said, “You know, we're assuming that white voters are going to vote the same way, that we've hit the bottom.” I just didn't believe that. And I'll be honest, growing up in Evergreen Park, Illinois, with a lot of like working-class white Democrats, by the way, I just knew that what he was saying and doing was appealing to them and that would actually have an effect. Everyone just didn't want to believe it.

Honestly, she doesn't understand Arizona. I think that's actually the real thing. I think she understands Arizona from a perspective many years ago, but she actually doesn't understand Arizona like what's happening. She's running based on past elections, but she isn't involved to see what's happening here. We have the largest microchip manufacturing plant opening up right now. We have all these biotech companies moving here. We have all these tech companies moving here. We have Latino young men and women that were 18 ten years ago. They're now 28 and are starting to vote. So the perspective of politics is based ten years ago and she never adapted. She never understood, because in order for you to do that, you actually have to expose yourself. And she's not one to expose herself to what could be like criticisms.

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