Kari Lake, Ruben Gallego, and “a Sinema-Size Question Mark”: Inside Arizona’s Senate Skirmish

Arizona is a crucial battleground and may determine who controls the Senate—and the White House. Yet as Republican and Democratic contenders duke it out, the independent incumbent, so far, has stayed on the sidelines.
Image may contain Ruben Gallego People Person Accessories Formal Wear Tie Adult Art Collage Glasses and Blazer
Ruben Gallego, Kari Lake, and Kyrsten Sinema.Photos from Getty Images.

The stakes of the Arizona Senate race couldn’t be higher for either party in 2024. Even before Senator Joe Manchin announced his retirement in deep-red West Virginia, Democrats faced a steep uphill battle to maintain control of the chamber. Against the backdrop of Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and enduring questions regarding the octogenarian’s age, Democrats across the country, from Ohio and Montana to even Michigan and Pennsylvania, are facing races that could require the national party’s attention and money.

Given the difficulty of the map, it really could come down to Arizona, and the differences between top Republican candidate Kari Lake and Democrat Ruben Gallego are stark. Lake is a former television newscaster turned MAGA ideologue, whom Arizona-based Democratic strategist Chuck Coughlin described to me as “Trump with a dress on.” So the question for her is whether she can win over enough unaffiliated voters in the state to secure a victory. “The rule is you have to win unaffiliated voters if you’re going to win a statewide election in Arizona,” Coughlin said. Arizona-based GOP strategist Barrett Marson argued similarly, “Arizona is a conservative state. It is just not a Trump state.”

Yet Lake is not shying away from Donald Trump nor downplaying her allegiance to the former president. She told Vanity Fair last week, “We have President Trump’s endorsement, the most powerful in all of politics, and more importantly than that, we have the people behind us. We have a movement of people, everyday Arizonans who are just tired of the direction our country is going.”

Gallego has a different problem: the need to build name recognition. His strategy, he told Vanity Fair, starts with going everywhere and anywhere in the state. “The one thing that separates us from everybody is that we’re the ones who are just willing to really put the real work together…. opening ourselves up to questions from the left, from the right, from the center,” he said. Some Arizonans, he added, “may not like Democrats or Republicans.… It’s all about, for them, who do they trust?”

During the 2020 presidential election, Arizona emerged as a critical battleground state that ultimately helped carry Joe Biden to the White House—not to mention that it was one of the ground-zero states for election denialism. It is shaping up to be no different this cycle, and polls suggest that the Senate matchup could be even closer. “This is obviously a federal race, and it’s an important race for the whole country,” said Lake, who fell short in the 2020 Arizona gubernatorial election. “The path to the White House and the path to the majority in the Senate run through Arizona, and the majority in the Senate matters for the entire country.”

Gallego made a similar remark: “Arizona is, what I would say, a state that is consistently, consistently being fought over.”

Of course, in the Senate race, “there’s still a Sinema-size question mark,” as Marson so aptly put it to me. When Kyrsten Sinema defected from the Democratic ranks and adopted the independent label, the assumption was that she would run as a third-party candidate for Senate in the Grand Canyon State. And while she boasts more in her war chest than Lake and Gallego combined, any path to victory for Sinema seems to have all but dried up after developing something of a reputation as an obstructionist to the Democratic Party’s agenda while not doing enough to win over the support of Republican voters. “I’m sure that cycle in 2018 was definitely part of her success: identifying with those voters who aren’t partisan Democrats and [building] a broader political coalition,” Coughlin told me. “There’s no doubt she received a lot of support in that from the Democratic Party. And then over the course of time, I thought she was unnecessarily provocative to that base of voters, which ultimately ended up turning them off badly and which then created that need to leave and to create another path. I thought, at that time, there was no path for her in a Democratic primary.”

While Sinema still has yet to make an official decision on formally entering the race, polls suggest that she would fall short of being able to cobble together the unique electoral coalition that carried her to victory six years ago. A new poll from Emerson College Polling/The Hill of registered voters in the state found that Gallego would lead with 36% support in a hypothetical three-way matchup, followed by Lake with 30%, Sinema with 21% support, and 13% undecided. Without Sinema in the race, Gallego’s lead over Lake jumps to seven percentage points, with Gallego at 46% support and Lake at 39%. Notably, earlier polls gave the edge to Lake over Gallego. According to polling from the Lake campaign, Lake leads Gallego by two percentage points in a head-to-head matchup, 46% to 44%. With the senator back in the mix, Lake’s lead over Gallego narrows to just one point, with Sinema garnering 13% support. All this suggests that Sinema would most likely be a spoiler should she jump in the race.

Gallego and Lake also seem dismissive of a potential Sinema candidacy. “I think for us the fundamentals don’t really change; we are really going to continue what we’re doing right now,” Gallego said. Lake, for her part, echoed the sentiment. “I’m not concerned about it. When I jumped into this, I envisioned running against both [Sinema] and Ruben Gallego and believed that [Sinema] would run. It’s becoming increasingly more apparent that that may not be the reality. I think she’s looking at the polls that we have and realizing there’s just not a path to victory,” she said.