WASHINGTON – It won’t be the end of the world for Ruben Gallego if he stays in the U.S. House for the rest of his political career.
Gallego, 39, announced this month that he wouldn’t run for the Senate seat now held by Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally in the 2020 special election. He cited the promise of a brutal primary against Mark Kelly – a former astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords – as the primary factor in his decision.
The move disappointed Gallego’s backers, who see him as a rising star in the Democratic Party – including those who hoped he would be the first Latino senator elected in Arizona.
But Gallego said he’s not feeling pressure to climb the political ranks at the moment.
“I don’t know, being a member of Congress at 39 is not too bad,” Gallego told the Arizona Mirror this week in an interview outside his Capitol Hill office. “This is not the worst thing that could happen if I spend the rest of my life doing this.”
For now, Gallego said, he’s focused on “being a good member of Congress, serving Arizona” and making sure we get Democrats elected up and down the ticket” in 2020. He also wants to make sure he’s a good dad to his 2-year-old son.
That would have been tough during an epic primary fight against Kelly, followed by the general election, Gallego said. The winner of the 2020 special election to serve out the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term will have to run again in 2022 to defend the seat.
“Honestly, the polling showed that this was going to be a slugfest, it was going to be a slugfest for 15 months, then I’d have to turn around, try to win the general after a slugfest – or, if I lose, potentially sabotage Kelly’s chances – and even then have to turn around and get into another slugfest two years later.”
Being in the House majority “makes a difference, too,” Gallego added. The third-term lawmaker joined Congress in 2015, and this year marks his first time in the majority.
“I have a good chairmanship now, I have pretty decent seniority on the Armed Services Committee,” he said.
Gallego is chairman of the Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States, which has jurisdiction over the management of Indian lands.
“You start weighing all that and it’s just like, is this really worth it?” Gallego said of giving up his House seat to run for the Senate. “And I just decided, at the end of the day, once I got polling back, it wasn’t.”
Gallego said he has talked to Kelly on the phone since his announcement, and that they’re going to try to have a face-to-face conversation soon.
Dave Wasserman, who tracks national House races for the Cook Political Report, said Gallego probably made a smart decision to opt out of the Senate race.
“There will be plenty of opportunities for him in the future, not just in Arizona politics but also potentially in the House leadership,” Wasserman said. “Not only because he’s young and Hispanic, but also because he’s a veteran and he is a progressive.”
Wasserman added that Gallego “probably would have angered more Democrats than would be advisable for his long-term political career had he chosen to run,” given the prospects for a drawn-out primary.
Arizona Democrats learned in the 2018 cycle that they “needed a clear field on their side and a messy Republican field and a suburban moderate to win a Senate seat,” Wasserman said, pointing to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s election last year.
Unseating McSally in 2020 will be “very important,” Gallego said. “Control of the Senate matters. We don’t want to be in a situation where we defeat President Trump and don’t have control of the Senate, we can’t get our agenda through. I think more than anything we’ve seen right now, we do need both chambers – the Senate and the House – to be there to put the president in check.”
Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the newsletter Inside Elections, said both parties have a “paralyzing fear of primaries.” But Gonzales thinks they can be helpful in preparing candidates for general elections.
“I think in this case, Democrats wanted to avoid a replay of what happened to Republicans in 2018,” where the GOP had a competitive primary, then lost in November.
“I think that’s a simplistic way of looking at it,” Gonzales added. “Martha McSally didn’t lose because she had a primary, she lost in part because Republicans allowed Kyrsten Sinema to run basically unopposed until that primary was over.”
Primaries can be a “good dress rehearsal for a main event,” Gonzales added. For someone like Kelly, who’s never run for office before, a primary could provide an opportunity to “get your campaign up and going before the bright lights of a general election.”
As for Gallego’s political future, Gonzales said, it’ll likely depend on what seats open up and when.
“We don’t know what the political environment is going to look like. There’s just a lot of variables that are outside of his control.”
In the meantime, Gonzales added, “Gallego has the luxury of having a congressional seat he can probably have until he doesn’t want it anymore.”