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Ruben Gallego could be the new John McCain, author says

We hear all the time now that Arizona is at the center of this year’s election. We are a border state that’s center to the immigration fight — and a place where abortion is front and center after the state Supreme Court reinstated an 1864 near-total ban that outraged voters on all sides and was then repealed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. 

But Tom Zoellner argues we’re also at a fork in the road as we’re up for grabs this November. Will Democrats build on the success of recent elections and issues like abortion? Or will Republicans reestablish dominance on the back of frustration over the border?

Zoellner is a longtime Arizona journalist and author. In his latest opinion piece for the New York Times, he argues the future of Arizona politics is embodied in the race for Senate, where Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego faces off against Republican upstart Kari Lake.

The latest polls don’t look good for Lake, and Zoellner says Gallego personifies a lot about Arizona both in his story and his politics.

Full conversation

TOM ZOELLNER: Well, he’s got major CV points that always come up. He’s a Harvard graduate. He served in the Marine Corps. He’s Latino. But something that’s missed about Ruben Gallego is that he’s a newcomer. He a striver and in that sense represents a big part of the character, both culturally and politically, about Arizona.

He came here only in March of 2006. His girlfriend — soon-to-be wife — Kate Gallego, now the mayor of Phoenix, had moved here to take a job with the local Democratic Party, and he followed her. And in this sense, he epitomizes migration — both from within and without the United States.

In Arizona, this is a strange kind of badge of honor, In many other U.S. states, having deep roots counts for a lot. Having an old family name, Arizona is different. Arizona in some ways rewards the newcomer.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. There’s so many people like that, even in politics. It’s interesting. So your more broad argument here is about Arizona. Like about how this race — Gallego’s race against his presumptive opponent Kari Lake for the U.S. Senate — and Arizona politics in general really offer us a peek into the future of American politics. Describe that for us.

ZOELLNER: Arizona has become one of six swing states in presidential politics. We have, in effect, replaced Ohio for that honor. And many are looking to where we come down on Biden-Trump as a bellwether for where Arizona is going to go in the future.

But I’m contending here that the real race to watch is going to be Gallego-Lake insofar as a pilot fish for where Arizona is heading, whether more in the direction of Texas or more in the direction of California.

GILGER: You kind of outline that dichotomy. Like we’re at a fork in the road: We could become kind of a blue state like California, or sort of a very conservative — culturally at least — state like Florida or Texas, which is very interesting to put it that way. But you say that the key to Arizona politics is independents. And I like the way you described it, because you describe independents as “squishy and slightly reddish.”

ZOELLNER: Right. As the political strategist Kevin DeMenna put it. Look, it’s very hard to reach independents. They don’t have T-shirts, they don’t have bumper stickers, they don’t hold meetings. You can’t just pick up the phone and call some quote “leader” in the independent movement. You’ve got to have a message that’s scattershot and doesn’t fit into any partisan box.

And what we’ve seen of Gallego’s campaign thus far is that he understands this keenly and has done a lot to distance himself from his earlier voting record as more or less a progressive. And is, in some ways, trying to say as little as possible and not be Kari Lake. So his path to the office, at least at this point, is fairly easy.

GILGER: So you describe him in this way, which sounds very much like the path that Kyrsten Sinema before him took, someone who once was very progressive and then became very centrist as she ran for U.S. Senate.

But you also compare Gallego to the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, which I think might be kind of a hard pill to swallow for many Republicans who have supported McCain. And think of Gallego as this progressive, young upstart of a guy. What’s the comparison there?

ZOELLNER: Oh, there’s a lot of McCain within Ruben Gallego. Both are combat veterans. Both have hot tempers. Both moved to Arizona as fresh-faced newcomers. This part of our political DNA, it’s reminiscent of the 1966 spaghetti Western called “Arizona Colt.” And the subtitle of that movie was “The Man from Nowhere.”

We’ve had so many of our state’s leaders who have been people from nowhere — that is to say people from elsewhere who move here cold and get plugged in fast. And John McCain was certainly someone who was running for Congress practically the day that he arrived after his wedding to Cindy Hensley.

McCain tacked to the center. He presented himself not as a Barry Goldwater-style conservative but as more of a moderate, which is exactly the tack that Ruben Gallego was taking.

GILGER: And that’s really interesting. But you also talk about the voter registration lines here in the state, and those trends don’t look good for Gallego or really any Democrat. This is why those independents become so important.

ZOELLNER: Yes. This is why, Ruben Gallego is kind of defying the laws of gravity here, considering the downward trend in Democratic registration, the upward trend in Republican registration and also the upward trend in independent or no-party labels. Gallego is, even with these headwinds, still managing to be beating Kari Lake, at least if you believe the latest poll here: 49-36. Those are significant numbers.

GILGER: How much of this, Tom, do you think has to do with the reinvention of the Republican Party and a candidate like Kari Lake on the right, who is not your sort of typical Republican candidate from Arizona?

ZOELLNER: Kari Lake has not even been successful at nailing down her MAGA base. She’s flip-flopped on abortion. She made a lot of enemies by running surreptitious tape on Jeff DeWit. There's a sense of backing down with Kari Lake — famously, who says that you messed with the wrong, let’s just say person, but yet effectively wave the white flag in the libel suit filed against her by Stephen Richer, Maricopa County recorder. These sort of, tough person credentials don’t seem to apply to Kari Lake.

And so Gallego was really blessed with a weak opponent. One thing I think is going to have to do is distance himself from national Democrats and somehow untether himself from Joe Biden in a convincing way, while at the same time not burning bridges with the president and not doing anything to harm the president’s chances in this vital swing state. So that's a tricky needle that Gallego has to thread.

GILGER: Final question for you then, Tom. Back to that dichotomy, that fork in the road that Arizona seems to be at, whether or not we end up red or blue. What do you think? How much do you think a race like Gallego’s plays into where Arizona will end up?

ZOELLNER: I think it shows that the beating heart of Arizona politics remains the roughly one third of voters who eschew party labels and who are going to vote perhaps on passionate single issues, perhaps simply a matter of character or trust. And this is going to leave Arizona as a place that’s up for grabs for, in my estimation, at least half a decade.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.