Over the last few weeks, a Democratic senator from Arizona blocked President Joe Biden’s nominee for a top job in the Labor Department, dealing a blow to the White House’s pro-labor agenda. The same senator raised objections to the president’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to India, a crucial post for the Administration’s foreign policy. Then that lawmaker excoriated Biden’s decision to end Title 42, a controversial Trump-era pandemic measure that lets border officials expel migrants without letting them apply for asylum.
Sound like Kyrsten Sinema? She did do all those things. But so did Mark Kelly.
Such moves are a shift for Kelly. Since winning a special election in 2020 for the seat formerly held by the late Arizona Republican John McCain, the Grand Canyon state’s junior senator has been a staunch party loyalist. Unlike Sinema, Kelly has supported the Biden Administration’s key legislative priorities, from Build Back Better to changing the filibuster rules to pass a voting-rights package. In all, he’s voted with the Biden agenda 98% of the time.
This record has led national Democrats to lament that Sinema isn’t more like Kelly. But faced with a tough re-election fight this fall, Kelly is increasingly acting like a maverick in the mold of Sinema.
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Close observers of Arizona politics say that Kelly’s move to the middle, punctuated by his strong opposition to ending Title 42, is a reflection of the political mood in the purple state he represents. Though Biden won Arizona in the 2020 presidential election, a March poll by OH Predictive Insights, a Phoenix-based non-partisan pollster, found the President 15 points underwater in the state, with 55% of Arizonans disapproving of his performance.
“Kelly started out as a first-time elected official as a U.S. senator, dancing with the party that brought him,” says Steve May, a former Republican state legislator in Arizona. “But the public is turning against Democrats … and being a Democratic Party soldier is not going to play well in Arizona in this election.”
The senator’s office rejected the notion he’s changed course to curry favor with GOP and independent voters ahead of the midterms. “Since day one, Sen. Kelly has worked with Republicans and Democrats to deliver results for all Arizonans. Senator Kelly continues to make decisions based on what’s best for Arizona, not politics,” Marisol Samayoa, a spokeswoman for Kelly, told TIME.
But it’s not hard to spot the shift in his political positioning as the November election approaches. “Mark Kelly has been a lot more careful to stay below the radar until recently,” says David Wells, research director for the Grand Canyon Institute, a non-partisan think tank. “He hasn’t stuck his neck out.”
Kelly, 58, is a relative newcomer to electoral politics. The Kings Point graduate, who served two tours of duty as a naval aviator during the Persian Gulf War, first entered the fray in Feb. 2019, when he announced his candidacy to challenge Republican Martha McSally, who had been appointed to McCain’s former Senate seat.
Up to that point, Kelly was best known in political circles as the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, a moderate Democrat who was shot in 2011 and suffered a severe brain injury. Together they created Americans for Responsible Solutions, a political action committee that pushed for stronger gun-safety laws and regulations.
Read More: The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy.
Kelly ran in 2020 as a moderate. He vowed to foster bipartisanship in Washington and assiduously distanced himself from national Democrats, declining to say whether he would vote for Chuck Schumer as majority leader or support ending the filibuster. It worked. Kelly won with 51% of the vote, joining Sinema to give Arizona two Democratic senators for the first time in 53 years.
Contrary to Sinema, though, Kelly built up a reputation in Washington as someone the party leadership could rely on, according to a senior Democratic Senate aide. While he often voiced concerns about the Administration’s border policies, he almost always voted with the party. During Biden’s first year in office, Kelly voted to confirm every one of the President’s nominees for cabinet-level positions and supported Biden’s major legislative pushes, including the American Rescue Plan and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
Kelly’s first significant break with Biden came last November, when he helped to sink the President’s nominee to head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, one of the most powerful bank-regulating positions in federal government. Then, in January, he joined Republicans and five other Democrats to vote for imposing new sanctions over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The White House had been lobbying against the sanctions, arguing they would harm ties with Germany.
His breaks from the party line have only grown more pronounced. In late March, Kelly voted with Sinema and Manchin to block Biden’s nominee to head the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, David Weil. Weil held the same role in the Obama Administration, but faced a raft of opposition from Republicans and business groups after signaling he would support increased protections for gig workers. Kelly also voiced concerns about Biden’s chosen envoy to India, Eric Garcetti, based on allegations the Los Angeles mayor perjured himself by misrepresenting to Congress his handling of sexual-harassment complaints in his office. (Garcetti has denied any wrongdoing.)
On April 1, Kelly came out against Biden’s plan to end Title 42, saying the administration lacked a plan for dealing with an expected migrant flux at the border once the directive expires. In turn, he introduced a bill with Sinema to delay the end of the measure for another 60 days. It was a reflection of the issue’s political salience in a state where a border crisis would surely become grist for attack ads against members of the party in power.
Democratic insiders see in Kelly’s moves a recognition that Sinema’s independent streak, while grating to the national party, has paid dividends with independents and Republicans in Arizona. A January survey from OH Predictive Insights found that Sinema was viewed favorably by 44% of Republicans, while just 21% viewed Kelly favorably. “I would be shocked if he wasn’t seeing how popular Sinema was in Arizona,” the senior Senate Democratic aide says. “She’s the top-testing Democrat in the state.”
Kelly’s best chance to hang on in November may hinge not on his own record but rather who GOP primary voters choose to go up against him. In what has become a common theme in Republican primaries, the top two candidates—Jim Lamon, a solar power executive, and Mark Brnovich, the state’s attorney general—have been vying to out-Trump one another. Lamon is running a campaign ad that shows him wearing spurs in the Old West while engaging in a gunfight with Biden (“Old Joe”), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (“Crazyface Pelosi”), and Kelly (“Shifty Kelly”). Brnovich, meanwhile, recently put out a new report saying that Maricopa County was subject to “serious vulnerabilities” during the 2020 election, even though he spent that election defending the integrity of the vote as the state’s chief law enforcement officer. “The greatest advantage for [Kelly] is that Republicans are unlikely to nominate a rational person,” May says.
Kelly has also amassed a campaign war chest of more than $27.5 million for his re-election bid. If his latest moves on Capitol Hill are any indication, you can expect those dollars to go toward making the case to Arizonans that he’s more of a thorn in Biden’s side than one of his legislative foot soldiers.
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