clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Rep. Ruben Gallego, shown here in downtown Phoenix on August 2, represents the most heavily Democratic district in Arizona.
Photographs by Alberto Mariani for Vox

Filed under:

Ruben Gallego’s ready for a fight — even if the Democratic Party isn’t

Inside the Arizona’s representative’s restless, highly online, and seriously combative plan to transform the Democratic Party.

Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

Part of The power and potential of Latino voters, from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

PHOENIX, Arizona — Rep. Ruben Gallego picked up a steak knife, twisted his left wrist, and began stabbing the air in front of him. He’d been ranting about why he hates Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, and, an hour into dinner, he was clearly getting flustered. “Politics is dark and hard. It’s not a bunch of people trying to do their best. It’s who can shank each other in a smarter way,” he said.

It was the Monday night before primary day in Arizona, and we were at an overheated Sonoran-style Mexican restaurant in South Phoenix with Gallego’s wife and a couple of staffers. One of them reminded Gallego we were in public, and he put down the knife. After some laughter cleared the air (“first of all, this isn’t even hard enough to stab you”), he continued. “Too many young Democrats grew up watching West Wing thinking that’s what politics is.”

To Gallego, the 42-year-old Congress member from Arizona’s Seventh District and potential 2024 Senate candidate, politics should be treated like more of an existential fight. Republicans, inspired by Donald Trump, definitely are. The next day, a slate of election-denying Trump loyalists would sweep the primaries for Arizona’s statewide elected offices; a second GOP member of Congress who voted to impeach Trump would lose his race in Michigan; and a third was on track to lose in Washington state.

Gallego has plenty of reasons to say that. Going to (and getting temporarily kicked out of) Harvard as a poor Latino kid from the South Side of Chicago wasn’t easy, but it led him to enlist with the Marine Corps a year before 9/11, and then to Iraq, where he fought as part of the infantry unit that suffered the worst casualties of the war. Around the turn of the decade, he demonstrated for immigrant and Latino rights in the heat of Jan Brewer and Joe Arpaio’s ruby-red Arizona. A decade later, after efforts to overturn his state’s electoral votes culminated in the January 6 Capitol attack, he told me he was prepared to stab his way out of the floor of the House of Representatives with a pen if it came to it.

Rep. Ruben Gallego stands on a chair and directs traffic as members of Congress and staffers wrestle with safety hoods while rioters breach the Capitol building on January 6, 2021.
Bill O’Leary/Washington Post via Getty Images

Now in 2022, Ruben Gallego has a vision for reshaping the Democratic Party — and it starts with a fight. Too many liberals, he says, have lost the plot on their party’s identity, ceded ground and airwaves to a radicalizing Republican Party, and failed to convince working-class voters — especially the Latino voters Democrats lost in 2020 and 2021 — that Democrats stand for something. He wants his party to own their victories and take the culture war to Republicans — reclaiming support from voters of color, building a new Democratic coalition, and rebranding progressivism.

All that requires a firm stance that Democrats will champion working- and middle-class kitchen table issues while reining in Republican extremism, choosing pragmatic solutions over progressive purity tests, and getting out to talk directly to voters. Democrats, he says, should be challenging Republican talking points and calling out their kookier ideas with the anger and ridicule they deserve — and the style of outrage politics and attention economy Trump perfected against them. This vision is more confrontational and direct than the approach many top Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have generally favored — though Biden himself seemed more willing to punch back at Republicans late this summer.

There’s also the question of Arizona’s US Senate election — not this one, but the next one — and the possibility that he challenges his onetime boss, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, in a little over a year. His political career in Arizona suggests some of what he’s thinking on all these fronts — and even the spot he chose for dinner that night offered me some clues. Wielding trigger fingers turned Twitter fingers, Gallego wants more Democrats to go to battle.

Long before telling me he’d probably use a fork to stab me instead of a dull steak knife (pointier, sturdier), Gallego and I had been talking about the history of the desert community surrounding us. The taco spot, Cocina Madrigal, is nestled among rundown tire shops, dusty houses, and stark warehouses, in a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood just across the Salt River from central Phoenix, the heart of the state’s Seventh Congressional District.

“This area has kind of been the dividing line between the old Latino barrio and the Black — what used to be called — ghetto. They were all kind of pushed out here because this was the only place they were allowed to buy property,” he said. “You can actually see, if you drive around, you still don’t have sidewalks in many places. It’s very hard to undo that.”

When I joined Gallego the next day as he was getting out the vote, we took circuitous routes to pass as many gas stations as we could. He’d commit the prices to memory — and point out the higher cost south of the city center and across the river in the more racially diverse and economically stretched part of the city. “The Circle K here and the Circle K there — they’re buying from the same provider. Why, besides price gouging, is it different?” he asked me. “One dollar for a mile of difference.” And that difference was being felt hardest by his neighbors, the city’s poorest.

Though he’s not an Arizona native, Gallego has spent most of his political career in Maricopa County, first as an organizer, then a political strategist, and eventually a candidate for Congress. He’s been representing the heart of the county for seven years now — and has seen both his district and the state become microcosms for many of the political trends, economic stresses, and demographic changes unfolding around the country.

Maricopa County, America’s fastest-growing county last year, is home to more than 60 percent of the state’s population; it’s produced many of the country’s conservative Republican hardliners; and it voted for the Republican presidential candidate for over 70 years. But things started to change as out-of-staters moved into an urbanizing district, the county’s Latino population grew, and the children of immigrants who grew up with an antagonistic Republican Party began to vote. In 2016, Hillary Clinton came within 3 points of winning Maricopa; Sinema won the county with the help of those Latino voters in 2018; and Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee to flip it since the 1940s.

As in many other states, Latinos are on the rise here, making up about a third of Arizona’s population and growing 20 percent over the last decade. Gallego’s seat, which will become the state’s Third Congressional District after redistricting, is safely Democratic, working-class, and majority Latino (a bit more than 60 percent of the population is). Housing affordability and cost of living are top of mind for residents here; access to higher education is paramount but no guarantee of success (the college graduation rate is just 15 percent, below the state’s average and far below the national average of 39 percent).

A candidate handing out election materials stands in a parking lot talking to a potential voter.
While campaigning on primary day in Phoenix, Gallego shares a laugh with a self-identified Republican voter who suggested he would vote for Gallego should he decide to run for Senate in 2024.

And as our bodies overheated while talking to voters and local candidates outside a polling place in South Mountain, the impact of climate change, especially through urban heat islands, was obvious. To Gallego, these shouldn’t just be campaign issues; they’re existential threats for Arizonans that require urgent, practical solutions, and require him to talk about them with the gravity they pose to people’s lives.

I heard about those three issues — and fear about the Republican Party’s radicalization against democracy — over and over again from voters and residents there. While the Seventh District is overwhelmingly Democratic, the state’s political composition is split roughly in three, between registered Republicans, independents, and Democrats. A moderate political pitch has tended to provide statewide Democratic candidates the best path to victory; it’s part of the reason two Democrats represent the state in the US Senate now. But with inflation still soaring and dissatisfaction with the status quo high, Arizona Democrats face ultra-competitive general elections. Gallego has a theory for how to beat those odds. Some of it comes from personal experience.

Two things are obvious when meeting Gallego: He talks — a lot — and he constantly needs to be doing something. On Capitol Hill, that meant I was often scrambling to keep up with his pace of conversation and his literal pace; as we talked between votes and committee meetings the week before primary day, he led me on a brisk but aimless 30-minute loop from the Capitol crypt up through the Rotunda, past Statuary Hall, and to the doors of the House chamber. We repeated that path at least three times.

In Phoenix a week later, his mother told me he’d always been restless, constantly getting into arguments with family and classmates, seemingly for the fun of it. His teachers would tell her that he was easily bored by class and needed extra stimulation, but the family was stretched thin for money; she’d save coupons from a local store to buy Gallego history books and war stories. He told me he calmed that restlessness in high school through learning trivia from free editions of an encyclopedia he got his hands on. “Unfortunately they stopped at ‘N,’ so I’m pretty knowledgeable from ‘A’ to ‘N.’ After that…”

Gallego and his sister Laura, at her kindergarten graduation in 1984.
Courtesy of Ruben Gallego

Gallego was born in Chicago to a Colombian mother and a Mexican father, though his father was largely out of the picture after early childhood. Gallego describes his father as the black sheep of his side of the family; he left his family’s farm in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua to work in construction in the Chicago area and eventually met Gallego’s mom, Elisa, at a local dance. Gallego was the second of their four children and the only son. When Gallego was 2 years old, his father brought his family back to Mexico to help his grandmother take care of their farm. They stayed there for a few years before returning to Chicago, where Gallego started second grade; he’d return to Chihuahua for the next few summers to cultivate watermelon, beans, and corn.

His parents’ marriage and his father’s construction business eventually sputtered out (Gallego writes in a memoir that his dad ended up getting busted in the drug trade), and his mother and siblings moved into a cramped apartment south of Chicago, where he slept on the floor. There he conjured up plans for a better life and worked whatever odd jobs he needed to get there. He did stints as a line cook, janitor, and cashier, and worked shifts in construction and meatpacking — classic first-generation immigrant stuff, and experiences that now inform a lot of his thinking on the role of government in creating social safety nets: giving working-class people a shot to make their fortunes. He made it to Harvard in 1998, and basically flunked out three years later.

That Harvard-enforced pause in schooling led him to act on an instinct he’d long had: serving in the Armed Forces. Military service is an appealing path for many Latino and Hispanic youth, and, as was the case for Gallego, the Marine Corps has a particular luster (Hispanic and Latino people historically make up a greater share of the Corps than other service branches — in part because of aggressive recruiting and better pay options than civilian minimum wage jobs). Back in high school, he had dreamed of working for the CIA or State Department, though he had no real idea what that meant. He found his way to a Marine Corps recruitment center, and convinced the recruiter to consider letting him enlist as an infantryman in the Marine Reserves instead of going the officer route. He got an offer a few days later, and he agreed to enlist as a mortarman. It was 2000.

A young man in desert camouflage gear.
Ruben Gallego in Iraq, in 2005.
Courtesy of Ruben Gallego

He’d spend the next months finishing basic training in South Carolina, returning to Harvard, and reporting for drills every month in New Hampshire. After 9/11, he knew he’d see action. But it wasn’t until January 2003 that his unit was activated and sent after training to Okinawa, Japan. The task was safe, nothing like the eight-month activation he would spend in Iraq a few years later.

By that point, he’d graduated from Harvard and moved to New Mexico, the home state of his then-girlfriend and future wife, Kate Widland. (The two would divorce in 2017. Kate Gallego is now the mayor of Phoenix.) He found a job as a field organizer in Santa Fe for a union group backing John Kerry’s presidential campaign — going door-to-door to register people to vote. Widland ended up moving to Arizona, while he stayed in New Mexico and was reassigned to a new unit — Company D of the Fourth Reconnaissance Battalion, which would eventually supplement another unit, the Third Battalion, 25th Marines.

Gallego recounts his war memories with biting humor, detached regret, and, at times, resignation. When his unit was eventually deployed to Iraq in 2005, it saw action in some of the war’s most dangerous territory but endured two months unscathed. “Lucky Lima,” the company was called — until one day that luck flipped. Their platoon sergeant was killed in an ambush. A few days later, Gallego’s best friend, Lance Cpl. Jonathan Grant, was among those killed in an IED attack. Then in August, Gallego’s unit suffered the worst single day of Marine casualties since the 1980s: 14 Marines died in a botched operation, including 10 from Lima. When the time came to return to the States, the battalion had a record: the most losses of any American unit fighting in the Iraq War, 46 Marines and two Navy corpsmen, including 23 from Lima.

Gallego has since written a memoir recounting the stories of the soldiers he fought alongside, both living and dead, and talks plainly about how his war memories drive his political thinking and action. On the campaign trail, in interviews, and on Capitol Hill, he talks openly about the post-traumatic stress he wrestled with after Iraq (disclosing PTSD carries a stigma), and has proposed various pieces of legislation to reform the VA’s bureaucracy and help veterans. This summer, he attacked Republicans who held up passage of the PACT Act, a proposal to provide better health care to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, in television interviews and on social media.

Rep. Ruben Gallego sitting in Congress and making a thumbs-up gesture.
Gallego, chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, conducts a markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2023, on June 9.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

On Capitol Hill with me, on his way to a House Armed Services Committee meeting, he stopped by a memorial on a wall inside the Rayburn House Office Building. There, he pointed out, among the alphabetically ordered rows of fallen soldiers’ names, was his friend Grant’s name in white block letters. Grant was from New Mexico; his fiancee and two young children were there when he died. Gallego often says in interviews that Grant is the reason he survived — he took the IED that Gallego should have taken.

Back stateside, once he mourned Grant and his fellow fallen Marines, Gallego realized New Mexico had nothing but “the ghosts of plans that should have been.” So he joined Widland in Phoenix, found a job in marketing for a local consultant, got married, and tried to readjust.

Gallego and I first met when I was reporting out a story about the history of the term Latinx. Every four to six months, it seems, this one word swallows up a day of takes on political Twitter — bringing out the radical centrists, contrarians, and disingenuous conservatives to wage rhetorical battle against white progressives, academics, and left-leaning activists.

Gallego stepped into this language war the afternoon after Election Day 2020, when Florida had quickly been called for Trump, Texas hadn’t flipped after all, and vote counts were close in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada. After celebrating record Latino turnout in his state, he turned to a reply from a concerned liberal: “how do we as a party improve our work with the LatinX community…? Its so frustrating to see so many republican LatinX voters.”

His response launched a thousand hot takes: “First start by not using the term Latinx. Second we have to be in front of them year round not just election years. That is what we did in AZ,” Gallego said. He was talking about the work he and other young Latino activists did in Arizona when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio went full anti-immigrant, Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 — the “show your papers” law that trained law enforcement’s eye on anyone Hispanic-looking — and Latinos had scant representation in the state’s political infrastructure.

In retrospect, Gallego doesn’t regret weighing in on this debate. When I asked him about it a year later, he told me he’d received mostly positive feedback from other Latino people (both politicos and normies) who felt similarly frustrated with the usage of and fascination with the word.

“For this name to be kind of imposed upon the community, what a lot of Latinos felt was [that it was] inappropriate, especially because we felt it was coming mostly from white progressives,” he told me. He formally banned his staff from using the word, and earlier this year went on Bill Maher’s show to explain his rationale.

But Gallego’s first tweet contained two suggestions: Stop using “Latinx” and invest early and heavily with Latino voters. Many of his Hill colleagues and their campaign shops have followed the first recommendation. Many Democrats have a lot of work to do on the second.

A videographer holds a microphone out to Gallego inside a studio.
Gallego gives an interview on August 2 to a Phoenix Univision station, to discuss the importance of Latino voter engagement in Arizona’s elections.

The 2020 election results continue to spook Democrats, especially after disappointing results in Virginia and New Jersey last year supercharged the idea that this midterm year would be especially bad for them, and that Latinos, even in more Democratic states, were slipping away. The last presidential election saw Trump and congressional Republicans doing much better than expected, pulling in votes from minority and immigrant communities in red and blue states, and Biden underperforming previous Democratic nominees just about everywhere.

Arizona was different. Record turnout among Latino voters contributed to Biden’s eventual win — and many progressive Latino activists claimed victory for the result of their years of organizing and educating the state’s growing Latino electorate.

Gallego says he wasn’t surprised by the national trend. “We had for way too long taken advantage of the Latino vote and didn’t actually communicate for many years. And the older a Latino population gets, the more Republican they get. In the areas where we didn’t have success, we didn’t bring in new voters to counterbalance these older voters. That’s why you saw, in Arizona, very little slippage, because we had young voters coming in. In Texas, and Miami, you had a lot of older Democratic voters that were starting to vote more Republican — that’s going to happen. But the way you offset that is, you have a very invigorated movement or actually bring in new blood.”

That’s why he says his party needs to start putting class and economic issues first — wrangling inflation, increasing the minimum wage, ensuring access to affordable health care, and helping working families. Those talking points are all part of a pitch that gets at the nuances of Latino voters: a racialized demographic group that is beginning to behave more like the average white voter, depending on geography and level of education.

In his mind, a pragmatic, populist progressivism is the party’s future. Yes, invoke Trump and the future of democracy, but remind voters that while Republicans are litigating the last election, Democrats are trying to make their lives easier and more affordable. Those kitchen-table issues might be more likely to resonate with an American, and Latino, electorate that is growing less liberal and more moderate.

“We have to actually start delivering as a Democratic Party,” he told me in his DC office in late July, while the mood on the Hill before the summer congressional recess was grim. “When some of these moderate or conservative Democrats don’t want to rock the boat, it actually makes it harder for us because we can’t go and talk to the Latino carpenter, who for years, we’ve been promising we’re gonna get minimum wage increases, better health care, we’re gonna help you not be poor, and then we don’t do shit for years. And especially when we just hit the trifecta [controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency] — they’re eventually gonna start looking for other options, other people.”

A man stands on a front porch handing election materials to a woman standing just inside her front door.
Gallego encourages a potential Democratic voter to head to the polls on August 2, Arizona’s primary Election Day.

“Do something” crystallizes his view of politics: show voters that Democrats are willing to fight for something, or lose voters’ trust. “People aren’t excited for Democrats because they never know what they’re going to get,” he told me. “We get into power and we’re afraid to use that power. We get into this vicious cycle where we sometimes only win because the other people are that bad, when we need to show that by us winning, this is what you get: you get a middle-class lifestyle. You get to live the American dream.”

And then there’s a messaging problem: Not many Democrats are eager to cast themselves as firebrands, to set the tone of conversations or take back the power in debates, or even to cuss a little (Gallego does, a lot). A recent Arizona controversy that spun into a national story shows his thinking: A few weeks after the state’s primary, when the ultra-right-wing former TV news host Kari Lake won the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Gallego picked up on a Twitter thread from a local Axios reporter. Lake had endorsed a homophobic, antisemitic extremist candidate in an Oklahoma state Senate primary race. He reshared the tweet with some commentary: “Only reason @KariLake supports an antisemite or a homophobe for office is because she is both.”

He was goading Lake into a Twitter fight but was essentially nationalizing a local story. Lake engaged, tossing out a dig at his friendship with California Rep. Eric Swalwell with a screenshot from an Instagram account belonging to Gallego’s wife, Sydney. Gallego spent the afternoon hammering Lake with more tweets (“Hi Kari so the candidate you endorsed said ‘Jews will go to hell’ do you agree with that statement?”). A few days — and bad news stories and Gallego tweets — later, Lake rescinded the endorsement. But the damage had been done, and Gallego had shown the political value of his brand of fighting.

His party’s reaction after the leak of the Supreme Court’s intent to overturn Roe v. Wade was a perfect case-in-point of party leaders not doing something and not reacting with the visceral emotion the occasion warranted: disjointed responses from individual elected officials, bureaucratic paralysis in Washington, and an uneven national message besides “vote for Democrats.”

He’s working on getting more of his colleagues to understand that — and that blind ideological purity isn’t helpful when responding to the needs of a nuanced group of voters. That’s where his whole deal with the term Latinx comes from: a frustration with (often) white progressives and left-leaning activists who want Democrats to sound like college students and vote like ideologues.

“He is someone who is very concerned that we don’t understand — that we need to stay in touch with Latino voters and what they care about,” Swalwell, one of Gallego’s closest friends on the Hill, told me. “He tries to be an ambassador to his non-Latino colleagues about how to understand what Latinos care about: issues of the family, whether that’s church, or whether it’s community, whether it’s having a job, supporting yourself, feeling safe — and he just reminds us that it’s not just immigration. It’s not just calling them Latinx.”

Gallego and a woman walk hand in hand with a child between them across a parking lot.
Gallego walks Diana Thies to her car on August 2, after one of her children grabbed his hand while he was talking to her about his policy priorities for the district.

As the leader of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s political arm, BOLD PAC, Gallego has outsize influence on crafting Latino-specific messaging and the party’s larger pitch to the average American voter. When I asked him what that pitch would be the first time we chatted on the Hill, Democrats looked like they were heading into peak campaign season with a lackluster record in power: Sen. Joe Manchin hadn’t yet announced his deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to revive parts of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda in the new Inflation Reduction Act; the July inflation report showing some price relief was still weeks away; and the pivotal victory of abortion rights activists in Kansas hadn’t yet happened.

Gallego said the pitch to voters would be “a kind of protect initiative. We want to protect the country from Republicans, from their radicalism, from them trying to destroy democracy, from them trying to take control of your body.”

Things changed quickly in a week — and so did Gallego’s tone.

There wasn’t a ton of formal Latino political power — or a pipeline of potential candidates — when Gallego was organizing in the 2010s. That much has changed. He hasn’t faced a tough election since his first primary bid back in 2014 in Arizona’s most Democratic district, but he has helped build up the state party’s infrastructure and outreach efforts, state party chair Raquel Terán told me.

Gallego celebrates his 2014 win in the Democratic primary for Arizona’s Seventh District with his then-wife Kate Gallego, now mayor of Phoenix.
Ross D. Franklin/AP

“The infrastructure is completely different from 2010 [when President Barack Obama faced punishing midterm elections and Democrats lost two House seats in Arizona]. So that’s why we’re ready to meet this moment for Latinos running for office at all levels.” Terán said that last bit with a wink.

Gallego still campaigns avidly — we joined two other Democratic candidates on primary day — even though he was running uncontested. He learned the value of retail politicking from his very first jobs in politics, including one as a campaign manager for the effort to defeat the anti-same-sex marriage Proposition 107. It was that campaign that showed him the power of old-school, face-to-face politics and coalition-building — and that’s where his path crossed with the campaign’s chair: Kyrsten Sinema.

Voters on primary day noticed that Gallego didn’t have to be there — and they were quick to invoke Sinema as a foil when I asked them about their Congress member: “He’s been listening to us, he’s been getting out to hear our needs, and he’s been very responsive to our concerns,” one told me. “She is not allowing Biden’s agenda to go forward and she’s just holding up everything,” another said. “Right now we really need him in the Senate.”

That Gallego wants to challenge Sinema seems like an open secret. He rails against her regularly: on Twitter, on TV, with voters, and with me. In Phoenix, he often sounded more like a Senate candidate than a Congress member turning out the vote in an uncontested safe blue district. He told me that’s part of the point; he has nothing to lose, but his party and the communities he’s visiting have a lot to gain by simply hearing from a member of Congress. Sinema, meanwhile, was in DC, keeping Democrats on edge as to her final vote on the Inflation Reduction Act.

Still, Gallego has been coy about 2024. An effort to draft him into a primary race has serious financial and political backing, and parallel efforts to primary Sinema, including from one of the state’s most influential activist groups, Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), have centered on Gallego as a potential challenger from the left, Alejandra Gomez, LUCHA’s co-chair, told me. “We’re prepared to run a no campaign on Sinema, we’re prepared to do what we have to do to ensure that she does not make it. We don’t know who’s going to throw in for that race, but we know we’re gonna be there to make sure that she doesn’t get reelected,” she said.

Gallego stands for pictures with a Cody supporter on either side and a chain-link fence behind.
Gallego, on his way to cast his ballot, stops for a photo with Democratic activists campaigning for South Mountain Precinct Judge Cody Williams’s reelection on August 2.

Gallego was more halting in his memoir: “For now, I’m happy being a congressman.” But as Democrats abandoned efforts to pass voting rights legislation, dropped a proposed $15 minimum wage in the American Rescue Plan, and flailed for months to advance Biden’s economic and climate agenda, all in part because of Sinema, he began to soften. “I never say no to the future,” he told Roll Call in November 2021. “The decision is going to be made by Arizonans,” he told Politico in April this year. ”What we’re looking at right now may be different than what we’re looking at next year.”

But his future hangs from the tip of his tongue. In fundraising efforts this summer, Gallego has been teasing a primary. Polling earlier this year showed Gallego ahead in that matchup, but his biggest obstacle is Sinema’s fundraising prowess. Though not up for reelection this year, she raised $1.6 million in the first three months of 2022, according to Axios. And mounting a primary challenge during a presidential election year in a state at the center of the political universe would be an even more expensive endeavor.

Gallego, followed by wife Sydney Gallego and communications director Jacques Petit, walks to potential Democratic voters’ homes in Phoenix, working to get constituents out to vote on primary day, August 2.

He’d face pressure from social justice activists on the left: He’s no AOC or Squad-like progressive, and some left-leaning activists in the state, like those from LUCHA, wish he were even more progressive. “He is in a very safe Democratic district, and represents his constituents well. Are there moments from any candidate, including him, that we would like to see them step out in front of immigration issues, in front of fighting for jobs, voting rights? Absolutely. But light-years, he is more of a champion than Sinema,” LUCHA’s Gomez told me.

Sinema’s camp, meanwhile, rarely comments on Gallego’s broadsides, including his complaints that she is too close to hedge fund managers and the pharmaceutical industry. Responding to accusations from him and others that she rarely visits the state and is not easily accessible to constituents or media, her office pointed out to me that she speaks frequently to local, if not national, media. They also provided a list of in-state meetings and events, and explanations of her policy positions.

More recently, when the Arizona Republic reported on the start of Gallego and Sinema’s antagonism during the 2006 same-sex marriage campaign, Gallego offered an interview. Sinema brushed it off through a spokesperson: “As a longstanding professional courtesy, Senator Sinema does not comment on now-Congressman Gallego’s dismissal from his brief entry-level, administrative role on the 2006 Arizona Together campaign.”

On primarying her, Gallego wouldn’t give me a yes or no answer, offering a variation of “it’s too early to say” and “Arizonans will decide.” He wants to shore up some statewide Democratic wins in Arizona — defeating the “insurrectionist trifecta” of gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Senate candidate Blake Masters, and secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem, and contrasting Trump’s party with a new Democratic coalition focused on better-paying jobs, more affordable living, access to health care, and a better climate.

Gallego and a crowd of supporters in a bar with twinkle light on the ceiling.
Gallego celebrates the work done by activists and friends to elect progressive candidates at a post-primary party in downtown Phoenix on August 2.

Driving, walking, and talking with Gallego on primary day reminded me of a conversation we had back in Washington, when I asked him what the national Democratic pitch to voters should be. Foreshadowing his West Wing rant, he told me about the precious egos who want to stare down fanatics with politics as usual. The pitch might as well be, “If you don’t vote for us, the crazies will take over.”

Had he thought about what it would be like to work in a chamber led by Kevin McCarthy and the House Freedom Caucus?

“No, in some regard because it’s hard for me to imagine someone that dumb being speaker of the House.”

Would he even want to be around Washington to see Republicans take over the House — and even the Senate?

“Oh, yeah. Because I’m a great fighter.”

Update, September 20, 10:40 am: This story has been updated to include a comment from Sen. Sinema’s office.