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Opinion Mark Kelly on why Democrats need a strong border — and a strong GOP

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) speaks to supporters in Phoenix on Nov. 12. (Alberto Mariani/AP)

When it comes to election denialism and conspiratorial thinking, no state’s activist fringe has been louder or more unhinged over the past couple of years than Arizona’s. The state was, in many respects, ground zero for former president Donald Trump’s lie that widespread fraud cost him a second term.

So it was a surprise — and a relief — when the voters of the once reliably red state delivered a rebuke up and down the ballot to those who sowed doubts about the electoral system and who would have undermined how it functions.

I caught up with one of the candidates who won — former astronaut Mark Kelly (D), who was elected in 2020 to fill the final two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s (R) term, and who was running on Nov. 8 for a full six-year term. The final RealClearPolitics polling average had Kelly behind hard-right GOP nominee Blake Masters by a hair. Kelly won by nearly five points.

Here is what Kelly had to tell me about the lessons of 2022 — for both Democrats and Republicans. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Karen Tumulty: The polls made your race look closer than it turned out to be. When did you get a sense of the direction things were going?

Mark Kelly: I always felt like I would probably win, but there’s a lot of noise out there. You try not to pay attention to the noise. This is from my former jobs as well: compartmentalize, focus on the stuff you have control over, not worry about the distractions.

I’ll tell you when I felt really good about it was about 6:30 on election night, when I saw the local news and they were reporting about the long lines at Arizona State University, like 30 minutes before the polls closed. I turned to somebody and said, “We’re going to win.” If young people are voting in high numbers, that generally means we’re going to have a high-turnout election.

What do you think are the lessons for other Democrats going forward, especially when it comes to what it takes to win in hard places?

I went everywhere and I talked to everybody about things that matter to them. I didn’t ignore different places of the state because maybe I didn’t do well there before. That doesn’t matter to me. When you’re running for the United States Senate or any statewide office, you’ve got to go and talk to everybody and talk to them about things they care about, whether it’s the cost of gasoline or, especially in Southern Arizona, about the border, which is a crisis. You can’t ignore that in Arizona. It’s been chaos down there at times, for decades.

So don’t run away from the issues.

Speaking of the border, do you think Democrats nationally have recognized the complexity of the issue and the frustrations that people have?

Absolutely not. Not even close. When I first got to Washington, it didn’t take me long to realize that there are a lot of Democrats who don’t understand our southern border and a lot of Republicans who just want to talk about it. Don’t necessarily want to do anything about it, just want to use it politically. So my approach has been — to the extent that we could and can — to make progress on securing it, but also doing it in a way that’s in accordance with our ethics and our values, not to demonize people.

And I continue to talk to my Republican colleagues about how we have to do more. We have to do more in border security. We have to do more in comprehensive immigration reform, especially “dreamers,” but also these visa programs. If you’re a farmer, especially in Southern Arizona, despite having a ready supply of eager workers, you don’t have the visas available and it’s a problem for them.

But when I talk to my Republican colleagues who are not anywhere near a border — let’s say they’re in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee — they have the same problem. So there are solutions and we’re continuing to work on this. Our country would really benefit from stronger border security and comprehensive immigration reform.

But Congress has made several runs at comprehensive solutions over the past 20 years. How much of a realistic chance is there going to be, given the emotions around the issue of immigration, the reality of divided government and the narrow margins in each house?

They’ve gotten close a couple of times. I’m an optimist on this stuff. We still have a situation where a lot of Democrats don’t really understand it and a lot of Republicans just want to talk about it and use it for political purposes. But I’ll tell you what, I think there are enough of us who understand it and want to accomplish something.

What about in the larger picture? Is this going to be a Congress that is completely stalemated or will it be able to get anything done?

Well, in the Senate we’ve got basically the same Senate, more or less, that we had two years ago, right? We’re probably going to wind up with an additional seat. You’ve got some different folks, maybe with some different ideas. The challenge is, how does everything settle out in the House? But I know there are Republican House members who have the same desires and wishes and goals for our country as I do, that many of us do. The narrow majority that the Republicans will have there, I think it presents a little bit of a challenge. But I’ve got to believe that there are a lot of folks in the House who just want to get stuff done and make progress.

In the election, you built your own brand, even as your opponent tried to cast you as a rubber stamp for President Biden. You distanced yourself from the White House on some issues. Is that a lesson for other swing-state Democrats?

Every Senate race is different: different candidates, different issues, different electorate. We’re a very diverse state. I tried to build as big of a tent of support as I possibly could. I started really early. I also think that’s important in doing the job. We’re all in this together, and I need ideas from Republicans in the state. It doesn’t matter to me what their background is. If they want to work together on issues, I’m here to help.

Do you think the Republicans in Arizona have learned anything from this election and the drubbing their hard-liners received from the voters?

Well, let me say, my observation is: That is not most of the Republicans. That is a minority of Republicans in the state of Arizona, who are rather vocal and who very effectively got into certain positions of leadership. But I’ll tell you what, I meet a lot more Republicans who are reasonable, moderate, realize that we have challenges and problems that we need to solve and that the best way to do it is by working together. That’s most of the Republicans that I talk to, and a lot of these folks are in elected office, state level, local level.

This will probably surprise you to hear this from somebody who’s a United States senator who’s a Democrat, but we need a strong Republican Party in Arizona. I think the two-party system that we have, we’ve got a set of checks and balances against each other and I think that’s important to have that. And I would like to see that in Arizona again.