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Opinion This Democrat is fired up and ready to defeat Kyrsten Sinema

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) speaks during a campaign event on Jan. 28 in Phoenix. (Cassidy Araiza for The Washington Post)
4 min

To anyone familiar with Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), the fact that he decided to challenge Sen. Kyrsten Sinema should not have been a surprise. For the past two years, Gallego has been loudly critical of Sinema for defending the filibuster and undermining Democratic priorities. But he’s also an unusually pugnacious kind of Democrat.

That makes him something of a rarity on the left. And he’s going to test whether a strong progressive who always seems ready to start swinging his fists on behalf of his ideas can win in one of the most closely divided states in the country.

If Gallego wins the Democratic primary and Sinema (who became an independent in December) runs for reelection, it will be an unusual three-way race, potentially pitting those two against an election-denying loser from 2022 such as Kari Lake or Blake Masters. It could prove one of the most complicated and volatile races in the country.

Gallego does not hold back on any of his possible opponents. His criticism of Sinema has been unsparing, and when I asked him recently if the conspiracist fever in Arizona had been broken by the across-the-board defeats of election-denying candidates, he said, “Absolutely not.”

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“Con men will continue trying to con and grift their targets until they go to jail or they stop getting the money,” Gallego said.

But Gallego’s candor really comes through when things get personal. When I asked how his military service informed his work as a legislator, he noted that he grew up in a diverse area before going to the “little rich bubble” of Harvard. Entering the Marines, he said, “helped me understand White working-class people that I wouldn’t have associated with or talked to” otherwise.

Then he went off on his former commanders. “The company commander, I think, was quite incompetent, and probably caused the deaths of a lot of my brothers,” he said. “So what it taught me was that officers are not perfect; we need to continue to hold them accountable.”

Years after his service in Iraq, you can tell those feelings are still raw. “All the great thinkers, all the great generals, all the great planners planned these operations. I was the infantryman that was the first guy sometimes off the vehicle and into a hostile city," he said. “When you have that perspective and you come to the Armed Services Committee, you really remember that fear, and the necessity to keep the DoD honest.”

Both parties love to recruit veterans, but not all of them speak so forthrightly about death and fear. When Gallego talks about violence, he isn’t a preening phony trying to playact at manhood. In an interview last year, he said that in the Capitol on Jan. 6 as the rioters approached, “I was going to kill somebody.”

“I would have killed all those motherf-----s to save this democracy,” Gallego said in that interview. “F--- those guys.” You don’t get the sense he’s kidding.

At the presidential level, we’ve seen how Republicans are drawn to a personality type that emphasizes cruelty toward out-groups and hatred of enemies. Democrats, on the other hand, seem more interested in candidates with softer edges and more welcoming personas. They want “authenticity” as much as anyone, but the form it takes is often the candidate with potential to reach across the aisle.

For example, Democrats love Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman’s Carhartts and hoodies. But that’s in no small part because they think his regular-guy persona will appeal to other people, namely blue-collar independents inclined to vote Republican.

Gallego might wind up getting independent votes (and he’ll need plenty of them to win). But his version of authenticity isn’t about defying one set of stereotypes by adopting elements of another, or about being someone everyone will like.

That’s not to say Gallego is “real” and other candidates are “fake.” He does sometimes sound like a politician: When I asked him about the complicated controversy over Resolution Copper, a mine project he opposes that has pitted rural Latinos against native tribes, he gave a careful answer clearly meant to straddle everyone’s concerns.

Gallego is smart enough to understand that like all members of his profession, he has a public face. But his is a stark contrast with Sinema, who seems to always be smiling and happy even as she makes Democrats apoplectic.

That’s not who Gallego is. On the campaign trail he’s probably going to swear, and tell voters what makes him mad, and say some things that sound somewhere between blunt and rude.

If nothing else, his candidacy is a test of whether a swing state will elect a progressive who isn’t afraid to be angry and aggressive in defense of his values, and about a few other things, too.