The Arizona Democratic senator is breaking palpably with the president as he pursues a full six-year term this fall in a once-reliable red state that’s recently become fertile territory for Democrats. Though Kelly has at times sought distance from the president on the border and economic issues during his 16 months in Congress, his recent run of schisms with the White House demonstrates that it’s not just Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) calling his own shots in the Copper State.
Though Democrats are used to Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) bucking them, Kelly’s vote against David Weil to be wage administrator for the Labor Department shocked party leaders, according to one Democratic senator supportive of the nomination. And his criticism of Biden’s approach to the southern border only grew louder after the White House reversed the Trump administration public-health order known as Title 42, potentially clearing the way for more immigrants seeking asylum to enter the country.
“I tell them when I think they’re not getting stuff right, like in this case. There’s no plan,” Kelly said in an interview, referring to the Title 42 rollback.
He added that he’s talked extensively to the White House and Homeland Security Department: “They understand that this is a real concern and they’re putting together a plan, I just haven’t seen a plan that looks sufficient.”
His stance could be a practical problem for Democratic leaders. GOP senators are looking to force votes on Title 42 during the coming debate on a new Covid aid package, votes they could win if there are enough like-minded Democrats.
For most of this Congress, Kelly’s been seen as the more progressive Democrat from Arizona—at least compared to Sinema—even as he faces one of Senate Democrats’ toughest reelection campaigns in the fall. He didn’t get in the way of the abandoned “Build Back Better” plan, voted to change chamber rules to pass elections reform and has reliably supported Biden’s nominees. Still, he’s occasionally backed GOP efforts like overturning the public transit mask mandate and barring undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus checks.
Now Kelly is doing more than taking down Weil, publicly protesting Biden’s border policy and pushing alongside Manchin for more fossil fuel exploration. He’s also raising concerns about Biden’s ambassador to India nominee Eric Garcetti and calling for a gas tax holiday.
Kelly explained his opposition to Weil as fairly simple: that his constituents, particularly business owners, had concerns about the nominee. “He just didn’t seem like a good fit for the job,” the senator said of the failed pick.
Kelly, Manchin and Sinema all voted against Weil’s nomination on the floor — the first Biden pick to be defeated so publicly. But Kelly’s vote especially is drawing plenty of scrutiny among progressives.
“He’s been hostile to working class issues,” said Faiz Shakir, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) adviser and 2020 campaign manager, referring to pro-union efforts in Congress and in Kelly’s state. “You’d have a hard time convincing me that being on the correct side of these issues is somehow detrimental to winning a statewide election in Arizona. Draw your own conclusions about what’s going on there.”
However, Ezra Levin, the co-founder of progressive group Indivisible, said liberals “have understood occasional breaks” that vulnerable Democrats like Kelly have to take from Biden, still trusting that the senator is “going to be there in big moments.”
“Indivisible folks in Arizona love what they see Mark Kelly doing. He’s focusing on what fixes Arizona: from water to broadband,” Levin said. “He’s a solid purple-state senator who we’re committed to getting reelected. Notably, that doesn’t describe Kyrsten Sinema.”
The Arizonan is a former astronaut and combat pilot married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who became a gun control advocate after getting shot in the head in 2011. He’s talkative but cautious, rarely throwing bombs but often eking out gentle distance from Biden and his more liberal colleagues. A White House official said the president and Kelly “have a good working relationship, and the president appreciates Sen. Kelly’s perspective.”
In polls, Kelly’s been more popular than Sinema among Democrats but less popular with Republican voters. That’s not surprising: Sinema’s record is plainly more conservative than Kelly’s, and they have dramatically different styles. And Republicans have often pitted Kelly against Sinema, asking why Kelly doesn’t vote more like her.
But his friends in the Senate say he should always be treated as a tough vote. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) described Kelly as “smart as shit” and “a centrist with a progressive tilt.” Manchin said that while Kelly tries to be collaborative “when he sees things that are in conflict with his people, he votes against it.”
Kelly’s raised concerns about gas prices to Biden since November and recently spoke to top Energy Department officials about fuel production. He called out Biden for shirking the border issue in the president’s first address to Congress and made no secret of his Title 42 concerns during conversations with administration officials.
“His arm is kind of untwistable,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a longtime friend. “Mark’s going to be a tough vote for Democratic presidents for as long as he’s going to be here.”
Sinema issued a statement praising Kelly’s “independent leadership” with his work on Covid, infrastructure and the border.
Republicans looking to beat him, of course, see things quite differently, citing his immigration and energy votes.
“He’s figuring out he’s going to lose his election, so he’s going to try to save his election by acting like he cares about the border. He’s done nothing to secure the border,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the party’s campaign arm.
Kelly’s trying to stay above it all, at least while the crowded GOP primary plays out in Arizona. He insisted he’s not motivated by saving his own hide: “Nope, not at all. Science, data and facts is all I care about.”
The border is “the issue I spend the most time on. I spend a lot of time, physically on the border” talking to the groups and officials who know it, Kelly said. “But the political stuff… I don’t worry about that. If they’re saying that, it’s about an election.”
Of course, his election is pretty dang important to his party. Kelly’s one of four Democrats running in highly competitive races this fall, and in a historically red state.
That could mean more breaks from Biden and congressional Democratic leadership. Party leaders say that’s OK with them. They need him in the Senate for the long haul ahead of a tough 2024 election cycle.
“He’s his own man. You don’t expect a combat pilot to be anything less,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “He does his best to work with us. But we know he has to answer to his own conscience in terms of his position on issues.”