The Morning After in Arizona

Mark Kelly’s successful bid for John McCain’s seat in the U.S. Senate is potentially a model for opportunity and hope.

By Winston Fisher and Sly James

Like many Americans, Arizonans woke up for days after November 3rd needing an extra cup of black coffee. An exhausting election night turned into an exhausting election week, at the end of a long, exhausting campaign, and left us with at least two extraordinary results. With the results certified, Arizona voters picked a Democrat for president and, stranger still, a Democrat to take the Senate seat once held by the late, great John McCain.

Mark Kelly defeated Martha McSally in the midst of a perfect storm, politically speaking. Many Arizonans were weary of a president who had denigrated their beloved Maverick and done little to safeguard their health. They were even less enthusiastic about Senator McSally. But their votes for Kelly were not borne of a magical transformation of the Grand Canyon State into a bright blue, liberal bastion. Arizonans were not hungering for radical change. Like most Americans, they crave genuine opportunity and public servants who will promote an opportunity agenda.

In many ways, Kelly is well suited to that task and the archetype of the type of Opportunity Democrat who should be running for elected office. As a former astronaut, he has the genuine persona of a hard-working, get-it-done kind of guy. His wife, former Congressional Rep. Gabby Giffords, is a positive, inspirational figure throughout the state. Kelly is also not afraid of speaking his mind and refusing to bow to public pressure, as his gun safety position clearly proves. You could even say, with all deserved respect to the McCain family, that Kelly has the makings of another Maverick.

All that is a great start. But Kelly will face re-election in two years, not the usual six, since his was a special election in more ways than one. His path to success in 2022 is, as it will be for many Democrats, an opportunity agenda.

In some ways, he has already started on that path. His advocacy for real infrastructure changes and a more effective, affordable public education system are issues that resonate with working class Arizonans and are the core of what the opportunity agenda has to offer. In his election night speech, he paid particular attention to locally owned businesses and their difficulties in accessing capital—especially during the pandemic. He also pointed out that infrastructure, public education, and job skills training have to be suited to this century, not bound by the past. He will also be aided by Biden’s win in Arizona, campaigning (as Kelly did) on issues that resonated with working-class voters.

From Day One

Kelly will have some unique opportunities to work for an opportunity agenda. Because it was a special election, under Arizona law, Kelly was sworn in on December 2nd—thirty-two days before the start of the 117th Congress. This means he’ll be of the minority party—and could remain so for his first two years. That will make it hard, but certainly not hopeless.

As a very junior senator in a politically raw environment, one is tempted to underestimate Kelly’s chances, but his temperament and history would suggest otherwise. By championing issues that appeal to working-class constituents, he has a real chance to make a mark—or even make inroads with politicians weary of the last four years.

The first priority, clearly, is recovery from the pandemic. If ever there was an opportunity for decisive, clear thinking under pressure, Congress’s next response would be it. Democrats like Kelly were born for it.

But beyond the immediate crisis, Democrats would be well advised to focus on long-term recovery:

  • Better access to capital will be a godsend for the many new startups and everyday innovators creating businesses in the wake of the pandemic.
  • Public education needs more than a facelift. The pandemic revealed its many shortcomings, and Democrats should be in the forefront of its reinvention.
  • Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. Sure, there are roads and bridges to fix and new ones to build, but access to broadband, probably through public-private partnerships, should be Democrats’ Job One.
  • Family values means helping actual families. When Democrats champion early childhood education and meaningful family leave, they are speaking to real citizens—people who need help, not hype.

It’s tempting to idolize Senator-Elect Kelly as a “right stuff” outsider ready to take on Washington. After all, he is literally a former astronaut following in the footsteps of John McCain and John Glenn. But that would be telling only a fraction of the story. What will make the difference to his fellow Arizonans—and his fellow Opportunity Democrats—is his willingness to defy expectations and work for the benefit of everyday, working Americans.

We wish him every success.

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