(Bloomberg) — Few places in the U.S. have felt the sting of inflation like Arizona’s largest city, Phoenix, an unwelcome problem for Democratic Senator Mark Kelly as he wages a re-election bid that is crucial to his party’s efforts to keep control of Congress.
Costs for housing, food and fuel are running higher there than in any similar-sized metropolitan area, adding financial strain for a border-state electorate that’s on edge over the White House’s move to lift pandemic-related restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border. Similar economic pain has taken hold across the country, with the Federal Reserve only recently undertaking interest-rate hikes aimed at easing the situation.
Kelly has pushed in Washington for a raft of anti-inflation measures and has criticized President Joe Biden’s approach to the issue. The White House has blamed soaring prices on Russian President Vladimir Putin and stubborn aftershocks to supply chains from the pandemic. But Kelly’s strategy may prove cold comfort to voters.
Evangelina Diaz, 56, drives about an hour from Maricopa, Arizona, to her job in central Phoenix. Gasoline prices hit particularly hard in the state, where workers drive further and more often than the average American. She says filling her tank now costs up to $50.
“We’re working to put gas in our car,” Diaz said. “It’s real ridiculous.”
Kelly is vying for a full six-year term after winning his Senate seat in a special election in 2020, a victory that reflected his compelling personal story and an electorate weary of Donald Trump. A 58-year-old former naval aviator, combat veteran and half of a set of twin-brother astronauts, Kelly is married to former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who survived bullet wounds to the head from a mass shooting in Tucson in 2011.
Opponents say the all-American biography won’t be enough this time.
“You can’t discount the fact that he is an extremely likable person who’s married to one of the most important and admired people in Arizona. But this time he needs to carry Joe Biden around like a sack of bricks and somehow explain his record,” said Stan Barnes, a former Arizona state senator and GOP political consultant.
The success of Biden’s presidency, in many ways, hinges on campaigns like Kelly’s. With Republicans expected to win a majority in the U.S. House, a net loss of even one seat in a 50-50 Senate would likely deprive Biden of much of his legislative agenda, and also confirmations of more controversial political appointees and judges.
“It’s one of the most critical races,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the Cook Political Report. “If Democrats lose him, they’re on very shaky ground.”
Unique Economic Woes
Inflation ran at 10.9% in February in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the highest of any urban region. The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller home price index for Phoenix has risen 32.9% in the past year, the largest increase of any major metro area. Average gasoline prices statewide are now 40.5 cents a gallon higher than the national average.
Some of Arizona’s economic woes are unique. Inflation in the state is compounded by its boom-and-bust housing market and higher-than-average gasoline prices that are pressured by its air-quality rules and its distance from refineries.
The soaring prices weigh on voters like DeMareo Fricks Sr., who delivers groceries in Goodyear, Arizona, using the online shopping app Instacart. On an unseasonably cool spring day, he mused that customers are buying the same amount of groceries — but tipping less — and his fuel costs have doubled.
Still, when it comes time to vote for Senate, he said, he’ll probably give the Democrat another chance. “Only because that’s what my family beliefs are.”
Kelly makes an effort to show he’s attuned to punishing prices, often sprinkling his speeches and interviews with up-to-date figures. “Gas at $4.62 a gallon today in Arizona, and ground beef at $5 a pound,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg News this month. “Families are having to make some really hard choices.”
He has also proposed policies to address both causes and symptoms of rising prices. He introduced a bill to suspend the 18-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax until the end of the year. He has urged the president to allow more oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The senator has focused on supply chain issues, too. Kelly called on the administration to go after anti-competitive practices in the meatpacking industry, championed a Senate-passed bill intended to increase domestic microchip production and introduced a bill to streamline licensing for truck drivers.
“When you live paycheck to paycheck, especially when you’re on a fixed income, these rising costs make everything harder,” he said recently at a Senate Aging Committee field hearing in Phoenix on prescription medicines. “When you add on to that pay for prescription drugs as well, seniors are making choices that nobody should ever have to make.”
On the other most urgent issue for Arizonans, immigration, Kelly is emphasizing that he’s not in step with his party’s president. He has criticized the administration’s decision to lift Trump-era policies that allowed the U.S. to keep asylum seekers in Mexico and to turn away many others as a public health measure.
“There’s having things on a piece of paper, and then what is going on on the southern border. And there is a huge disconnect,” Kelly said in a Senate hallway Wednesday.
His aim is to calm fears of a migration surge in a place that has long adopted some of the toughest anti-immigration policies of any of the southern border states.
Threading a Needle
Three other vulnerable Democratic senators have made the same calculation as Kelly in drawing a contrast to Biden’s economic, immigration or public-health policies. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, all in competitive races or facing a Trump-backed opponent, in recent weeks have distanced themselves from the first-term president.
Biden has not visited Arizona since he carried the state in 2020. A White House official would not say whether Biden plans to go to Arizona to campaign for Democratic candidates.
Asked if he wanted Biden to campaign for him, Kelly appeared to be threading a needle carefully.
“It’s important for a president to get around the country, and if he wanted to go to Arizona regardless of who the president is I think that would be a positive thing,” he said. “But that’s for somebody else to figure out down the line when we get close to the election.”
Kelly has the fourth most conservative voting record among Senate Democrats, behind West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, fellow Arizonan Kyrsten Sinema and Delaware’s Tom Carper, according to voting scores by the University of California-Los Angeles. He’s also bucked his party on transportation mask mandates, sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and a number of spending provisions.
The bipartisan infrastructure law, which he supported, featured prominently in his second campaign ad of the season, where he promised it would help solve problems like traffic congestion, border security at ports of entry and the water supply.
Kelly’s victory in 2020 gave Democrats both Arizona Senate seats for the first time since 1969, and the national party campaign committees have devoted more money earlier in the cycle than they have in the past.
A March poll by OH Predictive Insights shows Kelly statistically neck and neck with an unspecified Republican candidate, 37% to 39%, with 24% unsure. The poll has a 3.6-point margin of error. There’s a five-way race for the GOP nomination, and Trump has yet to endorse any of the candidates.
The leading candidate, state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, is working to tie Kelly to Biden.
“Joe Biden and Mark Kelly aren’t concerned about inflation, because they’re spending other people’s money. Americans and Arizonans are paying the price with inflation that we haven’t seen in generations,” he said.
Arizona’s Aug. 2 party primaries mean Kelly will have little time to mount a campaign against the eventual Republican nominee. And his go-it-alone approach may get dragged down by low Democratic numbers around the country, no matter how much he distances himself.
“I spent 25 years in the Navy. My first election ever was in November of 2020,” he said. “I approached that the way I’ve approached all my jobs in the past, which is to try to pay attention to the details and work hard. And there are things in our control and things that are outside of our control. That was my approach last time, and that will be my approach this time,” he said.
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