State Highway 86 stretches west from Tucson, Ariz., past saguaros and desert peaks into Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest reservation in the state. It is a road that tribal members say no Senate candidate in recent memory has ventured down.
But on a sweltering afternoon, Representative Ruben Gallego, a progressive Democrat from Phoenix, spent several hours with Tohono O’odham leaders and community members, fielding questions in a series of small round table meetings, touring an affordable housing project and making the pitch for his 2024 Senate run.
“The reason why we’re here is because a lot of times the only time you see a politician come down is the last week of the elections,” Mr. Gallego told a handful of attendees during an evening meet-and-greet in Sells, Ariz., the tribal capital, on Friday.
The stop was part of Mr. Gallego’s push to visit all of the 22 federally recognized tribes in Arizona before Election Day next year. It is a feat, he says, that few, if any, contenders in a statewide race have ever attempted — and one he believes will help pave his path to victory in what is likely to be one of the most competitive Senate races in the country.
Native Americans make up more than 5 percent of the Arizona population, and have emerged in recent years as powerful swing voters. In 2020, an analysis by The Associated Press found that parts of the state’s tribal land saw huge surges in turnout in the presidential election that year, which helped tilt the outcome in favor of Joseph R. Biden Jr. Though no official count of the electorate exists, the National Congress of American Indians, a tribal rights organization, estimates that the state has more than 315,000 Native Americans who are old enough to vote, one of the largest Native populations of voting age in the country.
“The Native Americans in Arizona — we are the coveted vote because we make or break elections,” said April Hiosik Ignacio, who is a tribal citizen of Tohono O’odham (pronounced Toh-HO-noh AW-tham) and a vice chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party.
Mr. Gallego’s ambitious plan for Native American outreach is part of his efforts to crisscross the state with pledges to restore faith in government, and a campaign strategy that he describes as “go everywhere and talk to everyone.” But Mr. Gallego, 43, a U.S. Marine combat veteran and former state lawmaker who represents a deep-blue district, will have a difficult needle to thread in Arizona, a battleground state. He is trying to hew closer to the center on some issues, like immigration, without alienating his base of progressives.
In Native American communities, as in the Latino neighborhoods where he has been aggressively pursuing voters, Mr. Gallego could also come up against feelings of apathy with electoral politics and disillusionment with the Democratic Party.
Already, the stakes in the 2024 Senate race are tightening. Kyrsten Sinema, 47, the Democrat-turned-independent who holds the seat, has not said whether she will run for re-election. But a two-page pitch to donors obtained by NBC last month revealed that she could be preparing to launch an ambitious bid heavily relying on independents and focused on shaving away support from both Democrats and Republicans.
The contest for her seat intensified when Kari Lake, 54, an ally of former President Donald J. Trump and onetime local news anchor who lost and refused to concede the Arizona governor’s race last year, filed paperwork to run this month. Ms. Lake has already sparred with Mr. Gallego over border politics, though her first major opponent would be Mark Lamb, 51, a right-wing sheriff and fellow Trump ally, in the Republican primary.
Mr. Gallego, who announced his bid in January, has had a head start to pitch donors and hone a message centered on protecting democracy and helping working- and middle-class families. He is also leaning on his humble origins in Chicago and his experiences as a Marine and former construction worker to help bring new and disaffected slices of the electorate back into the Democratic fold, including rural white voters, Latinos and Native Americans.
His first campaign swing included stops in Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in Arizona, and the Fort Apache reservation, home to the White Mountain Apache Tribe. He has since visited more than half a dozen tribes.
In an interview in Sells, Mr. Gallego said his early outreach to Native American voters wasn’t “just smart politics, it is also personal.”
Some of his closest friends, Jonithan McKenzie and John and Cheston Bailon, are Navajo. They served with Mr. Gallego in an infantry unit that saw heavy combat and suffered severe casualties during the Iraq war. They versed him in Navajo traditions that helped him reflect on war and opened his eyes to everyday life on the reservation, where water could be scarce, jobs were hard to come by and groceries and medical services were long drives away, Mr. Gallego said. John Bailon has since introduced him at campaign stops.
In Congress, Mr. Gallego has served on a subcommittee on Native American issues, where he has focused on improving access to running water and internet on reservations and making it easier for Native American veterans to receive government benefits.
Mr. Gallego, the son of a Colombian mother and Mexican father, would be the first Latino senator from Arizona, if elected. Like Ms. Sinema, he forged his political rise by embracing the progressive and immigrant rights movements that have helped transform a Republican stronghold into a battleground state. But he is following the traditional playbook that Democrats including Ms. Sinema have used to win statewide in Arizona in past election cycles: He is eschewing ideological labels, distancing himself from Democratic leadership and tacking to the middle on the border and immigration.
Mike Noble, a state pollster who has conducted some of the few surveys on the race so far, said Mr. Gallego was in the best position in what is shaping up to be a three-way contest. Mr. Gallego is the strongest fund-raiser, he said, and has a positive image. “He just needs to hold his base and not let Sinema peel off too many Democrats,” Mr. Noble said.
Still, Mr. Gallego remains less defined for voters than Ms. Sinema and Ms. Lake. And a race against Ms. Sinema could fray the coalitions of frustrated Republicans, Democrats and independents — including many Latino and Native American voters — that have helped power Democrats to the highest positions in the state for the first time in decades. The fracture could improve his chances — or open the way for a Republican like Ms. Lake to retake a seat that has helped Democrats retain their narrow majority in the Senate.
Ms. Lake has already begun to paint him as another far-left liberal responsible for high rates of homelessness and what she describes as a border crisis. But if Mr. Gallego shifts too far away from his progressive credentials, he could risk dampening the energy among his base.
At Tohono O’odham, which extends along 62 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico, the top worry on Friday was the recent Biden administration decision to build up to 20 miles of border barriers in South Texas, a project that was first authorized during the Trump administration.
In the room was Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, who handles voter registration as the Pima County Recorder and is one of less than a dozen Native Americans in Arizona to hold elected office. Ms. Cázares-Kelly, a progressive Democrat, said she was likely to support Mr. Gallego, whom she said she favored for his promises to secure Native American voting rights, for example. But she had been taken aback, she said, when he told her he supported the construction of parts of the border wall to separate the United States from Mexico.
Mr. Gallego, a vocal critic of the move under Mr. Trump, said that a wall might make sense in certain areas but that it should never be built on sacred Native American grounds, and that it should not be the only solution.
But for Ms. Cázares-Kelly, calls to “build the wall” remained a symbol of Mr. Trump’s most destructive immigration policies, a rallying cry she saw as rooted in xenophobia — and one that had galvanized her tribe to become politically organized. When Mr. Trump first signed his executive order for the wall, many members of her tribe offered to throw their bodies in the way of any construction.
“Now having Joe Biden pushing for the expansion of the border wall is so disappointing and frustrating, and then to hear Ruben echoing those sentiments in solidarity with our president is just really disappointing,” she said.