WASHINGTON — Arizona’s Mark Kelly was sworn in Wednesday as a U.S. senator, giving the state two Democrats in the Senate for the first time in nearly 70 years and reducing Republican control in that chamber to 52-48.
Kelly, a Navy veteran, astronaut and husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, defeated Republican Sen. Martha McSally in last month’s election. Kelly was sworn in ahead of the start of the next congressional session in January because he won a special election to complete the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term, which ends in 2022.
Kelly’s win in flipping the Arizona Senate seat gives Democrats an additional vote in the chamber that could be crucial as Congress races toward year-end deadlines, including one by Dec. 11 to approve more funding to keep the government running. Talks also are continuing over some kind of economic relief package before year’s end.
It won’t be clear which party will hold a majority in the Senate in the next session until after votes are tallied in two closely watched Jan. 5 runoff races in Georgia.
McCain, a Republican, died in 2018, and McSally, a former Air Force fighter pilot, was tapped by Gov. Doug Ducey to temporarily fill that post. Her race against Kelly was the second time she had sought election to the Senate, after losing in 2018 to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat.
Kelly, 56, took his oath of office on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, with Sinema holding the Bible. Afterward, his new colleagues could be seen offering him elbow bumps and congratulatory words.
“It’s a great day,” Kelly said to reporters as he entered the U.S. Capitol with Giffords.
Giffords, also a Democrat, watched the ceremony from the Senate gallery, and could be seen walking with a cane, the result of her injuries from being shot in the head in 2011 at a Tucson meet-and-greet that she was hosting. She resigned from Congress in January 2012 to focus on her recovery.
After the shooting, Giffords and Kelly became national advocates for tougher gun control laws.
Before Kelly’s swearing-in, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.), welcomed the new senator, saying Kelly’s seat in the Senate “may not be the role he expected for himself earlier in his life.”
“As Mark likes to say, his wife Gabby was already the member of the family in Congress. But tragedy upended both of their lives, and changed so many of their plans,” Schumer said. “Everyone continues to be inspired by Gabby’s recovery, by Mark’s devotion, and the courage it took for their family to re-enter public life and public service.”
In succeeding McCain, Kelly will follow a fellow Navy pilot whom he has described as a personal hero. Kelly and his family visited McCain’s gravesite Tuesday, describing the late lawmaker on Twitter as someone who “left a legacy of service to Arizona and country that can’t be matched.”
Kelly is the fourth astronaut to be elected to Congress, according to Smithsonian Magazine. After becoming the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn represented Ohio in the Senate from 1974 to 1999. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, one of the last two people to walk on the moon, became a senator from New Mexico. And John “Jack” Swigert, part of the Apollo 13 crew, was elected to represent Colorado in the House of Representatives, but died of cancer before he could take office.
During the ceremonial swearing-in, Vice President Mike Pence talked with Kelly and his family about the new senator’s military service and his time as an astronaut, according to a congressional pool feed.
Pence said Kelly will be “an invaluable voice building on the progress we’ve made” with NASA.
Kelly’s election marks a partisan shift for Arizona, a longtime Republican stronghold. The last time the state had two Democratic senators was January 1953, after Democratic Sen. Ernest McFarland lost his re-election race to Republican Barry Goldwater. Arizona voters also backed Democratic President-elect Joe Biden last month.
In an op-ed published this week in the Arizona Republic, Kelly said he has been reaching out to his Republican colleagues since his win, seeking “to find common ground.” He also called for crafting a national strategy for combating the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s clear that the lack of a national strategy is still hurting our response and recovery,” Kelly wrote. “And yet, Washington hasn’t provided the additional support that Arizonans need now. As cases spike yet again, programs to help Arizonans make ends meet are facing deadlines that, if not met, could damage our economy even further.”