Former astronaut and gun control activist Mark Kelly sworn into U.S. Senate

Arizona Democrat and former astronaut Mark Kelly was sworn into the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, narrowing Republican control of the chamber and underscoring his state’s shift from red to blue.

Kelly, 56, defeated Republican Sen. Martha McSally in last month’s election, making her one of only three incumbents to lose. By taking office, he has reduced the Republican edge in the chamber to 52-48.

That will have scant impact on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s control over the chamber for the final month of this congressional session. But it sets the stage for two pivotal Senate run-off elections in Georgia on Jan. 5.

If Democrats win both, they will command the 50-50 chamber for the new Congress that begins in early January because vice-president-elect Kamala Harris would cast tie-breaking votes.

Kelly was sworn into office by Vice-President Mike Pence, and both men wore masks and bumped arms in congratulations when the oath was over. He was joined by his wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, and Scott Kelly, his twin brother and fellow retired astronaut.

Kelly attends his swearing-in ceremony as Democratic U.S. senator for Arizona as his wife, Gabby Giffords, former U.S. Representative for Arizona, listens in Washington on Wednesday. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool via Reuters)

Kelly’s Senate arrival marks a political milestone for Arizona, which has two Democratic senators for the first time since January 1953. That’s when Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater took office, barely a decade before he became his party’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential candidate.

In other evidence of Arizona’s political shift, the state backed president-elect Joe Biden last month, the first time it was carried by a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996.

Sen. Martha McSally, shown at a Senate banking, housing and urban affairs committee in Washington in July 2019, was defeated by Kelly in the Nov. 3 election. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

McSally was appointed to her seat in 2019 to replace the late Republican Sen. John McCain. Her appointment lasted only until last month’s special election was officially certified, which occurred this week. That cleared the way for Kelly to take office and fill the rest of McCain’s six-year term, meaning Kelly will face re-election in 2022.

Kelly was parachuting into a fractious lame-duck session in which lawmakers and U.S. President Donald Trump are so far deadlocked over whether to provide a pre-holiday COVID-19 relief package worth hundreds of billions of dollars. They’re also trying to address year-end budget work and a defence policy bill.

Kelly cast himself as a problem-solving centrist during his campaign. His slender two-percentage-point victory over McSally suggests he will be part of the Democrats’ moderate wing.

In what was one of the country’s most expensive Senate races, Kelly raised $89 million US. That was second only to the $108 million collected by defeated South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado and Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama were the only other Senate incumbents defeated last month.

The son of two police officers, Kelly is a retired astronaut who flew four space missions, including spending time aboard the International Space Station. He was also a U.S. Navy pilot who flew combat missions during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

Giffords was grievously wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in which six people were killed and a dozen others hurt. She and Kelly became leading figures in unsuccessful efforts to pressure Congress to strengthen gun controls.

Giffords, at the time a U.S. congresswoman, is rushed to an ambulance after she was shot in the head during a meet-and-greet with constituents in Tucson, Ariz., in January 2011. (James Palka/Associated Press)

“Great day, excellent day,” Giffords told reporters afterward.

Kelly is the fourth astronaut to be elected to Congress. John Glenn was a Democratic senator from Ohio and Harrison Schmitt was a Republican senator from New Mexico. Republican Jack Swigert was elected to the House from Colorado but died of cancer before taking office.

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