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How an assassination attempt on his wife propelled former astronaut Mark Kelly to the Senate

With nearly two months to go till the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Democrats are already gaining another senator: Arizona’s Mark Kelly, former navy pilot, astronaut and husband to former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously injured by a gunman in 2011.

And crucially, because he won a special election, Mr Kelly is being sworn in right away – incrementally changing the mathematics of the Senate as its members try to strike a coronavirus rescue deal and prepares to hold hearings on Joe Biden’s cabinet picks.

But Mr Kelly’s victory is about much more than the balance of power on Capitol Hill. From his announcement onwards, he has drawn explicitly on the experience of Ms Giffords’s near-murder to make the case not just for himself, but for tougher gun safety laws – this in a state with some of the US’s most hands-off firearms legislation. 

Ms Giffords was attacked in 2011 as she spoke at an event in Tucson. Six others were killed in the incident; the then-congresswoman lost much of her vision in the attack and still has trouble speaking and walking, but appeared in public many times even as she was still recovering. 

Before Mr Kelly took to electoral politics himself, he joined with his wife in campaigning for gun safety across the country, helping found the eponymous national organisation Giffords, which raises money and backs campaigns to end gun violence.

The organisation became a bone of contention during the Senate campaign, with Republican incumbent Martha McSally invoking it at an October debate in an attempt to tie Mr Kelly to the far left. He hit back bluntly.

“The issue of gun violence is personal for Gabby and me," he said, “and I'll never forget what she went through for that year and a half.” And of the Second Amendment, he had this to say: ”Our rights and traditions are so important ... But we can never let a bunch of kids in the classroom get killed and think there is nothing we can do about it.”

Before Ms Giffords was attacked, Mr Kelly was not pursuing a political career. A retired navy aviator who flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm during the first Gulf War, he was selected by NASA to be a Space Shuttle pilot and flew four space missions in the shuttle’s final decade – including the final mission of the shuttle Endeavour in 2011.

Mark Kelly meets Barack Obama at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida

As an epilogue to his space career, he also became a scientific research subject along with his twin brother and fellow astronaut, Scott, who spent a full year on the International Space Station.

While Scott orbited the Earth for 12 months and Mark stayed on the ground, the two men were monitored to compare their physiological and cognitive condition. The results, published last year, will help NASA understand all kinds of problems that afflict astronauts, from vision problems to genetic changes and cardiovascular problems.

Mr Kelly’s victory was a joy to behold for Democrats in more ways than one. Mr Biden may have vanquished Mr Trump, but at the congressional level, 2020 was a bitterly disappointing year for Senate Democrats. They had hoped to retake the upper chamber with at least a small majority, but instead fell short – with a few crucial exceptions.

The aftermath of Gabrielle Giffords’s shooting in Tucson, 2011

Mr Kelly faced a relatively weak opponent in Martha McSally, who was appointed to fill the seat rather than being elected and who had already lost a race for the state’s other seat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. In the end, Mr Kelly defeated her by just over 2.5 points – a notably wider margin than Mr Biden’s victory over Mr Trump.

So what will Mr Kelly’s victory actually mean? That firstly depends on the two runoff Senate elections in Georgia in January, where Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are battling to stave off two strong Democratic challengers. If they are defeated, the Democrats will pull even with the Republicans in the chamber – meaning that they will technically be able to govern as a majority since vice-president elect Kamala Harris will be called on to break tied votes.

As for Mr Kelly’s own positions, he is hardly outside the Democratic mainstream. He supports a public option for health insurance, wants to see tax cuts for the wealthy repealed, and starting with his wife’s shooting has long argued for tough gun safety laws (though he has repeatedly stressed he is a gun owner himself).

Coming from a purple state on the Mexican border, he is unsurprisingly hardly a tubthumper for headline progressive causes, making clear during the campaign that he opposes both Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. This puts him in much the same bucket as his Arizona colleague Ms Sinema, who also sits on the right of the Democratic Party.

And with a deadlocked Senate and a president more given to pragmatism than radicalism, the time for Democrats like Mr Kelly – who have swept aside Republicans where many progressives failed – may just have come.

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