Former astronaut Mark Kelly sworn in as newest US senator

Democrat Kelly flipped the Arizona seat from Republican control to fill the remainder of the late John McCain’s term.

Democrat Mark Kelly, who won a special election to fill the remainder of the late John McCain's term, was sworn in as a US senator on Wednesday [File: Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo]

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

Kelly, 56, defeated Senator 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 January 5 Senate runoff elections in Georgia.

If Democrats win both runoffs, they will command the 50-50 chamber for the new Congress that begins in early January because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a Democrat, 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. Among those watching from the visitors’ gallery were Kelly’s wife, former Democratic Representative Gabby Giffords, and Scott Kelly, his twin brother and also a retired astronaut.

Former astronaut Mark Kelly attends his swearing-in ceremony as Democratic US senator for Arizona as his wife Gabby Giffords listens [Nicholas Kamm/Pool via REUTERS]

Kelly’s arrival in the Senate marks a political milestone for Arizona, which narrowly backed Democratic President-elect Joe Biden last month and will have two Democratic senators for the first time since January 1953. That is when Republican Senator Barry Goldwater took office, barely a decade before he became his party’s unsuccessful 1964 presidential candidate.

Democrat Kyrsten Sinema is Arizona’s other senator.

McSally was appointed to her seat in 2019 to replace the late Republican Senator 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 legislators and 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 Democrats’ moderate wing.

In what was one of the country’s most expensive Senate races, Kelly raised $89m. That was second only to the $108m 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 Navy pilot who flew combat missions during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

Space shuttle Endeavour Commander Mark Kelly, right, aboard the International Space Station in 2011 [NASA TV/Reuters]

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.

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.

Source: AP