TUCSON, Ariz. —; Retired astronaut Mark Kelly kicked off a “mission for Arizona” Saturday as he launched his U.S. Senate campaign with a rally in Tucson, the city where his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, survived a shooting when she was a congresswoman. That attack in 2011 led Kelly to leave NASA and become a political activist, pushing for gun control.
Kelly, who has never held elected office, is the first Democrat to enter the 2020 race. The seat is now held by Republican Martha McSally, a former congresswoman and Air Force pilot who was appointed by Arizona’s GOP governor after longtime GOP Sen. John McCain died.
WATCH: Retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly running for the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona
Next year’s election will decide who finishes the final two years of McCain’s term. It’s expected to be closely contested, with Arizona increasingly competitive after decades of Republican dominance.
The campaign, Kelly said, is “a mission to lift up hardworking Arizonans, make Arizona safe and secure, give every family in this state access to affordable health care and grow wages for our middle class.”
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly gives final news conference as one-year mission comes to a close
He spoke to several hundred supporters on the patio of a historic hotel in downtown Tucson about nine miles from the grocery store where Giffords was shot in the head and six people died during a constituent event on Jan. 8, 2011.
“The shooting changed both of our lives —; dramatically, negatively and permanently,” Kelly said. “Like so many families, we were knocked to the ground in a drastic and unexpected way. But we got up.”
Giffords introduced her husband, saying Arizona is diverse and independent but also faces complex problems.
WATCH: Retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly kicks of Arizona Senate race in Tucson
“We need bold solutions. Courageous ideas. Leaders who put people first, not politics,” Giffords said. “I know the perfect person for the job.”
Kelly, who was living in Houston at the time of the shooting and stationed at NASA’s headquarters, retired from the space agency and moved to Tucson in 2012. He and Giffords pushed Congress, with little success, to enact gun control measures. They shifted their focus to state legislatures in recent years, helping to strengthen background checks and domestic violence protections.
He recalled meeting Giffords in China in 2007, when she was a state legislator, and their first date a year later at a state prison.
“It’s Gabby Giffords who could combine research for her job as a state senator and a first date,” he said.
WATCH: Gabby Giffords reacts to bipartisan bill to expand firearm background checks
He listed climate change, health care and college affordability, gun violence and immigration as issues on which he’d focus.
He said he raised more than $1 million in the first 24 hours after his announcement Feb. 12 that he was running.
U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Phoenix, who has strong ties to Democratic activists, also is considering a run.
John McCain’s touching final letter released: ‘I lived and died a proud American’
Kelly has signalled he plans to run a centrist campaign.
“If we continue to stay so focused on partisanship and partisan politics in this country, we’re going to have a hard time solving our biggest problems,” he said.
Kelly flew combat missions during the first Gulf War and was a Navy test pilot before becoming an astronaut along with his twin brother, Scott. Mark Kelly flew four space missions over 10 years and commanded the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2011.
WATCH: Retired astronaut calls Space Force redundant, says Trump only person who thinks it’s a ‘good idea’
McSally was appointed to temporarily fill McCain’s seat after she narrowly lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the 2018 race for Arizona’s other Senate seat.
McSally was elected to the House in 2014, defeating Ron Barber, a Giffords congressional staffer who was injured in the 2011 shooting and won a special election to replace her after she resigned.