In Washington, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party last week landed like a black cloud over the party’s sunny post-election victory lap.
But back in Arizona, her move came across like something else entirely.
“Her party switch is an electoral hand grenade,” one Arizona Democratic operative told The Daily Beast, “and she just pulled the pin.”
While Sinema publicly framed her move as a critique of partisanship and a commitment to representing her state, it ultimately accomplished something more self-serving: it got the senator out of what was set to be a contentious Democratic primary for her seat in 2024.
All she will need now is 43,000 signatures to get her name on the ballot, not the approval of the primary voters.
For the Democrats itching to unseat Sinema, her forces move them into a difficult spot. Free to field their own candidate, Arizona Democrats could finally defeat her in November 2024. But they would risk going down with her. If she and a Democrat split votes, a Republican could win the seat.
Democrats’ Kyrsten Sinema Nightmare Is Just Getting Started
But if Sinema is online Democrats to call her bluff, there’s every indication they can’t wait to do just that.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who had been laying the groundwork to challenge Sinema even before her party change, continued to make moves in the days following her announcement, teasing a possible bid in fundraising emails and reportedly contracting with strategy firms.
Asked by reporters in the Capitol on Monday night if his running would ensure a GOP win, Gallego said “quite the opposite… Like, by her running, it guarantees a Democrat will win.”
Meanwhile, on Friday, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ)—another potential candidate—tweeted out an apparent poll he’d conducted showing him handily defeating Sinema in a primary.
Chris Herstam, a former Arizona state lawmaker and Sinema ally-turned-critic, said it was “ridiculous” to suggest her maneuver amounted to a threat to her former party of mutually assured destruction. He argued that given Sinema’s apparently abysmal standing among Arizona Democrats, and the increasingly rightward trajectory of Arizona GOP voters, Sinema could siphon more votes from a MAGA-style Republican candidate than a Democrat.
“I don’t think a three-way race is going to hurt the Democrats, frankly,” Herstam said.
Polling supports the idea. A January poll from Data For Progress found Sinema with a remarkable 81 percent disapproval rating among Arizona Democrats. And a January survey from the Arizona firm OH Predictive Insights found Sinema had a higher approval rating among Republicans than Democrats.
But there are plenty of Democrats who are skeptical of the idea they can have their cake and eat it, too.
“Sinema made a shrewd move,” said the Arizona Democratic operative. “If Gallego runs as a Democrat, it splits the vote, and they both lose to the Republican.”
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema Says She Is No Longer a Democrat
Even the most bullish Democrats know there is significant risk in a three-way contest with Sinema and a Republican. Sinema, who has not been much of a Democratic team player for years, surely is aware that her move could boost the GOP’s chances of taking her seat. But as she has demonstrated so many times, Sinema isn’t afraid to put her own priorities over Democrats’ broader goals.
Of course, there’s a big question mark hanging over these machinations: whether Sinema will actually run. For the better part of two years, speculating on the senator’s political future has been Arizona politicos’ favorite parlor game. In interviews with CNN and Politico about her party switch, Sinema rebuffed questions about her 2024 plans, keeping the guessing games going.
Still, Sinema’s campaign continued to send out emails fundraising solicitations after her party switch announcement, asking potential donors “to help us keep delivering results in the Senate.” Notably, neither of the two fundraising emails sent over the weekend mentioned her departure from the party.
If Sinema opted not to run, it would be a huge sigh of relief for Democrats. If she does run, however, the party will be in for a dramatic battle of unprecedented chaos.
Top Democrats, notably Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), might be forced to choose between an incumbent senator who caucuses with the party and a candidate backed by the Arizona Democratic Party—or choose to remain neutral.
Strengthening Sinema’s hand is that, even in a 51-seat Democratic majority, she remains a critical vote for Schumer and President Joe Biden’s priorities of confirming judicial nominees and administration appointments over the next two years.
For Arizonans who are eager to see Cinema go, they have a clear message for Schumer and top Democrats in Washington.
“If Schumer has a brain, he will totally stay out of this Senate race,” Herstam said. “He needs to keep Sinema voting with them, so he can be kind to her and say nice things, but just stay out, Chuck, and let it play out.”
That much seems certain, at least until the parties’ respective fields of candidates are set. Gallego has said he will not make an announcement regarding his plans until after the new year. A Harvard-educated Marine with a progressive brand and chant for Twitter fights, Gallego has been teasing a run for months and steadily building a donor base.
Kyrsten Sinema Is Unfriending Her Network Into Oblivion
Although he has an appealing biography and built-in advantages, it’s not guaranteed Gallego would clear a primary field. Aside from Gallego, Democrats see Stanton and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego as their most viable potential candidates. (Reuben and Kate were married from 2010 to 2017.)
Stanton, a former mayor of Phoenix himself, was just elected to a third term in Congress, and has been named as a contender for statewide office before. On Friday, he tweeted apparent internal poll showing that he bested Sinema in a primary, 58 percent to 17 percent. In an accompanying jab, he said Sinema’s decision “isn’t about a post-partisan epiphany, it’s about political preservation.”
Kate Gallego, a visible Phoenix public official for nearly a decade, has not publicly weighed in on Sinema’s party switch or talked about any of her own plans, but Arizona politicians believe she will pursue an office beyond mayor someday. In testing a potential Cinema primary, pollsters have often gauged her level of support among voters over the last year.
No matter what, Democratic insiders agree there will be substantial pressure on any hopefuls to avoid a messy primary and coalesce behind one candidate. But nearly everyone expects some one will run, if only because it would be highly unlikely that a state party that censured Sinema would clear the way for her.
Matt Grodsky, a former communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party, said party activists would likely have to vote on a measure to not contest the election—like Utah Democrats did this year, when they decided not to field a candidate and endorse independent Evan McMullin instead. Grodsky doesn’t see that happening. “They’re going to have one candidate in the field,” he said. At least.
A leading anti-Sinema group—Replace Sinema PAC, which was formerly Primary Sinema PAC—has stated they will not endorse any candidate in a Democratic primary. They are planning to continue with content focused on criticizing Sinema’s record in the new year. Spokesperson Sacha Haworth, a former Sinema staffer, said the group had its best fundraising period since the Dobbs decision came out and she reiterated her opposition to ending the Senate filibuster.
If Sinema decides to run, her path to the November 2024 election won’t be easy, even if she has effectively bypassed a primary.
Arizona law makes it difficult for independent candidates to appear on the ballot. To do so requires collecting 43,000 signatures from voters, more than six times the number a major party candidate must collect. In reality, Cinema would likely need to gather far more, given the typical rejection rate for signatures on political petitions.
“It is unprecedented to secure the amount of signatures she’d need to appear on the ballot,” said Grodsky. “She’s got money and time to do it, sure, but that’s a hell of a gamble.”
Will Kyrsten Sinema’s ‘Self-Destructive’ Moves Take Her Down?
Democrats will also pay close attention to the emerging Republican field of candidates, giving that many feel their strongest chance to hold the seat will come if GOP voters behave like they did in this midterm year.
In 2022, Arizona Republicans nominated a slate of far-right statewide candidates over more establishment primary opponents—and all of them lost. Given the rightward lurch of the state party, Democrats are not exactly betting that GOP voters will of course correct in 2024. The candidate they perhaps fear most is outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey, but his relationship with the GOP base is so sour that it’s doubtful he could survive a primary.
Kari Lake, the far-right former TV journalist who lost the governor’s race this year, is reportedly encouraging Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb to run for the Senate. Lamb, a hard-right Trump Republican who called the Jan. 6 rioters “very loving, Christian people,” is the exact kind of candidate who Democrats believe would lead them to victory in a three-way race.
But even if Republicans nominate a more formidable candidate, Sinema’s detractors in the Democratic Party say there is plenty of risk in the supposedly safer choice of rallying behind the independent senator.
Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the liberal group Indivisible, said that many members of the group’s local Arizona chapters volunteered for Sinema’s election in 2018, even if they didn’t love her politics. Now, she’d struggle mightily to tap any grassroots energy after four years of alienating not just progressives, but most mainstream Democrats in the country.
“No one is denying that running a Democrat comes with risks,” Greenberg said. “What’s not being fully assessed is consolidating behind not just someone the left doesn’t like, but someone who has actively courted the fury of the entire Democratic Party.”
“The closer you get to the ground in Arizona, the more white-hot the fury is from people who put enormous amounts of time into helping get her elected in 2018,” she continued. “This is a final stage in a betrayal that’s been ongoing for a long time.”
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