Thanks To Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona’s Next Senate Race Is Already Chaotic

Thanks To Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona’s Next Senate Race Is Already Chaotic

Kyrsten Sinema, the country’s newest independent senator, didn’t exactly surprise Washington when she announced earlier this month that she was leaving the Democratic Party. Arizona’s senior senator has had a long streak of bucking her old party’s line, frustrating Democrats in her home state and in Congress, while befuddling pundits, constituents, and journalists about why she legislates the way she does.

But her choice to go independent was shocking for many Arizonans, including some in the Arizona Democratic Party and former campaign volunteers and canvassers, who were expecting a drawn-out primary fight to ensue ahead of the 2024 general election, when Sinema’s seat will be one of 23 Democrats have to defend to keep a Senate majority.

Even before Sinema’s announcement, Arizona’s 2024 Senate contest was shaping up to be chaos: Potential Democratic challengers were mobilizing, and the state’s Republican Party is in the throes of another civil war between its Trumpist, election-denying factions and conventional, business-friendly conservatives. Now, the prospect of a three-way Senate contest with a serious, well-funded independent incumbent during a potential Biden-Trump presidential rematch is almost hard to comprehend.

But while most attention since Sinema’s announcement has been on whether she would be a spoiler candidate for the Democrats or how angry people feel at her decision, there are a few other important questions to consider. Here are three of the most important.

Will Kyrsten Sinema run at all?

Whether Sinema runs again remains an open question.

At the moment, she has taken the perfunctory step of filing a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission to begin the campaign process, though she hasn’t formally announced a reelection bid. A spokesperson for Sinema did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, the conventional wisdom is that she will run, and that her decision to become an independent was a way for her to avoid having to run in a Democratic primary contest that she would almost definitely lose. Public and private polling by different pollsters and campaigns over the last year and a half all show that she is very unpopular among Democrats in the state, and generally unpopular across the board with white voters and voters of color, voters who are college-educated and not, and men and women.

In interviews during the media rollout of her announcement, she’s been cagey about saying whether she will run again. On social media, her personal Twitter account has promoted messages from Arizona local radio interviews in which voters say they would support Sinema in another race.

And on YouTube, her political account shared a campaign-style video explaining why she was leaving the Democrats on the day she broke the news. It included a line about how she expected Arizona voters to feel about her decision: “Arizonans across the state are going to say ‘Yeah, that’s the Kyrsten we elected. That’s who we sent to DC’,” she promised. But she came just short of saying that she hoped to be elected again, or of directing voters to donate money on her campaign website.

Arizona-based organizers, pollsters, and strategists I spoke to told me that at the moment, it seems like Sinema is testing the waters in her state, seeing what kind of appetite there is for an independent candidate, and waiting to see if state Democrats coalesce around one candidate.

“She has always been very strategic. She is two steps ahead of everyone else, of where she’s going,” Mike Noble, a longtime Arizona political strategist and the chief of research at polling firm OH Predictive Insights, told me. Her announcement echoed the decision her predecessor, former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, had to make in 2017 after breaking with Donald Trump, he said.

Sinema becoming an independent seems to dare national Democrats to sit out the statewide contest for fear of ceding the race to a Republican. In theory, that could mean her move is a way to get Democrats to support her in 2024. If Democrats choose not to support Sinema, and quickly unite behind one candidate, it could be difficult for her to find the support she’d need to win.

And in that case, there’s a chance that Sinema sees Democrats putting up a fight and ultimately decides not to run.

“I am not convinced that she will actually run,” Alejandra Gomez, the executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, a progressive Latino organizing group that worked to help Sinema get elected in 2018 (but opposes her now), told me. “She’s trying to figure out where her allies stand, who her people are, and party loyalty. I think she underestimates Democrats standing behind Democrats.”

Kyrsten Sinema campaigns at a local union hall in Tucson, Arizona, during the 2018 senate race.
Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call

Gomez told me that she thinks Sinema is counting on disunity among Democrats and Republicans during the primary process to open up a lane for both disaffected Democrats and Republicans to back an independent. “She’s faced with a tall order now that she’s put herself in this corner.”

It’s still an open question of who Sinema’s base would be, and what infrastructure would support her 2024 run if Democrats do run their own candidate: Already, her TV ad maker and a top polling firm have stopped working with her, the Huffington Post’s Kevin Robillard reported. The tech firm that manages the state party’s voter database is cutting her access, and another top progressive consulting firm dropped her as a client this month. A general election campaign without access to the Democratic Party’s money, voter contact, and outreach apparatus, as well as its energized base during a presidential year, is a serious obstacle. (Sinema currently has about $8 million in cash on hand.)

Arizona’s voter pool is split into nearly even thirds between both parties and independents, and Republicans still hold a plurality of registered voters. But those voters with no party preference make up the second-largest group of voters, making them pivotal in statewide elections. In theory, those independent voters would form Sinema’s base, but they have tended to split pretty evenly between both parties in statewide races.

There are a number of viable alternatives Sinema could pursue if she doesn’t run, ranging from an appointed position to transitioning into private sector consulting work. She’s already a lecturer at Arizona State University. Whether she pursues any of these hinges on the question of why she even wants to be senator.

Who would run against Sinema in a general election?

Next year’s primary elections in Arizona might determine whether the state sees a three-way race. It’s a little early for any candidate to officially announce right now — donor networks, polling, and staff hiring must be activated first — but there are plenty of potential candidates.

Among Democrats, the most obvious challenger to Sinema’s nomination is Rep. Ruben Gallego, the longtime Congress member from Arizona’s recently redrawn Third District. He represents the most Democratic district in the state, which stretches across Phoenix and into parts of Glendale, and has been a vocal critic of Sinema for the last few years. A former Marine, he’s a progressive but considers himself less ideological and more practical in his work in Congress, and often criticizes his party for not defending its economic proposals to working-class people harder.

Rep. Greg Stanton, a more moderate Arizona Democrat, has also been floated as a possible contender by state political strategists as well as national and local media (he fueled that speculation with a tweet showing what appeared to be internal polling showing how he’d perform against Sinema in a primary). A former Phoenix mayor and city council member, he has served in Congress for slightly less time than Gallego, running for Sinema’s old House district in 2018 when she ran for Senate, in the new Fourth District. He’s a member of the New Democrat Coalition and has a more centrist identity, but like almost every other Arizona Democrat, he has voted in line with the president’s agenda every time.

Other possible competitors in a Democratic primary include Phoenix’s current mayor, Kate Gallego, and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, though they haven’t spoken about the race.

Republicans are much more divided. Coming out of a bruising election year that saw Republican candidates lose nearly all top statewide offices, the party faces a civil war between its current Trump-aligned leadership and the more traditional types that have long succeeded in statewide races. Though the state’s marquee races have been certified and decided, the 2022 campaign is still not over — Kari Lake, the election-denying Republican loser in the gubernatorial race, launched a legal challenge to the results of the election. But she and outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey are probably the two Republicans with widest name recognition in the state.

Ducey comes from a more conventional, pro-business conservative tradition that has a history of victory in the state. He served two terms as governor that he won by large margins, including during the 2018 blue wave that also saw Sinema elected. But his sheen has dulled in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when he stood up to Trump’s demands to overturn the results of the presidential election (and faced an onslaught of Trump criticism), endorsed Lake’s main opponent in the 2022 gubernatorial primary, and was used by Lake as a foil for her candidacy (she called him “Do-Nothing Ducey”). Plenty of congressional Republicans want him to run, but just last week he told local reporters that he’s not considering a Senate run.

The primary opponent Ducey and other establishment Republicans supported against Lake is also a potential contender: Karrin Taylor Robson, the lawyer and housing developer who lent herself $18 million to run a largely self-funded race, has been especially vocal about the need for Arizona’s Republican Party to change directions before losing another general election. She’s criticized the state party, called for the state chair, election conspiracist Kelli Ward, to step down from leadership, and has branded Lake a fake Republican and a grifter.

“Our party, in particular in Arizona, was hijacked by fake Republicans,” Robson told me. “I’ve said now, many times: Kelli Ward, and the Arizona GOP, has been an unmitigated disaster. And we have to get back to a place where we know how to win and we do it based on conservative principles.”

Karrin Taylor Robson shakes hands and greets supporters during a Republican primary campaign rally in Arizona in August 2022.

Former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Karrin Taylor Robson greets supporters during a campaign rally in August 2022, ahead of the Republican primary.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Robson told me she is not ruling out running for statewide office again: “I was taught to leave my options open and give myself as many options as possible. But it’s too early to say.”

Whether Ducey or Robson can win a Republican primary will depend on how Arizona Republican voters decide to answer the central, existential question that faces them: to continue backing Trump, Lake, election denialism, and more divisive, right-wing politics, or return to the kind of mainstream conservatism represented by John McCain and the pre-Trump Republican Party.

There are plenty of names that could occupy the former space: Lake, Ward, Rep. Andy Biggs, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, and failed 2022 Senate candidate Blake Masters.

There aren’t many who could champion the latter.

Who benefits from a three-way race?

Now consider this: If Sinema did run as an independent, against both Republican and Democratic nominees, would she pull votes away from the Republican, the Democrat, or both?

Plenty of reporting and punditry has assumed that a three-way race would hand the Senate seat to the GOP — that Democrats might nominate someone too far to the left to win a general election, which would push independents and moderate Democrats to vote for Sinema or the Republican.

But that ignores the very real problems Arizona Republicans are having right now: their inability to move away from Trump and his brand of politics.

Robson told me she hopes state leadership recognizes that most Arizona voters don’t want to keep this antagonistic, bombastic, and combative style of politics going for another cycle. “As I traveled around the state in my campaign, most people out there just want to live their lives,” she told me. “They’re tired of the fighting, and unfortunately, today’s Arizona Republican Party, led by Kelli Ward and magnified by Kari Lake, is all about dividing and tearing people apart, as opposed to bringing people together.”

For now, it doesn’t seem like establishment Republicans have the upper hand. But should they manage to coalesce around a figure like Robson, Ducey, or state treasurer Kimberly Yee (who just won reelection by 11 points with a more moderate tone), they would pose a serious threat to both Sinema and a Democratic nominee, Noble, the Arizona pollster, told me.

“Sinema is banking on Arizona voters to reward her in a hyper-partisan climate, and on filling that void of a Democrat version of John McCain,” he said. “Someone that is a center-right Republican versus the current MAGA Republican, that would be your biggest threat, because it makes the numbers much bigger of a challenge and much less feasible for her.”

Her best case is having Democrats choose a progressive like Gallego, and having Republicans pick a far-right candidate, giving her an opening for moderates from both parties to join independents in voting for her. No candidate needs a majority, so she could theoretically win a plurality.

For that to work, voters would need to disapprove of those candidates by a bigger margin than they currently dislike her (which, even among independents, is a high bar). Recent polling commissioned by Gallego shows that not to be the case — even with Sinema running, a theoretical Lake vs. Gallego vs. Sinema matchup is still a toss-up. All this happening during a presidential year means an even more difficult time trying to buy ad time, novel strategies to turn out voters who are thinking in binary ways, and running a campaign without institutional support.

Of course, the only way we’ll actually know any of this for sure is to see the campaign play out. Buckle up.

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