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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

Kyrsten Sinema secedes, and Arizona Democrats may go to war

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Title iconThe News
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz. speaks at a hearing.
Al Drago/Pool via REUTERS

“Shock” is the wrong word to describe what Arizona Democrats felt on Friday, when Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced that she was quitting their party.

They were annoyed. They were exhausted. And some of them had already been trying to beat her in 2024.

“She hasn’t acted like a real Democrat for years,” said Sacha Haworth, the communications director for Sinema’s 2018 U.S. Senate run — and more recently, an advisor to Primary Sinema PAC, which will change its name but continue its effort to defeat the senator.

“It’s a calculated move,” Haworth added. “If she decides to run in 2024, she’d be the spoiler.”

Another party strategist called Sinema’s announcement, made with interviews and an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, a “selfish move to save herself.” The state party, whose board had censured Sinema in January over her refusal to end the filibuster, accused her of answering to “corporations and billionaires,” while stopping just short of promising to challenge her in a general election.

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Sinema’s enemies inside the party, and the broader progressive movement, had mobilized against her for most of Joe Biden’s presidency.

She’d won her first term in 2018 after raising $22.2 million and winning broad support from groups like Emily’s List. But in 2021, when Sinema resisted the call to break the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and pass a voting reform package, some of her high-profile supporters threatened to cut her off and even support a challenger. She was already on thin ice with the left after she gave a thumbs-down on a minimum wage bill earlier.

By the end of the year, Primary Sinema PAC had launched with a $400,000 seed from the progressive donor collective Way to Win, and Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha had launched Run Ruben Run to coax Rep. Ruben Gallego into a 2024 primary.

“Ruben Gallego fought in the hardest-hit company in Afghanistan,” Rocha told the Washington Post at the time. “I’ll take that dude over a woke white woman any day.”

Gallego, who had been moving toward a Senate announcement next year, said in a statement on Friday that Sinema was “putting her own interests” ahead of the state. Sinema was forcing Democrats to make a choice – to back down in 2024 out of fear that Republicans could win a three-way race, or to take a risk, run, and try to beat her.

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The panic in Arizona stands in extreme contrast to Washington, where Democrats are not especially worried (for now) about Sinema voting with Republicans or giving them a 50-50 Senate split. The White House issued a friendly statement calling her a “key partner” on Friday, while Chuck Schumer said she was a “good and effective Senator” and would keep her committee assignments.

What did change was the party’s Senate math in 2024, and the calculations of Democrats who had decided long ago that Sinema had to be replaced.

In 2018, Sinema became the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Arizona in a generation and her iconoclasm was seen as an asset. But last month, Sen. Mark Kelly won his second race in two years by a bigger margin — 4.9 points — than Sinema had managed in a strong Democratic year. Republicans tried to exploit his closer ties to the national party, but he prevailed, and emboldened progressives.

That fact came up repeatedly when I talked with Democrats inside and outside the state on Friday. With the party’s voters now convinced they could win statewide with a more reliable Democrat, Sinema’s move was seen as a political necessity, a pre-emptive strike by a Senator who would have been the underdog in a primary against Gallego.

Sinema had not been a visible part of the Kelly campaign, as Gallego pointed out in post-election interviews. “Sen. Sinema was nowhere to be found, at all,” he told MSNBC last month. “She could have been a really good surrogate to help our candidates, and she did nothing, because she only cares about herself.”

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That, more than Sinema’s actual voting record, changed her position inside the party. She reliably voted for the White House’s nominees, and supported the Inflation Reduction Act after securing some tax policy changes that progressives opposed.

But she got a reputation for being unreachable by party activists and pressure groups. That was dramatized in Oct. 2021 when immigration reform advocates followed her into a bathroom to demand her vote for their legislation — a moment that generated some conservative sympathy for Sinema.

How would conservatives vote in a three-way Senate race? That’s what Democrats are thinking about. Sinema’s decision bears some resemblance to the one Joe Lieberman made in 2006, after he lost his primary to now-Gov. Ned Lamont. He immediately launched a third party campaign, and Republicans, who hadn’t expected him to lose the primary, abandoned their fringe nominee, helping him stitch together a one-time-only coalition of Liebercrats — conservatives, moderates, and a small number of liberals.

“If she seeks re-election,” said Third Way’s Jim Kessler, “by November of 2024, AZ voters will all become game theorists.” On Thursday, Third Way had published a report warning about the danger of a third-party presidential candidate running in 2024 and creating a path for Donald Trump to win again, similar to what Democrats fear in Arizona.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

In National Review, Jim Geraghty writes that progressives forced Sinema’s hand by making obnoxious, partisan demands that were less popular outside their own bubble: “A certain segment of the Democratic Party’s base believes that anyone who hinders or delays them from getting what they want is an enemy, not merely an opponent or unreliable ally. If you keep treating a member of your party like she’s an enemy, sooner or later she will decide she might as well become an enemy.”

Title iconNotable

Sinema is known for keeping a low profile in terms of interviews and public statements, but she made sure her independent move was top news in every medium. Here’s the rundown if you want to catch up on her side of the story.

  • Sinema sat down with Politico, where she said “nothing will change about my values or my behavior” with her new nonpartisan label.
  • In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, she said “I’ve never fit neatly into any party box. I’ve never really tried. I don’t want to.”
  • For her hometown Arizona Republic, she wrote an op-ed warning that both parties have  “views that have been pulled further and further toward the extremes.”
  • And on Twitter, she released a campaign-style video explaining her decision, saying it’s a “reflection of who I’ve always been.”
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