In this edition of Americana: Kyrsten Sinema’s declaration of independence, a special election in Virginia gets underway, and “Twitter Files” co-star Rep. Ro Khanna talks about how to fix social media.
Kyrsten Sinema secedes, and Arizona Democrats may go to war
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.
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.
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.”
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.
ROOM 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.”
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 yourself.
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.”
We’re doing a newsletter swap with Isaac Saul’s Tangle, which crawls inside one big political debate in each issue. The Trump special counsel, the potential rail strike, the collapse of FTX — Saul gets views from each sides and goes after the truth.
National: Paul Starr wishes that Democrats hadn’t mostly disarmed in the redistricting wars, calling on them to dismantle independent commissions in states where they could draw maps… Daniel Marans reports on a swing-seat Democrat taking over a new House leadership role…
Arizona: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema joins the Connecticut for Lieberman Party.
Georgia: Natalie Allison talks with the Republicans who wish Herschel Walker had never run… Greg Bluestein conducts an autopsy of the GOP nominee’s campaign… Anoa Changa explains the voting changes, including a shortened early-vote window, that Raphael Warnock condemned even as he won the race… Richard Fausset and Lisa Lerer explore how Gov. Brian Kemp was strengthened by the runoff.
New York: Ross Barkans meets the state’s new Republican voters, converted after a “surge in hate crimes against ethnic Asians and Jews.”
Yes, we’re all done with 2022, but early voting has already started in the first competitive election of 2023. When she unseated Virginia Beach Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, Rep.-elect Jen Kiggans created a January 10th special election for her competitive state senate seat. Democrats nominated Virginia Beach city council member Aaron Rouse to replace her, and Republicans nominated ret. U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Kevin Adams, who’s now on the air.
Adams for Senate, “Kevin Adams.”The first 30-second spot for Adams portrays him with Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who won this part of the state after President Biden carried it in 2020. There’s no mention of Adams’s party affiliation apart from that, just his military and business background, and a pledge to work with Youngkin to get “tough on violent crime, cut taxes, lower the cost of living, and support our veterans.”
In 2020, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. emailed Twitter higher-ups to complain about their decision to suppress a New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop just weeks before the election. What he didn’t know at the time is that his correspondences would be released this month — and come off well to Republicans, who shared much of his criticism.
The exchange was published as part of “the Twitter files,” a series of posts from reporters who’d been given access to internal company communications by new CEO Elon Musk.
Khanna has not been blown away by the leaks so far, telling Semafor there’s no “shocking smoking gun.” But the broader conversation about speech on the Internet is one he is very happy to have, including with an incoming House Republican majority that plans to investigate Twitter. He’s already drafted an Internet Bill of Rights for his colleagues, and published a book about the ways the tech industry needed to adapt to democracy.
I talked to Khanna about what Congress needs to ask Twitter, and what a more accountable, speech-friendly social network would look like. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Americana: Elon’s reaction to emails between Democrats and Twitter, asking them to take down tweets that contained naked photos of Hunter Biden was: “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, what is?” But you think the photos should have been deleted.
Ro Khanna: Yes. To violate the First Amendment, from a legal perspective, requires the government acting to suppress speech. President Biden, at the time, was not part of the government. And it’s very common for campaigns to advocate for their point of view. We ask for a correction, we ask for something to be taken down — we exercise our First Amendment rights. There was no evidence that there was any threat of government action or sanction. It’s perfectly fine that they didn’t want to have sensational pictures out there.
Americana: In your book, you suggest that Congress should pass a law requiring social media platforms to take down speech if there’s a court order saying that the post is inciting violence. Is that about as far as you want Congress to go?
Ro Khanna: It would be consistent with the First Amendment, obviously, because it’s a court order. I do think we can require more transparency. If we had an Internet Bill of Rights, and if we required the people in big companies to respect individual data, then it would be harder to have sensationalism and conspiracy theories growing online because you wouldn’t be able to target people susceptible to that. Facebook knows that it’s causing eating disorders and potential suicide among teenage girls — that can be regulated under the First Amendment, because it’s about public safety, and there’s a compelling state interest.
Americana: One of your ideas for fixing social media is gamifying it, having people get points toward verification or status for constructive debate or criticism.
Ro Khanna: Right now, all these social media people are engineering for attention, right? What if they were maximizing for other things, like really wanting to encourage debate? If you don’t know someone, and you give them an opposing point of view, the research shows they’re more likely to dig into their own point of view. If you’re a friend of someone, and you give them an opposing point of view, the research shows they’re likely to at least consider it.
You could encourage people to amplify or be rewarded for posts that are considered thoughtful, civil exchanges of opposing viewpoints. That can be crowdsourced, just like we crowdsource Uber drivers. I don’t have a monopoly on these ideas, by any stretch, but there are creative ideas about how to improve public debate without suppressing speech.
Americana: You also suggest having civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center monitoring digital platforms and flag content. Those are groups that a lot of conservatives don’t trust right now.
Ro Khanna: The question is, what are the appropriate guidelines? Even Elon Musk is saying that he doesn’t want to amplify pain. Maybe one of the guidelines should be if you’re an account that’s predominantly spewing hate, and targeting individuals with hate, that is something that isn’t really contributing to constructive speech in the public square, even though it may be technically protected by the First Amendment.
If someone were to get up in a town hall of mine, and say: “Ro, the New York Post has an article that says that President Biden is compromised by foreign influence because of the dealings of his family,” I would vehemently push back on the facts, but I would not ask that person to be escorted out. If someone got up and started on an antisemitic rant, I would ask that person to leave.
Americana: Elon has been very open about who he’s letting back on and not letting back on, but he hasn’t exactly been consulting with the groups you’re talking about. How is he doing so far?
Ro Khanna: It’s too early to say. The fact that he’s saying free speech is going to be an underlying value, we should applaud that. The fact that he’s saying that we shouldn’t have bots, we should applaud that. The fact that he doesn’t want the amplification of hate speech, we should applaud that, and we should be documenting it. Is there really an increase of anti-Asian hate speech and anti-Black hate speech and antisemitism? We should know.
There’s this rush to judgment about Elon, which is biased by partisan views, but Twitter was a pretty tough place before Elon was there, and it’s pretty tough right now.
Americana: What’s the conversation about all this with your fellow Democrats right now? Is anyone asking, ‘Hey, should we still be on Twitter?’
Ro Khanna: It’s kind of like people who say: “Ro, don’t go on Fox News, don’t give them a platform.” I say: They’ve got millions of viewers, they don’t need Ro Khanna in order to have a platform. Twitter, absent some event we can’t foresee, is still going to have millions of people on it. I would love there to be more choice in terms of social media platforms, but this idea that Twitter is not going to matter, at least in the short term, is unrealistic.
Americana: Different topic: When are you going to decide what to run for in 2024?
Ro Khanna: I’m going to be supporting Joe Biden for president. If [Sen. Dianne] Feinstein were to retire, I’ve said I’d take a look at running for Senate. It would be foolish not to take a look at it. But the most likely scenario is that I will be running for reelection to the United States House of Representatives. As Elon Musk has shown, you can become a consequential figure in the House if you have your emails leaked.
The 117th Congress is going out the way it came in: Narrowly divided, and unpopular, with barely any movement since the midterms. Approval of the Democratic-led House and Senate started low, jumped into the mid-30s after the Jan. 6 insurrection, and bottomed out in the low teens before the Dobbs decision this summer. Just half as many Democrats say they approve of Congress as say they approve of Biden, and one in six independents approve of Biden but not Congress. Why didn’t more incumbents lose in that environment? Because most voters still separate their own member of Congress from the body they find to be so irritating.