Democrats are ready to call Kirsten Sinema’s bluff
In Washington, Sen. Na Kirsten Sinema decision to leave the Democratic Party last week it landed like a black cloud over the party’s sunny post-election victory lap.
But back in Arizona, her move felt like something entirely different.
“Her party switch is an electoral hand grenade,” one Arizona Democratic operative told The Daily Beast, “and she just pulled the needle.”
While Sinema publicly framed his move as a critique of partisanship and a commitment to representing his state, it ultimately accomplished something more selfish: It took the senator out of who he should have been. contested Democratic primaries 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 primary voters.
For Democrats itching to unseat Sinema, her move forces them into a difficult situation. 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 the vote, a Republican could win the seat.
But if Sinema is getting 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 switch, continued to make moves in the days after her announcement, teasing a possible bid in fundraising emails and reportedly striking a deal with a strategic companies.
Asked by reporters at the Capitol Monday night if his candidacy would ensure a GOP victory, Gallego said “quite the opposite … It’s as if her candidacy guarantees a Democrat victory.”
Meanwhile, on Friday, Congressman Greg Stanton (D-AZ) — another potential candidate — tweeted an apparent poll he conducted showing him beating Sinema in the primary.
Chris Herstam, a former Arizona state lawmaker and Sinema ally turned critic, said it was “ridiculous” to suggest her maneuver posed a threat to her former party of mutual assured destruction. He argued that given Sinema’s apparently dire standing among Arizona Democrats and the increasingly rightward trajectory of Arizona’s GOP voters, Sinema could draw more votes from a MAGA-style Republican candidate than a Democrat.
“I don’t think a three-way race is going to hurt the Democrat, frankly,” Herstam said.
Research supports the idea. A January survey by Data For Progress found Sinema with a remarkable 81 percent disapproval rating among Arizona Democrats. and a January survey by the Arizona firm OH Predictive Insights found that Sinema has a higher approval rating among Republicans than Democrats.
But there are many Democrats who are skeptical of the idea that they can have their cake and eat it too.
“Sinema made a smart move,” said the Arizona Democratic representative. “If Gallego runs as a Democrat, it splits the vote and they both lose to the Republican.”
Even the staunchest Democrats know there is significant risk in a three-way race with Sinema and a Republican. Sinema that has wasn’t much of a Democratic team player has surely been aware for years that her move could increase the GOP’s chances of taking her seat. But as she has demonstrated so many times, Sinema not afraid to set his own priorities over the broader goals of the Democrats.
Of course, there is a big question mark over these machinations: whether Sinema will actually work. For the better part of two years, speculating on the senator’s political future is the favorite parlor game of Arizona politicians. In interviews with CNN and Politico about his party switch, Sinema deflected questions about his plans for 2024, continuing the guessing game.
Still, Sinema’s campaign continued to email fundraising appeals after the announcement of her party switch, asking potential donors to “help us continue to get results in the Senate.” Notably, neither of the two fundraising emails sent over the weekend mentioned her leaving the party.
If Sinema decides not to run, it would be a huge sigh of relief for Democrats. However, if she does run, the party will be in for a dramatic battle with unprecedented disarray.
Top Democrats, notably Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), may be forced to choose between an incumbent senator who factions with the party and a candidate backed by the Arizona Democratic Party, or choose to remain neutral.
Strengthening Sinema’s hand is that even with a 51-seat Democratic majority, she remains a critical voice on Schumer and President Joe Biden’s priorities for confirming judicial nominations and administration appointments over the next two years.
For Arizonans eager to see Sinema go, they have a clear message for Schumer and top Democrats in Washington.
“If Schumer has any brains, he’ll be completely out of this Senate race,” Herstam said. “He should get Sinema to vote with them so he can be nice to her and say nice things to her, but just stay out Chuck and let it all play out.”
That seems certain, at least until the parties’ respective candidacies are determined. Gallego said he won’t make an announcement about his plans until after the New Year. A Harvard-educated Marine with a progressive brand and a penchant for Twitter fights, Gallego has been teasing a breakout for months and steadily building a donor base.
Although he has an attractive resume and built-in advantages, Gallego is not guaranteed to clear a major field. Besides Gallego, Democrats see Stanton and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego as their most viable potential candidates. (Ruben and Kate were married from 2010 to 2017.)
Stanton himself, a former mayor of Phoenix, was just elected to a third term in Congress and has been mentioned as a contender for statewide office before. On Friday, he tweeted an apparent internal poll showing him besting Sinema in the primary, 58 percent to 17 percent. In an accompanying jab, he said Sinema’s decision was “not about post-partisan insight, but about political preservation.”
Kate Gallego, a prominent Phoenix public servant for nearly a decade, has not publicly commented on Sinema’s party switch or talked about her own plans, but Arizona politicians believe she will one day pursue a role beyond mayor. In testing Sinema’s potential primaries, pollsters have often measured her level of support among voters over the past year.
Regardless, Democratic insiders agree that there will be significant pressure on all the candidates to avoid messy primaries and rally behind one candidate. But almost everyone expects someone will run, if only because it would be highly unlikely that a state party that condemned Sinema would clear the way for her.
Matt Grodsky, former communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party, said party activists would likely have to vote on a measure to avoid contesting the election — as Utah Democrats did this year when they decided not to field a candidate and support the independent. Evan McMullin instead. Grodsky doesn’t see that happening. “They will have one candidate in the district,” he said. At least.
A leading anti-Sinema group — Replace Sinema PAC, formerly Primary Sinema PAC — said it would not endorse any candidate in the Democratic primary. They plan to continue with content focused on Sinema’s recording critique in the new year. Spokesman Sasha Howarth, a former Sinema employee, said the group had its best fundraising period since Dobbs came the ruling, and she reiterated her opposition to ending the Senate filibuster.
If Sinema decides to run, her road to the November 2024 election will not be easy, even if she has effectively bypassed the primaries.
Arizona law makes it harder for independent candidates to appear on the ballot. To do so, 43,000 voter signatures are needed, more than six times the number a major party candidate must collect. In reality, Sinema will likely need to raise much more given the typical rejection rate for political petition signatures.
“It’s unprecedented to secure the necessary amount of signatures to appear on the ballot,” Grodsky said. “She has the money and the time to do it, of course, but it’s a hell of a bet.”
Democrats will also be paying close attention to the emerging Republican field of candidates, given that many believe their best chance to hold onto the seat will come if GOP voters behave the same way they have this midterm year. .
In 2022, Arizona Republicans nominated a slate of far-right statewide candidates against more incumbent primary opponents — and all of them lost. Given the state party’s swing to the right, Democrats aren’t exactly betting that GOP voters will rebound in 2024. The candidate they may fear most is outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey, but his relationship with the base of the Republican Party are so degraded that it is doubtful he could survive the primary.
curry lake, a far-right former television journalist who lost the race for governor 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 exactly the kind of candidate Democrats believe will lead them to victory in a three-way race.
But even if Republicans nominate a more formidable candidate, Sinema’s Democratic opponents say there is too much risk in the perceived safer choice to rally behind the independent senator.
Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the liberal group Indivisible, said many members of the group’s local Arizona chapters volunteered for Sinema’s 2018 election, even if they didn’t like her politics. Now, she would have to fight hard to draw grassroots energy after four years of alienating not only progressives, but most grassroots Democrats in the state.
“No one is denying that there are risks involved in running for a Democrat,” Greenberg said. “What’s not fully appreciated is the consolidation behind not just someone the left doesn’t like, but someone who has actively courted the ire of the entire Democratic Party.”
“The closer you get to the ground in Arizona, the more heated the fury of the people who are dedicating a tremendous amount of time to help get her elected in 2018,” she continued. “This is the latest stage of betrayal that has been going on for a long time.
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