Dec 11, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Sinema's mutually assured destruction

Kyrsten Sinema

Photo: Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's stunning decision to become an independent has triggered the possibility of a blue-on-purple civil war that could cost Democrats a must-win Senate seat in 2024.

The big picture: In the last three elections, Democrats have won unlikely victories in traditionally red Arizona because a critical mass of independents and moderate Republicans couldn't stomach MAGA-aligned GOP nominees.

  • Sinema would have had difficulty winning a primary. But she can win a general election — and might even be the favorite — if no Democrat of consequence runs.
  • But if moderate and progressive Democrats split, her move risks handing the Senate seat to a Republican nominee — potentially a right-wing candidate like Kari Lake.

What to watch: The White House and Democrats' Senate campaign arm will have two crucial decisions to make:

  1. If Sinema runs for re-election, will they endorse her independent candidacy, preempting a serious Democratic challenger?
  2. Or will they rally behind a Democrat like Rep. Ruben Gallego, risking a messy general election that could hand her seat over to a Republican?

If Democrats take the first path, Sinema will be treated like Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats and draws only nominal Democratic opposition in his campaigns.

  • Utah Senate candidate Evan McMullin also ran competitively as an independent this year, and his candidacy was tacitly embraced by Democrats.

If Democrats take the second path, party leaders will work all-out to oppose her re-election (assuming she runs).

  • But it's tough to see how Democrats hold the seat if both Sinema and Gallego are on the general election ballot.
  • Sinema isn't conservative enough to secure support from most Republicans, and she'd likely split enough Democratic votes to allow a GOP candidate to win with a plurality.
  • In other words, Sinema is essentially daring Democrats (and Gallego) to get in, knowing it comes with the threat of mutually assured destruction.

What they're saying: "I know this will probably disappoint folks, but I'm actually not even thinking about electoral politics or talking about that at all right now," Sinema said coyly when asked about her 2024 plans on CNN.

  • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Between the lines: Even with a muddled pathway to re-election, Sinema has suddenly handed herself significant leverage, both legislatively and politically.

  • Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) can't afford to punish Sinema by removing her committee assignments and losing key perks that come with a 51-seat majority.
  • As an independent who doesn't need to run in a primary, Sinema also has the benefit of time. If there's no pathway for her to win, she could ultimately decide to retire.

Flashback: In 2018, both Sinema and Gallego wanted to run for the Senate. Schumer persuaded Gallego to pass on the race, giving Sinema a glide path to the Democratic nomination.

By the numbers: Democrats only make up 31% of registered voters in Arizona, lagging behind Republicans (35%) and independents (34%).

  • "If Democrats nominated a progressive and Republicans nominated a MAGA candidate, that's the scenario where Sinema could pull off a victory," said former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, who served as GOP Gov. Doug Ducey's chief of staff.
  • "I have a long track record of telling my colleagues not to underestimate Kyrsten Sinema. And I've been right every time. She's never done anything half-baked," Adams added.

The bottom line: With a narrow majority and a punishing Senate map in 2024, Democrats can't afford to squander any purple-state Senate seats.

Go deeper