Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat-turned-independent senator from Arizona, has remained a thorn in the side of Democrats more than anyone else in the caucus (even Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia). From her missed votes to her inexplicable positions (e.g., going to the mat for the carried interest tax break for hedge fund managers), her antics have made her the fifth most unpopular senator, according to a Morning Consult poll.
She has yet to announce if she is running for reelection in 2024. Fortunately for Democrats, the party has a strong contender who should persuade her to step aside: Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona.
Gallego on Monday announced he would run for Sinema’s seat. His opening ad traces his life of struggle (one of four kids raised by a single mother), his military service (his unit suffered some of the worst losses in the Iraq War) and his personal strength (he coped with post-traumatic stress disorder). Altogether, he painted a stark contrast with Sinema. If she’s the darling of Big Pharma lobbyists and hedge fund managers, he is the defender of those who “are one or two paychecks away from going under” and who “are still trying to decide between groceries and utilities.”
He was even more pointed in a written statement: “The problem isn’t that Senator Sinema abandoned the Democratic Party — it’s that she’s abandoned Arizona,” he said. He added, “the rich and the powerful don’t need any more advocates in Washington.”
Gallego’s populist tone should work well against Republicans in a general election campaign while also capturing Democratic primary voters’ annoyance with Sinema. The other underlying message: He’s loyal and dependable; she’s out for herself. He is offering grit and hard work in contrast to Sinema’s flakiness and penchant for self-promotion.
This could be critical for the Democratic Party’s chances to retain Sinema’s seat. Gallego, in a one-on-one matchup with the GOP’s top potential candidate, Kari Lake, would have a one-point advantage, as Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling found in late December.
But Democrats worry that if Sinema decides to run for reelection as an independent, the resulting three-way battle could give Republicans the edge. As PPP found, this scenario would put “Gallego at 40% and Republican Kari Lake at 41%, with Sinema in a distant third at 13%.”
It’s possible that she might decide to run in the Democratic primary, but that’s not a great option for her either. Last October, pollsters for the Democratic group Data for Progress found her losing to Gallego in a one-on-one matchup by an astounding 62 to 23 percent margin.
She also would have no chance in the GOP primary. Republicans might have cozied up to Sinema in recent months, encouraging her staunch defense of the filibuster and hinting that she would be welcome in their party. But Arizona GOP primary voters, who last year selected MAGA favorites for governor (Lake) and Senate (Blake Masters), are unlikely to embrace an openly bisexual, pro-choice former Democrat.
Democrats would certainly prefer that Sinema go away quietly. That might not be in the cards, as her switch to becoming an independent suggests. In doing so, it seems she was trying to sidestep a near-impossible Democratic primary to have a shot at hanging onto her seat.
But her poor polling against other Democrats and her lousy result in a three-way race might just persuade her to hang it up. After all, she can see her abysmal polling. And there are few senators who would likely have as many offers for cushy K Street jobs with powerful interests as she would.