In Washington, Senator Kyrsten Sinema decision to leave the Democratic Party last week it landed like a black cloud over the sunny post-election victory lap of the party.
But back in Arizona, her move seemed like something else entirely.
“Her party switch is an election hand grenade,” an Arizona Democratic operative told The Daily Beast, “and she just pulled the pin.”
While Sinema publicly framed her move as a critique of partisanship and a commitment to represent her state, she ultimately accomplished something more selfish: She removed the senator from what was supposed to be a controversial Democratic primaries for his seat in 2024.
All you’ll need now is 43,000 signatures to get your name on the ballot, not approval from primary voters.
For Democrats eager to oust Sinema, her move puts them in a tough spot. Free to field her own nominee, Arizona Democrats could finally defeat her in November 2024. But they would risk going down with her. If she and a Democrat split the votes, a Republican could win the seat.
But if Sinema is challenging Democrats to call her bluff, all indications are that 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 following her announcement, sparking a potential offer in fundraising emails. and reportedly hiring strategy firms.
Asked by reporters on Capitol Hill Monday night if his candidacy would ensure a Republican victory, Gallego said “quite the opposite… Like his candidacy, it guarantees a Democrat win.”
Meanwhile, on Friday, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ), another potential candidate, tweeted an apparent poll he had conducted showing he handily defeated Sinema in a primary.
Chris Herstam, a former Arizona state legislator and Sinema ally turned critic, said it was “ludicrous” to suggest her move amounted to a threat of mutual assured destruction for his former party. He argued that given Sinema’s seemingly dismal standing among Arizona Democrats and the increasingly rightward trajectory of Arizona Republican voters, Sinema could divert more votes from a MAGA-style Republican candidate than from a Democrat.
“Frankly, I don’t think a three-way race is going to hurt the Democrat,” Herstam said.
Polls support the idea. A Data For Progress January Survey found Sinema with a remarkable 81 percent disapproval rating among Arizona Democrats. and a January survey of the Arizona firm OH Predictive Insights found that Sinema had 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,” the Arizona Democratic agent said. “If Gallego runs as a Democrat, the vote is split and both lose to the Republican.”
Even the most optimistic Democrats know that there is significant risk in a three-way race with Sinema and a Republican. Sinema, who has hasn’t been a great democrat team player For years, you’ve surely been aware that your move could increase the GOP’s chances of taking your seat. But as she has shown so many times, Sinema not afraid to put their own priorities about the broader goals of the Democrats.
Of course, there’s one big question mark hanging over these machinations: whether Sinema will actually work. For the better part of two years, speculating on the political future of the senator it has been the favorite parlor game of Arizona politicians. In interviews with CNN and Politico about her party switch, Sinema pushed back on questions about her 2024 plans, keeping the guessing games going.
Still, Sinema’s campaign continued to send out fundraising requests via email after her party switch announcement, 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 his departure from the party.
If Sinema chooses not to run, it would be a huge sigh of relief for Democrats. However, if he runs, the party will face an unprecedented dramatic battle of disorder.
Top Democrats, particularly Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), could be forced to choose between an incumbent senator who participates in the party’s caucus and a candidate backed by the Arizona Democratic Party, or choose to remain neutral.
Strengthening Sinema’s hand is that, even in a 51-seat Democratic majority, it remains a critical vote for the priorities of Schumer and President Joe Biden to confirm judicial nominees and administration appointments over the next two years.
For Arizonans who are eager to see Sinema go, they have a clear message for Schumer and the top Democrats in Washington.
“If Schumer has brains, he will stay out of this Senate race entirely,” Herstam said. “He needs Sinema to keep voting with them, so he can be nice to her and say nice things to her, but just stay out of her, Chuck, and let her play out.”
That seems certain, at least until the parties’ respective candidate camps are established. Gallego has said that he will not make any announcements about his plans until after the new year. A Harvard-educated Marine with a progressive brand and penchant for Twitter fights, Gallego has been sparking a career for months and steadily building a donor base.
Though he has a compelling bio and built-in perks, Gallego isn’t guaranteed to clear a main field. Outside of 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, a former mayor of Phoenix, was just elected to a third term in Congress and has previously been mentioned as a candidate for state office. On Friday, he tweeted an apparent internal poll showing that he led Sinema in a primary, 58 percent to 17 percent. In an accompanying jab, he said Sinema’s decision “is not about some post-partisan epiphany, it’s about political preservation.”
Kate Gallego, a visible Phoenix public official for nearly a decade, has not weighed in publicly on Sinema’s party switch or spoken about any of her own plans, but Arizona politicians believe she will one day seek office beyond mayor. When testing a potential Sinema primary, pollsters have often gauged her level of support among voters over the past year.
Whatever happens, Democratic pundits agree there will be substantial pressure on challengers to avoid a messy primary and rally behind one candidate. But almost everyone waits someone he will run, if only because a state party that censured Sinema would be highly unlikely to pave the way for him.
Matt Grodsky, former communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party, said party activists would likely have to vote on a measure not to contest the election, as Utah Democrats did this year, when they decided not to run a candidate and endorse the independent Evan McMullin. instead. Grodsky doesn’t see that happening. “They are going to have a candidate in the field,” he said. At least.
A major anti-Sinema group—Replace Sinema PAC, formerly Primary Sinema PAC—has stated that it will not endorse any candidate in a Democratic primary. They plan to continue with content focused on criticizing Sinema’s record in the new year. Spokesman Sacha Haworth, a former Sinema staffer, said the group had its best fundraising period since the Dobbs The decision came out and she reiterated her opposition to ending the filibuster in the Senate.
If Sinema decides to run, her path to the November 2024 election will not be easy, even if she has effectively bypassed a primary.
Arizona law makes it difficult for independent candidates to appear on the ballot. Doing so requires collecting 43,000 voter signatures, more than six times the number a major party candidate must collect. In reality, Sinema likely needs to gather many more, given the typical rejection rate of signatures on political petitions.
“It is unprecedented to secure the number of signatures it would take to get on the ballot,” Grodsky said. “She has the money and time to do it, sure, but that’s a big gamble.”
Democrats will also be paying close attention to the emerging field of Republican candidates, as many feel their biggest chance at the seat will come if Republican voters behave as they did in this midterm year.
In 2022, Arizona Republicans nominated a statewide slate of far-right candidates over more established primary opponents, and all lost. Given the state party’s sway to the right, Democrats aren’t exactly betting that Republican voters will take the right course in 2024. The candidate they fear perhaps most is outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey, but his relationship with the Republican base is so bitter that it’s doubtful he could survive a primary.
Lake Kari, the former far-right television journalist who lost the gubernatorial race this year is reportedly encouraging Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb to run for the Senate. Lamb, a far-right Trump Republican who called the January 6 protesters “very loving Christian people,” is exactly the type of candidate Democrats believe would lead them to victory in a three-way race.
But even if the Republicans nominate a more formidable candidate, Sinema’s detractors in the Democratic Party say there is too much risk in the supposedly safer option of supporting 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 love his politics. Now, he would fight hard to harness any grassroots energy after four years of alienating not just progressives, but most of the mainstream Democrats in the state.
“No one denies that running for a Democrat carries risks,” Greenberg said. “What’s not being fully evaluated is consolidating behind not just someone the left doesn’t like, but someone who has actively courted the fury of the entire Democratic Party.”
“The closer you get to the ground in Arizona, the hotter the fury of the people who spent an enormous amount of time helping her get elected in 2018,” she continued. “This is the final stage of a betrayal that has been ongoing for a long time.”