I first heard about Kyrsten Sinema’s party switch this morning and I thought, Holy Crap! I didn’t expect her to join the GOP. This reaction was largely based on my first seeing the Axios headline “Senate Earthquake.” Only it’s not an earthquake and she’s not joining the GOP.
First I saw the key news that she would not caucus with Senate Republicans, and then the real tell — that she will continue to caucus with the Democrats. In other words, she’s going to do the same thing Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine already do with much less drama and preening.
Literally nothing changes. It’s still a 51 to 49 Senate, except the Democrats’ 51 senators are now made up of three nominal independents rather than 2. That ain’t no earthquake.
Far more complicated is the subject we talked about a few weeks ago. What happens in 2024? The first and most obvious thing this does is take a primary challenge off the table if Sinema chooses to run for reelection. (I think that is very much an “if,” which we’ll get to in a moment.) You can’t challenge her in the primary because she’s not running in the primary.
I’ve heard a few people in the Senate say this is a brilliant move because she eliminates the problem of a bitter primary fight with a single stroke. She then dares Democrats to run someone against her. I probably agree that if Sinema wants to run for reelection this is her best move. But that’s only because all her options are terrible.
It is extremely unlikely that Democrats will agree to sit out the race — as they do in Vermont and Maine — to allow her to run against the Republican nominee. Her argument will be: run a nominee and you’re handing the seat to the GOP. Your choice. I don’t think that will cut it as an argument.
It’s possible her Senate colleagues might agree to this. Maybe Chuck Schumer and the head of the DSCC might agree. SenateBrain is a strange and unpredictable thing after all. But I do not think Democratic voters in Arizona or in the rest of the country (for the purposes of fundraising) will go along with that. There are simply too many Democrats who will never support Kyrsten Sinema for anything. In other words, if party leaders want to do that, or feel they have no choice (if they want to hold the Senate) I don’t think they’ll be able to make it stick.
So where does that leave things?
One obvious answer is a three-person race that Republicans win because they hold their voters while Democrats split theirs. But I’m not sure it plays out in quite that way. Sinema is very unpopular in Arizona. One recent poll found that only 37% of Arizonans view her favorably. But those numbers obscure a deeper vulnerability. Usually when a Democrat has a 37% favorability or approval number it’s made up of strong support among Democrats and very low or close to non-existent levels of support from Republicans and independents. But in this AARP poll her overall favorable rate of 37% is matched by only 37% of Democrats viewing her favorably. She’s at 36% with Republicans. But Republicans like her for tormenting her own party. None of them will vote for her against an actual Republican. So in practice that terrible 37% number greatly overstates Sinema’s popularity.
This poll shows Sinema with 41% favorability among independents, her notional base. That’s at least a bit better and suggests some possibility of grabbing the center of the electorate. But many polls have shown her even more unpopular among independents than Democrats. Another recent poll showed Sinema with the strongest support from Republicans, at 43%. That’s compared to 28% of Democrats and 35% of independents.
You can look at different polls. But they all amount to the same thing: Sinema has no actual constituency in Arizona. So in a three person race, how much support does she pull? It’s quite likely she comes in third in that race. And once it’s clear she can’t win her support likely drops further.
Does she want to end her political career pulling 8% in her run for reelection? I doubt it. Then there’s the other side of the equation: can Democrats field a first tier nominee if it looks certain Sinema will insist on being a spoiler?
What I think we’ll see over the course of the next year is essentially a game of chicken. Who blinks first? Regardless, Kyrsten Sinema is not going to be in the Senate in 2025. It’s just a question of which set of facts gets you there.