Kyrsten Sinema’s Final Senate Term

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September 20, 2021 1:21 p.m.

Like many people I spent a lot of time trying to figure out Kyrsten Sinema’s motivations this year. I’ve discussed my conclusions in other posts. But what I’ve focused on more recently is that as near as I can see, unless she shifts her stance pretty dramatically the odds of Sinema being elected to a second Senate term in 2024 are pretty poor. And that’s made me consider another question: does she just misread the politics of her situation that badly or is she not planning on running?

I know I’ve thrown out a few pretty dramatic claims. So let me walk you through my reasoning. Because I think it’s pretty solid.

2020 was the last election cycle in which it was possible to run for Senate as a Democrat and support retaining the legislative filibuster in something like its current form. That may not apply in West Virginia. But I’m pretty sure it applies in the 49 other states. Sure, not every Democrat cares a lot about the filibuster. Some don’t know what it is. But certainly among active politically engaged Democrats it is close to the central issue of politics. And it’s really not a left-right thing. It’s that central because pretty much whatever your big issue is it’s the filibuster that stands in the way – whether it’s climate, jobs and fiscal policy, choice, immigration, labor. Anything and everything.

I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on the dynamics of Democratic primaries. And I think the debate in which you say that you support the filibuster because we’ve all got to come together and bipartisanship … well, I think that’s the day your campaign ends.

Some incumbents might be able to slip through with some weasel words. But basically 48 senators are down with some kind of significant reform of the filibuster. So even that isn’t really much of an issue.

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So that’s my premise and I think it’s a strong, almost inarguable one.

But she’s an incumbent and Dems can’t spare any Senate seats, you say. Absolutely. And those who know me will know I virtually never favor primarying incumbents. Why? Because the things that get partisans mad at them are almost always things they’re doing because they know their districts or states. My view of that isn’t right or wrong. It’s mostly characterological. But in any case, it’s not relevant because it’s not up to me.

Given what has already happened and especially if infrastructure, democracy protection, immigration and a lot else goes down in flames, it seems like a moral certainty that Sinema will face a primary challenger and I think she’ll have a run for her money at best.

Let’s walk through this.

Let’s say things more or less come together on infrastructure but voting rights and a bunch of other stuff goes down in flames. She and Joe Manchin will be the main reasons for that. How well will Sinema be able to sell that record in a Democratic primary? I wouldn’t want to be in charge of running that campaign. What’s her argument exactly? This is wildly more so if her antics crater this infrastructure package.

Now, does she win that primary? It’s really hard to knock off an incumbent. So I figure she probably does – depending on who challenges her. But primaries aren’t free. Any political professional will tell you that an incumbent who goes into a general election after a bruising and hard fought primary goes into a general election with real problems. That’s not so bad if you’re from a blue state. But Arizona is not a blue state. It’s purple and even that is pretty new and tenuous.

So there you go. I’m not saying she can’t win a second term. But the odds seem long to me. I mean, even if she were the most popular Democrat in the country that would be a challenging race.

Now the best rejoinder to this is, ‘Josh, please, that’s three years from now, an eternity in politics.’ No doubt. But some memories don’t fade quickly. It’s certainly possible that she ends up shifting and helps pass some key legislation in this Congress. Maybe infrastructure/reconciliation comes together and then she sees the light on the filibuster and a democracy bill passes. That all shifts things pretty significantly. But if there’s some reason to think that’s going to happen … well, I’d love to see it.

Maybe we’ll be worrying about other things after the midterm and 2023 is a new reality. Maybe. But like I said, I think there are a ton of Democrats around the country and I suspect in Arizona too for whom this has all been a pretty searing experience. And there are two people who own it – one of whom is Kyrsten Sinema. There’s also a decent chance that Democrats will have lost control of Congress. So what didn’t get done in 2021 and 2022 can’t happen until 2025 at the earliest and maybe not even then. It just seems to me that a lot of Democrats will be looking for someone to blame. And the best option for who to blame is the person who actually is to blame: Kyrsten Sinema.

Now what about Joe Manchin? Why does he get a pass?

Well, obviously he doesn’t get a pass. But Manchin is in a very, very different position. First of all he’s 74. It’s not certain he’ll even run again in 2024. And any Democrat who has a clue knows that he is the only Democrat who can hold a Senate seat in West Virginia. Donald Trump got 69% of the vote there in 2020. 69%!!!! Manchin may suck and he may drive you crazy. But all his actions have a strong logic given his state. And clearly he has years of goodwill built up there. Primarying Joe Manchin would be a joke and if somehow you managed to beat or damage him you lose the seat anyway.

None of this applies to Kyrsten Sinema. There’s little about Sinema that makes her uniquely suited to hold or win a Senate seat from Arizona. The fact that she accomplished it is a big deal – the first in a generation. But Mark Kelly managed it two years later. I also don’t have the sense that she’s uniquely popular among Democratic activists or elected officials in the state. I could go through various ways of looking at this. But Joe Manchin is sui generis as a Democrat in West Virginia. Kyrsten Sinema just isn’t that in Arizona at all.

Another rejoinder is that there’s a lot of people in Arizona who find Trump and Trumpism toxic but also really don’t want the government spending $3.5 trillion on lots of government programs. I think there’s a relatively small slice of the electorate in that category. But even a few percentage points is the margin of victory or defeat. So in a general election, sure. But you have to get to the general election through a primary. And what’s more, in a state like Arizona for a Democrat to win they’ve got to have the whole Democratic coalition united. United and pumped. Again, that’s hard for me to see. And that’s why I don’t see her getting a second term.

Can she not see this? Does she figure she cleans up the mess in the last two years of her term? Is she not planning on running again? My best guess is that it’s a mix of options one and two. But I really have no idea. Even now, having laid out my argument above, even I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah … But look, Josh: You’re going to be rereading this post in January 2025 when she’s sworn in because these things just work out even if it’s not entirely clear in advance how they will.’ But ‘it’ means her fending off a primary challenge and then getting the backing of a pumped up and united state Democratic party. How does that happen? I don’t see it. And maybe she doesn’t either. A really neat and economical explanation for all this is that she does not plan on running for a second term.

I can’t makes sense of her motivations. But I do feel like I have a sense of Democratic primary electorates and what a candidate needs to do to win in a closely divided purple states. And neither makes me think she has a political future, at least as a Democrat, after 2024.

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