Amidst all the disappointment and tribulation of recent days please join me in taking a moment to step back, in a posture of mindful gratitude, to contemplate the fact that Kyrsten Sinema’s career in electoral politics is already over. Yes, the damage she’s already done will be difficult to remedy. She still has three solid years to do yet more damage. And she probably will. But none of that damage, none of the hijinks and characteristic game-playing to come, will or can change her electoral fate. In political terms, she’s already dead senator walking. And the most perplexing but paradoxically delightful part of it is that she doesn’t even seem to realize it yet.
How can I be so sure she’s a goner in such an uncertain time and in a reelection campaign almost three years away? It’s not just the increasingly likely primary challenge, which could end her Senate career on its own. Her problem runs much deeper. She has already made herself essentially unelectable, whether her quest for reelection ends in a primary or the general election.
Let’s start with the scenario most people think about: a primary challenge. It’s hard to topple an incumbent, even an unpopular one, especially in a state where the party doesn’t have any margin of error. But her support in Arizona is so catastrophically low that losing a primary is totally plausible. A November poll by OH Predictive Insights found that an astonishingly high 72% of Arizona Democratic voters want a senator other than Kyrsten Sinema. Only 26% favor her. It’s hard to convey how bad those numbers are. The pollster tested three plausible primary challengers and each would beat her handily. Those numbers were from November before she helped tank the Build Back Better bill. A mid-January poll by Civiqs showed her favorability among Democrats had fallen to an almost unimaginably bad 8%, with 80% viewing her unfavorably. In other words, there’s a very good chance Sinema will lose a Democratic primary.
But the primary isn’t her only and maybe not even her biggest hurdle.
It’s not like Sinema’s 2024 reelection was going to be easy even if 2021 had never happened. Arizona may be trending purple. But it still has more Republicans than Democrats. The necessary condition for any statewide victory for a Democrat is a united and energized Democratic party. Once you have that you also need to add significant Republican cross-over support and support from independents. But the unified and energized party support is a sine qua non. She certainly didn’t have that. It goes without saying that she doesn’t have that now. And, as I’ll explain, there’s basically no chance of her ever getting that back.
Even if Sinema were to battle her way to victory in a Democratic primary it would be a pyrrhic one. It would only deepen and highlight the divisions among Arizona Democrats. The fight would necessarily be against a challenger more firmly identified with the Democratic party and priorities. So it would force Sinema to highlight the traits and actions that have already spoiled her relationship with her own party. It’s always hard to unify a party after a hard-fought primary. For her it would be impossible. She stands a very good chance of being defeated in a primary and she’s just not able to unify her party behind her in a way that makes a general election victory plausible even if she won a primary.
“But Josh,” you say, “can’t she just run as an independent?”
As near as can be discerned this seems to be her plan. Either run formally as an independent or as the nominal Democratic nominee with a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans. Joe Lieberman did that successfully in 2006 and Lisa Murkowski did a version of it in 2010 as a write-in candidate.
Couldn’t Sinema do the same? Almost certainly not.
The first reason is that you can really only pull this off in a state heavily weighted toward the candidate making the independent run. Connecticut is a very Democratic state just as Alaska is a very Republican one. Connecticut Republicans know winning a Senate seat is a longshot at best. So they were willing to let Lieberman run as the de facto Republican candidate in part out of partisan score settling and partly to get the most conservative candidate available. The same dynamic worked for Murkowski. Obviously Sinema doesn’t have that advantage. Lots of Republicans want that seat for themselves and the state’s Republican voters, not unreasonably, think they can win it all on their own. They don’t need any help from a turncoat Democrat.
The second reason is that it’s not 2006 anymore. Ned Lamont’s primary challenge, though successful, was still a fairly niche, Netrootsy affair – mostly focused on Lieberman’s hawkish foreign policy views and cozy relations with Republicans. His actual voting record on most issues was fairly conventionally Democratic. And most of the state’s Democrats didn’t have a real beef with him. Today is a vastly more politicized age. We know this from every measure of political involvement. Sinema hasn’t simply failed to be a loyal Democrat or hew to some ideological line. She has positively basked in the glow of cratering President Biden’s whole legislative agenda. She’s truly embraced it. If you are a Democratic who is even vaguely focused on politics you know that. What’s more, if you are a Democrat who is disappointed at what Democrats have failed to accomplish in 2021 (and likely 2022) Sinema has all but invited every Democrat to put the blame on her. Yes, they blame Joe Manchin too. But most recognize that he comes from an extremely pro-Trump state. So there’s at least some logic to it. The very inexplicableness of Sinema’s behavior focuses blame on her. And the intensification of US politics over the last decade makes it basically impossible for her to cover.
“But Josh,” you say, “maybe she’ll just become a Republican!”
Well, good luck with that. Some people say she’ll have the last laugh if she just switches parties and throws the Senate into GOP hands even before the 2022 election. That’s entirely possible, given her reported egomania. But while she can become a Republican she can’t win reelection as a Republican. Sinema is pro-choice. She’s affirmatively irreligious. She’s openly bisexual. On virtually every hot-button culture-war issue she has standard Democratic positions. There’s no place for her in the GOP and no way to win a Republican primary. Perhaps Mitch McConnell might offer to clear the field for her in exchange for making him Majority Leader. But it’s just not in his power to do. There’s a backlog of Arizona Republicans who want that seat. They’re not going to stand aside to let her take the seat as a Republican. And the state’s Republican voters won’t either.
To the extent we can understand what she’s thinking, Sinema’s model has been to be the new John McCain. She has repeatedly invoked his model as her own – the maverick who bucked his party but had cross party support. It’s a model that the DC lobbyist set has spun her on as well. What she never seems to have grasped is that McCain never bucked his party on the big stuff. The single example was with Obamacare repeal when he knew he had only months to live. McCain also had a powerful personal myth which, even if you think it was overblown, was based on genuine heroism and suffering. That gave him a reservoir of good will across the political spectrum that gave him substantial room to maneuver politically. Sinema has none of that. She’s just a newcomer who, quite impressively, fought her way to a Senate seat on the shoulders of a generation of Arizona Democratic activists. She simply has no reservoir of good will to fall back on. And the numbers I’m citing came before Sinema helped tank the Build Back Better bill and supported Republicans in protecting the filibuster.
Arizona Republicans are loving watching Sinema cripple Joe Biden’s presidency. And she actually has strikingly high favorability among in-state Republicans – 48%, according to that poll. But when asked who they’d prefer as senator a mere 21% said her. This is obvious to anyone who understand politics. And the numbers bear it out if there’s any question.
“But Josh,” you say, “Independents must love Sinema! She’s so independent!”
Well, not really. Sinema is actually very unpopular with Arizona independents. She’s less popular with them than with Democrats or Republicans! (You’ve got to work at it to do this badly.) Most notable is that Sinema’s numbers tanked with Arizona independents right at the same time they did with Democrats: when she came out of the gate last January positioning herself as the thorn in the side of President Biden’s agenda. Some independents may not be as progressive or partisan-identified as Democrats. But they don’t seem to see any logic or value in Sinema’s actions either. The numbers tell a clear story: no one likes anything Sinema is doing except for people invested in hurting Democrats. And that is a role she can play for Republicans, paradoxically, only as long as she remains a Democrat.
The most generous way to look at her is as the Democratic Liz Cheney, beloved by Republicans for sticking it to her own party but not someone they’d ever vote for in an actual campaign. And even this comparison does a real disservice to Cheney who, for all her retrograde politics, is pretty clearly acting out of principle.
The best rejoinder, really the only rejoinder, to everything I’ve said above is that three years is a long time. As I’ve argued above, it’s not long enough. The depth of the country’s politicization and her own fulsome embrace of wrecking Democratic hopes just makes the enmity from Democrats too entrenched. But there’s another more specific dimension of her problem. Three years is a long time, and the logical thing for someone in Sinema’s position would be to start championing some issues or bills Democrats care about. But here’s the problem. Even if Democrats maintain control of the Senate next year they’re likely to lose control of the House. That means actual legislating is on hold until 2025. To date, Sinema has shown no inclination to repair any of the damage. But if she were to, championing and passing popular legislation would be the obvious and possibly only path to doing so. But that window is probably closing. Another politician could do that from the minority, railing against Republican opposition and obstruction. But from Sinema such a stance would be parodic and basically absurd.
Not that any of this is great news for Democrats. Sinema has done immense damage without any clear or meaningful justification or benign intent. Her antics have created a situation where it will be quite difficult for any Democrat to hold that seat in 2024. But Sinema herself is done. She’s boxed herself without even quite seeming to know it, high on her own supply of McCainite fantasies and lobbyist fluffing. There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon in which a guy has jumped off a skyscraper and half way down a guy in an office he’s flying by asks him, “How’s it going?” To which he jauntily replies, “So far so good!” That captures the reality of Sinema’s political present and future. That’s accountability. And in that I take some solace and more than a little joy.