Absolutely fascinating look at Kyrsten Sinema’s efforts to position herself as an independent in Arizona, possibly formally but definitely in effect. It makes pretty clear she’s not done with politics or angling for a high dollar lobbying gig, as some speculate. She thinks she can be a latter-day McCain and build her political brand on that basis, likely looking for a promotion above the Senate. TPM Reader GT, a registered independent in Arizona, walks us through the view from in-state as well as the mailers he’s been getting on Sinema’s behalf from something called the “Center Forward” PAC run out of New Jersey and chaired by former Alabama Rep. Bud Cramer (D).
I remain pretty confident that Sinema has misjudged the politics. But as GT makes clear, there’s no question she has a plan and is following it in a very considered way.
A little local color for you on your Sinema observations.
(I’ve buried the important point about why she doesn’t really fear a primary deep down in this email, but I promise you’ll get to it eventually).
I moved to Phoenix from the Seattle area about five years ago so have lived through her election and subsequent Senatorial career. I went to the DMV to get a license and ended up registered as a No Party voter because we didn’t register by party affiliations in Washington when I started voting.
The consequences of that are that I get all of the mailings done on her behalf because I am, by registration at least, in the middle of her electoral sweet spot – the coveted Arizona independent.
She believes she has to win independents to win here and so she’s doing what she thinks independents want her to do. There are other factors at play in why she’s doing it in this particular way, certainly, but her election history gives a sense about why
Before the start of her political career as a state legislator and then senator as a Democrat, she was in the Green Party and worked on the Nader campaign. She was extremely negative towards Lieberman and other Democrats who acted like Republicans at times. She lost a couple of races as an independent/non-partisan before winning as a Democrat in a district with a Democratic registration advantage (rare back then and still rare today). In that district, she was proud to be seen as one of the most liberal politicians in the state.
When she ran for Congress, the district had more registered Independents than Democrats and, by a few thousand voters, more Republicans than Independents. She probably shouldn’t have been able to win that district and she certainly couldn’t win it with her past positions. They had to go.
After being called a hippie and a pagan, the experience of that first race pushed her to disassociate herself completely from her earlier policies. She had to create a political persona that could withstand attacks on her younger self.
Using that formula (Blue Dogs, Problem Solver Caucus, etc) allowed her to expand her winning margin in her district and then run for Senate and win. Winning this way and the earlier views she has to continually protect herself against has to drive her political thinking.
When she ran her campaign for Senate, she based it heavily on her rating as a highly “independent” member of Congress and her bi-partisan credentials to get things done for Arizona. It was the core of her campaign and led the campaign to focus the majority of its time and attention on going after the disaffected Flake and McCain voters. “Independent” and “bi-partisan” and “straight talk” were used as coded words for “not a hippie” and “not fiscally liberal” and “successor to John McCain”.
I think the part that she and her team misunderstand about that race is that she didn’t win because of the “independent, bi-partisan” image, but rather because she was up against a really poor candidate who had to lurch far to the right and grovel for Trump’s endorsement to get through the primary. Sinema basically hid from voters during the campaign and the backlash to Trump won her the seat. My view, at least.
My guess is that in her view she is absolutely certain that she won because of the image she crafted over the half a decade she spent as a Congresswoman in DC. There’s no reason for her to change her approach because in all of her electoral races since her first state legislative ones, the independents have been the key to her winning elections. Democrats will vote for her in the general election, even if they hold their noses doing it, so she’s going to do everything possible to appeal to the disaffected Republicans who became Independents during the Trump era.
Your main observation is that her current actions mean she’s not going to run or you think she’ll get primaried. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe she won’t run.
I do think it’s possible she gets primaried, but I don’t think she believes that there’s another Democratic politician in the state that can run against her and win. Statewide, Katie Hobbs is running for governor and if she doesn’t win she’ll be out of politics for a couple of years. Stanton or Gallegos might have a chance, but would have to think really carefully about whether they could win the primary and whether it would be worth giving up their congressional careers to try.
The reason for this is that local election law allows every single Independent to request a primary ballot for either one of the two parties. Whether voting in person or by permanent early voting (mail), they get to vote in one of the two party primaries without changing their permanent party registration. It’s really easy to do so in her view she’s not truly running in a Democratic Party primary. She’s running in a Democratic and Independents primary.
Since she thinks she knows how to win a primary without overwhelming Democratic party support, it’s not an outrageous approach to focus on appealing to Independents. Especially since the Republican Party here has become extravagantly radicalized. It’s run by people who supported and potentially helped plan the January insurrection. The only person who will get through a Republican primary in Arizona will not only have to say they believe in all of that, but they’ll have to give a full-throated defense of it and promise to bring the hammer down on the opposition.
There’s a real chance that the level of radicalization happening here ends up with the Republican Party becoming the minority party. Phoenix is drawing in enough educated professionals who are turned off by this level of crazy that Republicans could start losing Maricopa County every election and there’s almost no way to win statewide office without at least having Maricopa be a draw.
(As an aside, Washington elected lots of statewide Republicans when I was growing up until the party there started running right wing talk show hosts and a candidate who wanted to abolish the education department because a towering God appeared to her on the freeway and told her she had to run for governor.)
The way she’s responded to the complete and utter collapse in her Democratic-leaning support by doubling-down on her “independent” image tends to support the idea that she doesn’t care about losing the Democratic primary because she doesn’t think she needs that many Democrats to win it. There are more registered Independents in Arizona than Democrats so she may be right.
The Center Forward PAC has been running a lot of local radio ads here about her bi-partisanship and the infrastructure bill. I’ve received two mailers in the last two weeks already claiming credit for all that good the bi-partisan infrastructure bill is going to do for the state. Every radio ad and piece of mail even requests that you call and tell her to “keep fighting as an independent voice for Arizona’s economy”. She’s already building that list of independents who she’ll count on to vote for her during the primary.
I think she would probably be more than willing to blow up the reconciliation bill by saying it’s not bi-partisan and she has to do it to save Arizona’s economy, but the one small piece of leverage against her doing that is that the gains from the bi-partisan infrastructure deal are being advertised so heavily for her.
If both bills fail, then there’s a lot of congratulatory advertising that blows up in her face and makes that “independent, bi-partisan who delivers for Arizona” message a lot harder to run on in a few years.
At that point, I think she’d embrace “independents” even more closely since she doesn’t seem like the type to try to mend fences. Then pray that all of the Republican Party primary candidates are such disasters that the independents flood the Democratic primary and enough Democratic party voters go for the incumbent since they know she can win. Safety over a desire for something better gets her over the finish line.
I think she’s badly miscalculated the moment and what she could have been as Arizona changes, but she’s been winning with her approach for over a decade. Don’t expect her to abandon it now.
All of this fits with the picture of Sinema that has been painted by various conversations over recent months with people who know or have observed her. Very ambitious (and in that sense really no different from most politicians) but also fairly nuance-less and wooden in her political playbook. That said, as GT notes, it’s served her pretty well so far. I’ve heard various stories of her fairly dramatically misreading rooms and making jarring or ill-timed comments. My sense is that now she’s just misreading the national room. The ambition part is key to appreciate since some people seem to think she’s bored with the Senate and ready to move on or angling for a high priced lobbying gig. That’s clearly not the case. She’s just as focused on advancement within elected politics as most other pols. The DGAF theory doesn’t fly. She clearly thinks this is her path to national office.