Let me share a few more thoughts on the post from yesterday on Kyrsten Sinema from TPM Reader GT. And here I am not talking about the substantive impact of her stance. I’m talking purely about her own political future, self-aggrandizement, etc.
It makes perfect sense for someone like Sinema to carve out a centrist niche in the Senate. Arizona is purple but just barely, at least for now. It just voted for Biden and now has two Democratic Senators. But Sinema, who was only elected in 2018, is the state’s first Democratic Senator since Dennis DeConcini. He retired in 1994 but he was first elected all the way back in 1976, almost 45 years ago. Arizona may be trending blue but it’s just at the beginning of the trend.
What I take that to mean is that there are likely a lot of independent voters who find the current GOP toxic and are looking for a not-GOP option while still being at best ambivalent about a lot of the ambitions currently animating the national Democratic party. So it makes a lot of sense to carve out a position as a Democrat who isn’t a lockstep vote for the party leadership and is focused on keeping things “commonsense” rather than taking the lead of AOC or whatever other scare character is big on Fox News at the moment. You oppose Democrats on some things and often try to rein them in a bit.
The problem is that Sinema has managed this mission with all the finesse and canniness of a freight train running through a house. She hasn’t so much been a thorn in the side of the White House as … well, as a freight train going through the White House. She’s repeatedly expressed what can only be called a contempt for her fellow Democrats and their hopes and has basically, along with Joe Manchin, blocked most of the party’s agenda from even coming to a vote. She’s not so much nudging things to the right or the center as just blocking almost everything.
I’m sure there’s a non-trivial number of Arizonans who voted for her who are pretty happy with that. As I said, they got not-GOP, not-Trump. But they didn’t necessarily want Bernie’s revolution or a bunch of Democratic spending. They just want the crazies to go away. That’s exactly what Sinema is delivering. She’s keeping the Democrats in line, guaranteeing a not-GOP version of Biden. All good.
The problem is there aren’t that many of those voters. And to succeed politically she needs to hold a lot of those voters and keep Democrats united behind her, if not always perfectly happy with her.
If she can hold on to a united and activated Democratic party and those not-GOP folks she’s golden. And based on GT‘s email that does appear to be her plan. But that’s not what’s actually happened. Indeed, she appears to have dramatically misread the moment. She did not run as this kind of Democrat, though her background in the state legislature and the House gave some hints of what was to come. Arizona Democrats thought they were electing a Democrat, not what they got.
How do the actual numbers at home add up for Sinema? I looked. They’re terrible! Honestly substantially worse than I thought. This mid-July poll from Data for Progress tells the story.
Among Arizona Dems Joe Biden had a 94% approval rating; Mark Kelly had an 85% approval and Sinema had a 54% approval. Within your own party that’s a really, really bad number. And how did she fair with independents? She actually came in behind Biden (44%) and Kelly (45%), though not by much. Sinema was at 40%. When Arizona Democratic primary voters (who can be Dems or independents) were given the options of “I would vote to reelect Kyrsten Sinema” or “I would vote for a different candidate who would get rid of the filibuster” the numbers were basically catastrophic. Sinema got 22% and the unnamed filibuster-buster got 66%.
If we move to the Arizona electorate overall, of Sinema, Biden, Kelly and the Republican Governor Doug Doucey she’s the least popular.
I mean, good lord. Those numbers are terrible. Now, these numbers were from July and they’re from Data for Progress, a group that very much wants Sinema to go back to being a Democrat. So maybe some of the questions are a bit leading. But they’re a legit group. Their numbers are real. In any case, the numbers are so terrible for her that even if question wording nudged things a bit more negative for her they’d still be catastrophic. If anything since then she’s escalated her defiance of her party and the very real chance she could scuttle Joe Biden’s entire presidency. So I doubt they’re any better for her. And there’s a good chance they’re worse.
So what explains all this?
When I talk to people who’ve known Sinema for a long time they talk about her ambition and mutability (not rare in politicians) but also her rigidity. There’s no deftness or nuance. It really seems like she got the idea she’s the next John McCain and that Arizona wants another independent maverick and that playing to DC “moderate” worship is her ticket to power and possibly a future presidential run. But it turns out she’s just too rigid and clumsy to pull it off and she appears to be on course to a one term career in the Senate as a result.
It’s ironic. The one good thing about someone who’s power-hungry and lacking all conviction is that you can rely on them to operate in their own self-interest. She’s pretty clearly miscalibrated. Her actual political self-interest involves a significant though not total repositioning. If only Democrats could convince her on that front everyone could be happy.