Don't count out Sen. Kyrsten Sinema just yet

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., attends a roundtable discussion on border policy at the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton, Ariz., on Jan. 10, 2023.
U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., attends a roundtable discussion on border policy at the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton, Ariz., on Jan. 10, 2023.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

With Ruben Gallego’s entry into Arizona’s Senate race, it appears the political obituary of the senator he seeks to succeed is all but written.

RIP, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

So say the pollsters and most of the state’s political consultant class, people who believe Sinema’s December departure from the Democratic Party was a death blow to her reelection prospects.

And yet, of late, there are three additional letters I’ve begun hearing around town.

NSF. Not so fast.

“I think she’s absolutely going to run,” said longtime consultant Chuck Coughlin, a former Republican who (like a lot of Arizonans) became an independent in 2017. “If she could get 20 to 25% of the Democratic and Republican vote and 60% of independents, that’s 43% of a statewide race. That’s a win.”

This doesn't sound like a senator giving up

Early polls suggest that’s a fantasy. She trails badly in a three-way race with Gallego and Republican Kari Lake.

“I don’t think there is a scenario where she is going to win a three-way race,” Democratic lawyer Roy Herrera, who has joined the Gallego campaign, told me.

That’s certainly the conventional wisdom.

And yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that Sinema thinks she can eke out a win.

Another view:Ruben Gallego has the resume to win Sinema's seat

While Gallego was releasing a video announcing his Senate run on Monday, Sinema was releasing a video from her meeting last week with a group of Valley mayors and business leaders, one in which they sung her praises.

“I’m here to get things done,” she told them. “And that’s, as you all know, that’s what I’ve been doing over the last 20 years and it’s what I’m going to continue doing. The bipartisan victories that I was lucky enough to shepherd through as lead author in the last Congress include the bipartisan infrastructure law, securing a cleaner and safer water future for Arizona, I also helped shepherd through the Chips and Science Act.”

That doesn’t sound like a senator who’s giving up, as I earlier thought she might.

Kyrsten Sinema can win, but it'll be tough

But can she win?

“She could run and win,” Republican consultant Marcus Dell’Artino told me. “If Jupiter aligns with Neptune and the stars all work, there’s a pathway. It’s just not an easy pathway.”

For those stars to align, Sinema needs a couple of things to happen:

1. Big money needs to come her way

Contributions from Democratic voters long ago dried up, given Sinema’s stances, among other things, opposing a minimum wage increase, protecting a tax break on private equity earnings and supporting the filibuster.

In response, corporate PACs and hedge fund managers and pharmaceutical interests have thrown money at her campaign. If they keep pitching it her way, she’ll have the money to be a player.

If that happens, Democratic leaders will have to weigh who to support. Consider Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's comment on Tuesday, when asked whether he would back the Democrat in Arizona or the Democrat-turned-independent.

"Sen. Sinema is an excellent Congress member and Senate member, and she has done a lot of good things here. But it's much to early to make a decision," he replied.

Granted, he's got to work with Sinema for the next two years. But he could have just said no comment.

2. Gallego must stay in the left lane

Gallego’s strategy is to galvanize young Arizonans, Latinos, veterans and fellow progressives. But his election also depends upon convincing moderate Arizonans to get behind him.

Though Arizona voted for Biden in 2020 and has two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor, it would be a mistake to see us as a blue state just yet. We are more black-and-blue, from two years of Kari Lake and Kelli Ward and Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar and Mark Finchem and Wendy Rogers and all of the far-right fanatics who cannot get over the 2020 election.

There’s a reason why Sinema and Sen. Mark Kelly played to the middle in their Senate campaigns. There’s a reason why Janet Napolitano (who also played to the middle) became governor and David Garcia (“Just imagine … no wall in southern Arizona.”) didn’t.

Sinema, if she runs, won’t be imagining anything other than how to attract votes from independents and moderates in both parties.

She’ll be highlighting her role in forging the Chips and Science Act, investing $52 billion to spur domestic semiconductor manufacturing; the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill; and in Biden’s landmark tax, health care and energy bill.

Even now, she’s working on a bipartisan plan to secure the border, reform our immigration laws and get citizenship for dreamers. It won’t pass but it will get noticed on the campaign trail.

3. Then there's the Biden factor

To win a second term, Biden needs to win Arizona. That means he’ll need the support of the moderate Republicans and independents who delivered him the state in 2020.

It doesn’t seem logical that he can come Arizona and tout his congressional victories without acknowledging Sinema’s hand in negotiating those deals.

“So how does his calculation play into that race if he’s got to play to moderate voters?” asked one Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of not being named so as not to take sides just yet in the Gallego-Sinema fight. “I can’t answer that right now. But if Biden is running again, he has to look at Arizona as a state he has to hold onto and how do you do that: By supporting a left-wing Democrat or a centrist independent?”

4. Republicans must reup their MAGA game

Having now lost both Senate seats, the governorship and several other key statewide offices, you might think Republicans voters would forgo another Trump-backed candidate in an effort to actually win something.

You’d likely be wrong about that.

Look at this weekend’s state GOP convention, where grassroots Republicans will elect a successor to the disaster that was state GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward. The most talked-about candidates: a pair of America Firsters (Steve Daniels and the Lake- and Finchem- and Ward-endorsed Jeff DeWit) who will battle it out for control of the party.

Granted, it's more a bully pulpit than a power seat, but wouldn't you think, after the calamities of the past few years, Republicans would be marching back from the fringe, to normalcy?

If they want to win, they’ll nominate somebody like Rep. Juan Ciscomani or Karrin Taylor Robson or perhaps even Doug Ducey.

Instead, most GOP strategists I talk to seem resigned to another MAGA mess. (“How many times do you have to kick a mule before he gets the message?” one lamented. “Apparently, more than three times.”)

It's too early to count Sinema out

The secret sauce in Gallego’s campaign is having to run against someone like Kari Lake or Blake Masters. Go up against a far-right fanatic and let the magic happen.

But Sinema invented that recipe in 2018, becoming the first Democrat to snag a Senate seat in Arizona in 30 years. Can she recreate it, without the progressive Democratic base as a prime ingredient?

It’s far too early to tell.

But it’s also far too early to count her out.

Reach Roberts at laurie.roberts@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurieRoberts.

Support local journalism: Subscribe to azcentral.com today.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema could run for Senate and win again. Here's how