Former friends and foes unsurprised by Sinema’s defection from Democratic Party

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced Friday morning that she was leaving the Democratic Party, a move that was not surprising to political observers and longtime former allies and foes of the senior senator who are now looking ahead to 2024. 

“Clearly, it gets her out of the worst place she could possibly be, which is a Democratic primary, and vaults her straight into a general election,” Chuck Coughlin, CEO and president of political consulting firm HighGround, told the Arizona Mirror. 

Sinema, who has a considerable war chest of campaign funds still at her disposal, would need 43,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot if she were to run as an independent candidate in 2024. 

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Taking on Sinema will be an uphill battle for both Democratic and Republican candidates, in Coughlin’s opinion, as numbers of unaffiliated voters in the state continue to grow and show an affinity for splitting their tickets for candidates from multiple parties. 

“I’ve never seen those unaffiliated voters go to (a) hardcore partisan,” Coughlin said. “I call them pragmatic voters — they just want sh*t to get done. They want government to work, they want things to get done.” 

In Sinema’s Friday announcement, she posted a video and op-ed in AzCentral stating she wants to be an “independent voice” and decrying the partisan nature of Washington, D.C. Coughlin and others see this as a move that will help her if she intends to run in 2024. 

“We always knew that she was calculating, and I think we are only seeing the latest label that she has found to suit her purposes,” Sacha Haworth, senior advisor to the Change for Arizona 2024 PAC, told the Mirror. Haworth worked as Sinema’s campaign communications director in 2018 but recently joined the PAC. 

The “rebrand and rename” only proves their points about Sinema and is pushing them harder to elect a “real Democrat” in 2024, Haworth said. 

“She calculated that she would run as an independent,” Haworth said. 

That idea was echoed by a former colleague and friend of Sinema’s from her days as a state lawmaker. 

David Schapira, a former Democratic state legislator who ran in a three-way primary against Sinema in 2012 in a bid for Congress, said Sinema’s ambition is all-consuming. 

“Whatever move for political expediency she can make, she will make. This is just the latest in a long line,” Schapira said, noting that she had been a member of the Green Party before becoming a Democrat. 

“She’s not crazy, she’s not stupid. She’s a brilliant person, and she’s very calculating. She’s methodical and she has a plan,” Schapira said. “If the polling says she can win a three-way race as an independent, that’s what she will do.”

And some of the polling might show just that. 

According to Coughlin, an independent Sinema may help Republicans’ chances of retaking the Senate seat — but it helps her more than anyone else. 

Because, as Coughlin explains, to win a statewide office, a Republican or Democratic candidate generally needs 90% of their party voters plus a good number of unaffiliated voters. However, Sinema wouldn’t necessarily need those same percentages. 

Sinema would likely need 30% of voters from both parties and 70% of unaffiliated voters to achieve victory in the state. Coughlin predicts that she would lose Democratic stronghold Pima County and many other rural counties but would need to hold Maricopa, something Coughlin sees as feasible. 

“This is the best cycle for her to do this in,” Coughlin said, adding that presidential election cycles have higher turnout for unaffiliated voters. 

Another factor is who Republicans nominate. If they choose a MAGA candidate, unaffiliated voters will be unlikely to choose that candidate, Coughlin said, as was demonstrated by MAGA candidate losses for statewide offices in the recent midterm election

Calls are already being made for Republican Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb to run. Lamb has engaged in a litany of election denialism, including partnering with “2000 Mules” associated True the Vote and the right-wing Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.

Republican PR consultant Barrett Marson is more confident about Republican chances if Sinema seeks reelection. 

“A reasonable conservative Republican will win that seat in a three-way race,” Marson said. “A three-way race with Sinema makes it much more likely that a Republican sits in the U.S. Senate, come 2025.”

Marson said as long as Arizona Republicans “leave 2020” and 2022 behind, the GOP have a chance of retaking the Senate seat in 2024 — but a MAGA election denialist candidate will likely hand the seat to either Sinema or the Democrats. 

Also in play are independent voters. While their numbers won’t secure a win for Sinema by themselves, the segment has emerged as a key player in a swing state defined by close races. Dan O’Neal, the head of the Arizona chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America, expects any future reelection bid to complicate the choices for Republican and independent voters, but not Democrats, who have made clear they won’t support Sinema. 

“I don’t think she’ll get too many Democrats to vote for her,” he said. “I think she’ll be more likely to siphon off Republicans because of her positions and then the Independents are going to have to make a decision: Are they going to go with somebody who is stuck with Wall Street or with the Democratic Party, which is fighting for what Arizonans want?”

Those who oppose Sinema are planning to continue to do so if she decides to run again, and are also planning to support whichever Democratic candidate replaces her. 

David Lucier is one of five veterans who resigned from Sinema’s advisory council last year, citing her opposition to ending the filibuster, which would have made way for landmark voting rights legislation, as one of the reasons behind their refusal to continue backing her. 

For Lucier, Sinema’s party change is simply an extension of her continued failure to live up to the expectations of voters who put her in office and supported her. Her much-touted independence, he said, lies not in her separation from partisan politics, but in her indifference to Arizonans. 

“What makes her independent is that she goes her own way, without regard to her constituency,” he said. 

Lucier will keep joining his fellow Arizonans in calling on Sinema to make the right choices, but he expects she will keep ignoring their pleas. When it comes time to vote, he said, he’ll choose a candidate who will more honestly represent his values in Congress. 

“Should she decide to run again, I will absolutely pursue and look for another candidate that aligns with my values, both as a veteran and an American,” he said. 

At least two prominent Arizona Democrats, U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton have made statements about Sinema, stopping shy of signaling a primary run. 

“[Sinema’s] decision isn’t about a post-partisan epiphany, it’s about political preservation,” Stanton said in a tweet including a screenshot of statewide polling showing Stanton’s popularity over Sinema. 

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