Sinema exit ramps up Arizona Senate race and battle for critical centrist vote

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (I-AZ) decision not to seek reelection to the Senate puts Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), the likely Democratic nominee, and Kari Lake, who is the front-running Republican candidate, on the fast track for a two-way race in Arizona.

Immediately following the news of Sinema’s retirement, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the leader of the GOP Senate campaign arm, declared the development would improve Lake’s opportunity to flip the seat. 

Senate Republicans had been nervous about the possibility of a three-way race between Lake, Sinema, and Gallego after polling suggested Sinema could siphon away twice as many Republican voters as Democrats in a state that is 34% Republican, 34% independent, and 30% Democratic, according to Arizona data. Lake is still facing a primary against Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, but she is seen as an overwhelming front-runner.

“An open seat in Arizona creates a unique opportunity for Republicans to build a lasting Senate majority this November,” Daines said in a statement. “With recent polling showing Kyrsten Sinema pulling far more Republican voters than Democrat voters, her decision to retire improves Kari Lake’s opportunity to flip this seat.”

However, many Democrats believe Sinema’s exit could ultimately benefit Gallego, who is lesser known in the state and may attract a more centrist voter who can swing elections in the Grand Canyon State.

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“Moderate voters have only one vote in this race, and it’s Ruben Gallego because he does not represent this destructive brand of politics,” said Jon Sutton, who runs a Democratic firm in Arizona. “I don’t think Ruben Gallego is scared of Kari Lake, Kyrsten Sinema, or anybody else. I think it’s fair to say, are Democrats excited to run heads-up against Kari Lake one to one? Absolutely.”

With Sinema now out of the race, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who had remained neutral in the race, endorsed Gallego, as did the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm. 

“Ruben Gallego will bring the Arizona values and dedication to service he’s practiced throughout his life to the Senate — we are fully behind his candidacy and look forward to winning this race with him in 2024 and defeating Kari Lake,” Schumer said in a statement.

Following Sinema’s announcement, both Lake and Gallego praised the independent senator’s work, attempts to win over centrist voters who had supported her, before criticizing each other, previewing their lines of attack that will be front and center in the general election. Both party nominees will continue to claim the other side is too extreme.

“Ruben Gallego would be a radical departure from the representation we have had in Arizona,” Lake’s campaign said in a statement. “He votes with Joe Biden 100 percent of the time, supported the Iran Deal, sanctuary cities, defunding the police, and voting rights for everyone pouring across the border.”

Gallego’s team called Lake’s positions “dangerous,” referring to abortion access policies and “defending our democracy,” and called on voters to reject her candidacy in the election. 

“Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike are coming together to reject Kari Lake and her dangerous positions. I welcome all Arizonans, including Senator Sinema, to join me in that mission,” Gallego’s campaign said in a statement. 

The race to replace Sinema could decide control of the Senate, where Democrats have a narrow majority of 51 to 49. After Democrats conceded they will likely lose their seat in West Virginia, with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) announcing his retirement last year, the seat in Arizona has become even more critical. The race between Lake and Gallego is considered a tossup by the Cook Political Report

“The biggest question is, who is going to have the most convincing argument to close those independent voters? Lake has been trying to do that and trying to structure a narrative that is broader than her MAGA base — I would say that has been less than convincing with most voters,” said Chuck Coughlin, a longtime political consultant at High Ground Consulting in Phoenix.

Coughlin, who used to work for the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), said he believes “McCain’s revenge” will endure throughout the state — even though Lake has attempted to walk back some of her prior criticism of the beloved Arizona senator. 

During her gubernatorial bid, Lake bragged that she “drove a stake through the heart of the McCain machine” and even called for repealing Obamacare at a campaign event in Scottsdale in 2022, slamming the late Arizona senator who voted “no” on his party’s effort to repeal it in 2017. Last cycle, Lake repeatedly attacked the legacy of the senator, who is well respected in the state among centrists.

“Most of the electorate is 50 and older, and the senator’s legacy does still have resonance with people and it would be a way to look at it — who is going to get the last laugh from the grave,” Coughlin said with a laugh.

Lake has attempted to court centrist Republicans she attacked when she ran for governor last cycle. Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in Arizona, said he believes that mission would be more effective if she made those overtures more publicly, instead of inside private meetings.

“In front of your 2,000 rabid fans at a rally, tell them you were wrong about John McCain — say you didn’t always agree on policy but that he was a hero. Start telling your supporters directly, then you could start winning over the moderates and right-leaning independents probably,” Marson said.

At the moment, Marson said he believes Sinema’s decision to retire is most beneficial to Gallego, pointing to recent polling averages. However, he conceded it’s too early to know definitively. 

“The election is a long eight months from now — the biggest question is do the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] and [Senate Leadership Fund] and people like that, do they come in and spend whether it is to back Kari or to just hammer Gallego for being so liberal. If those groups come in and spend $10 [million], $20 million like they did for Martha McSally, that could be a game changer,” Marson said.

Lake was seen on Capitol Hill on Tuesday meeting with senators. Top Senate Republicans are slated to attend a fundraiser for Lake as the party looks to coalesce around her ahead of November. Speaking with reporters, the former local news anchor presented herself as a future lawmaker who could be interested in working with lawmakers on either side of the aisle. 

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“I’m here to meet with every Republican senator. There are a few Democrats who want to meet with me. I’m not afraid to sit down with people I disagree with,” Lake said. 

“We have to get to the point as Americans where we can come face to face with people who disagree with us and find something we have in common,” she added. “I think that even a few of the Democrats, we can agree, we love our country. Some, I don’t know, Ruben Gallego, I’m not sure.”

David Sivak contributed to this report

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