The incumbent Arizona senator did not reveal her 2024 plans Friday as she announced her departure from the Democratic Party. But political operatives in the Grand Canyon State were debating the uncertain impact of Sinema’s surprising move. Some declared it good news for GOP hopes of flipping her seat, others predicted it was bad news for Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who is mulling a Senate bid, with still others insisting Sinema has improved her reelection prospects.
“This has to buoy Republican hopes for 2024,” said Barrett Marson, a GOP operative in Phoenix. “Whether in a three-way contest between Sinema, Gallego, and a Republican or a straight-up Gallego-Republican race, the prospect of not facing Sinema head to head must make a lot of Republican would-be contenders happy.”
Sinema votes with President Joe Biden on the Senate floor 93.1% of the time, according to tracking from FiveThirtyEight, not far behind freshly reelected Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and his record of 94.8%. But liberals soured on Sinema over the past two years as she used her leverage as one of just 50 Senate Democrats to stall Biden’s signature Build Back Better social spending bill that proposed to spend $3.5 trillion.
Late this past summer, Sinema supported a scaled-down version of the bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, which spends $433 billion and raises $739 billion for government coffers. But the damage to the senator’s standing among Arizona Democrats was already done. She has faced constant haranguing from grassroots Democrats, and Gallego has been preparing for months to challenge Sinema in the 2024 primary. Her prospects of surviving that contest appeared increasingly doubtful.
By becoming an independent, Sinema has eliminated a glaring political obstacle, embracing her brand as a politician who bucks her party and works closely with Republicans. The senator’s viability in a three-way general election, versus a Democrat and a Republican, also would appear uncertain. Arizona is a swing state; she and the Democrat could split the Democratic vote, elevating the Republican. But some in the GOP say Sinema is stronger today than yesterday.
“This is a brilliant move for Sinema,” a Republican strategist in Arizona said, requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “It allows her to maintain her voting habits, but she now can attract more Republicans.”
Whether Arizona Republicans can nominate an electable candidate in 2024 and take advantage of potential Democratic divisions posed by Sinema’s defection is questionable.
The party is dominated by grassroots conservatives loyal to former President Donald Trump. This cycle, influenced by Trump’s endorsements, the GOP nominated Kari Lake for governor and Blake Masters for Senate. Despite Biden’s low job approval ratings and voter anxiety about the economy and public safety, both lost. Masters’s loss to Kelly marked the third consecutive defeat for the GOP in Arizona Senate races since the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was reelected in 2016.
“The only credible candidate would be Ducey — at this point,” a GOP consultant in Arizona said, referring to outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who spurned Republican efforts to recruit him into the 2022 Senate race.
Some political observers are speculating Sinema is signaling she plans to retire in 2024 and is positioning for an independent bid for the White House, although this is far from the consensus view in Arizona. Democrats could care less either way. After Sinema unveiled her exit from the party in a media blitz that included interviews with CNN, Politico, and an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, the state Democratic Party responded by essentially saying “good riddance.”
Gallego also piled on, signaling Sinema’s disaffiliation from the party has not diminished his interest in running for Senate. He told Punchbowl News he was assembling a campaign team even as he has yet to make a final decision regarding whether to run.
“Sen. Sinema has fallen dramatically short leaving Arizonans behind,” Arizona Democratic Party Chairwoman Raquel Teran said.
“As a party, we welcome independent voters and their perspectives,” she added. “Sen. Sinema may now be registered as an independent, but she has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans. Sen. Sinema’s party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents.”