Kyrsten Sinema soars in Arizona even as she rankles Democrats in Washington
by David M. Drucker, Senior Political Correspondent| September 30, 2021
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is bolstering her standing with rank-and-file voters in Arizona even as she infuriates local liberal activists and fellow Democrats in Congress.
Sinema this week emerged as a key Democratic obstacle to passage of a $3.5 trillion spending package that includes crucial elements of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” economic agenda. That recalcitrance has sparked grassroots efforts to fund primary challengers against Sinema in 2024, when she is up for reelection, and generated jeers from Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill, who are attempting to seize a rare opportunity to spend trillions on domestic programs.
Sinema appears unmoved, and her dogged opposition to the size and scope of the $3.5 trillion “reconciliation” package is paying dividends back home with Arizona’s politically divided electorate.
“She is super solid and will be a senator for as long as she wants,” said a Republican operative in Arizona, requesting anonymity in order to praise a Democratic elected official. This Republican strategist has seen private polling that pegged the senator’s favorability rating at 58% favorable/32% unfavorable. “She is threading the needle.”
That assessment is supported by the results of a public opinion poll of Arizona voters conducted from Sept. 7–12 by OH Predictive Insights.
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In the survey, Sinema enjoyed a plus-7% favorable rating of 46% favorable/39% unfavorable, putting her in a better position politically than Mark Kelly, the Grand Canyon State’s other Democratic senator. Kelly, who is not blocking the reconciliation package and is not defined as a centrist in the same vein as Sinema, is plus-4%, at 47% favorable/43% unfavorable. Kelly’s favorables with Republican voters and independents were negative-53% and negative-1%, respectively. And Sinema?
She was plus-6% with independents and only negative-9% with Republicans. In a state Biden won by less than 11,000 votes last year and in which heavily populated Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs lean Republican, Sinema’s strategy and the favorable numbers it has led to are a recipe for winning reelection. Of course, Sinema was only plus-26% with Democratic voters, while Kelly, who is up for reelection in 2022, was plus-69%.
Some Democrats believe the goodwill Sinema has brought herself with general election voters has come at the expense of the liberal base, a community she will need in her next Democratic primary. That’s the message a collection of grassroots liberals in Arizona aim to send Sinema with the formation of a group that has started raising money to back Democrats who run against her in the 2024 Senate primary.
“Our message is clear: listen to your base, join your party, back Biden’s agenda, and help remove the filibuster as an obstacle to the urgent legislation Arizonans need,” said Kai Newkirk, a founder of the campaign against Sinema, which calls itself “Either Sinema Votes to End the Filibuster OR We Fund a Primary Challenger.”
Rep. Katie Porter of California revealed the frustration Sinema is fueling among many Democrats in comments to MSNBC that were flagged by Greg Sargent, a liberal Washington Post blogger who is urging “progressives” to resist the senator’s opposition to the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package. “Until Sen. Sinema stops being cute and starts doing her job and leading for the people of Arizona, we’re simply not going to be able to move the president’s agenda forward,” Porter said.
Sinema, 45, won election to the Senate in 2018, narrowly defeating Republican Martha McSally, after serving six years in the House and seven years in the Arizona Legislature. She began her political career as a liberal bomb-thrower but began cultivating the image of a centrist deal-maker as she prepared to run for Senate. It worked. Before Kelly won his seat in 2020, Sinema was the first Democratic senator from Arizona in decades.
Because Sinema operated as a liberal in her early years, some grassroots Democrats feel betrayed by her decision to join centrist Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and block the $3.5 trillion reconciliation spending bill in its current form. They expect it from Manchin; they did not expect it from Sinema. But Democratic operatives who have followed Sinema’s career say this is the senator at her most authentic.
“I think it’s genuine. I have no reason to believe this is a big act,” one Democratic strategist said. “She’s moderate in temperament and in policy, and I think it’s been learned by coming up the ropes in a state that by and large didn’t want to vote for a Democrat.”
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A Republican strategist with experience running races in Arizona has also concluded that Sinema is not putting on an act.
“She is painstakingly and acutely aware of her brand and because of that has much more of an independent streak,” this GOP insider said. “She makes Mark Kelly look like a partisan kitty cat. That only strengthens her reelection and there’s no way that’s lost on her.”
Kaelan Deese contributed to this report.