PHOENIX (AP) – Kyrsten Sinema won a Democratic U.S. Senate seat from Arizona for the first time in a generation thanks in no small part to unity in her party and division among Republicans.
That 2018 Democratic unity was on display again in the next two election cycles, as the party took second place in the Arizona Senate and won the top three statewide offices.
But that winning formula is threatened ahead of the 2024 election by Sinema’s estrangement and subsequent divorce from the Democratic Party, which could complicate President Joe Biden’s path to re-election and the party’s hopes of retaining control of the Senate. She registered as an independent shortly after last year’s midterm elections.
Democrats are already expressing concern that a three-way race in which Sinema has picked up votes from both Democrats and independents could give the seat to a Republican like Kari Lake, a failed gubernatorial candidate and one of the nation’s most prominent pro-choice deniers.
“If there was ever a time for him to at least listen to his constituents, it would be now,” said Alex Gomez, executive director of Arizona-based Latino organizing group Living United for Change, which has tangled with Sinema for years. “He needs to get out of here. A potential Curry Lake candidacy represents a clear and present danger to our democracy.”
Sinema has not said whether he will seek re-election, and Lake has not announced a Senate campaign. But there is already a Democratic candidate in the race in U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Latino military veteran who launched his campaign last month after spending years as one of Sinema’s main antagonists.
Gallego says he raised more than $1 million on his first day in the race, capitalizing on pent-up anger at Sinema among Democrats.
The Senate race isn’t the only new sign of the state’s Democratic divide. The Arizona Democratic Party last month held its first election for chairwoman in 12 years, pitting a candidate backed by Gov. Katie Hobbs against a candidate supported by most of the state’s other elected Democrats.
The party chose longtime union leader Yolanda Bejarano, who was backed by U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, Gallego and others, breaking with the tradition of bowing to the preferences of a Democratic governor. Hobbs said Thursday that she has yet to speak with Bejaran — nearly a week after the election.
The partisan discord in Arizona is reverberating outside the state.
Next year, Democrats, who hold a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate, are defending seats in 23 states — including seven that Donald Trump won at least once. That includes Arizona, where Trump won in 2016 but where Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in more than two decades.
Sinem’s political career began with roots in the progressive left and the anti-war movement. She first ran for office as a Green Party candidate and lost badly, and later won a seat in the state legislature as a Democrat. She transformed herself into a moderate in the US House and parlayed that reputation into a Senate victory.
Her 2018 Senate victory was fueled by a number of factors, including the state’s changing demographics, disdain for Trump among suburban women and Sinema’s spending advantage over Republican Martha McSally.
But McSally’s 2018 campaign strategists placed some of the blame for her loss on Democratic unity behind Sinem and Republican infighting. With the Democrats in lock step, Sinema had the upper hand in the effort to reach out to voters while McSally focused on maintaining the GOP to win the election, campaign officials wrote in a memo that was widely circulated after the election.
When Sinema was sworn in in 2019, Trump was in the White House, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, and Democrats were united in opposition.
But her relationship with the party soured during Biden’s presidency when she teamed up with fellow moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and became an obstacle to parts of the president’s agenda and many progressive priorities.
She is one of the most vocal defenders of the Senate’s filibuster rule, which requires 60 out of 100 votes to pass a majority of bills, and which many Democrats say empowers Republicans to override the will of the Democratic majority.
Sinema says she is focused on making bipartisan deals that can outlast either party’s control of Congress, and points to victories including a major infrastructure bill and protections for same-sex marriage.
Her transformation from liberal rebel to Democratic irritant has left the base feeling angry and betrayed just four years after her victory brought Arizona Democrats in from the cold.
“As long as Sinema is off the team, that’s all that matters,” said Dave Crose, a 67-year-old retired mechanical engineer from Sun City who voted for Sinema in 2018 but became disillusioned with her. “It’s a bad thing to say, but she screwed up everyone in the state, so the payoff is her hell.”
For the Democrats, who have been excluded from the halls of power for a long time, the victory was enough to divide the papers ideologically, but now they have shown that they can win and it was not a coincidence.
“When you have power, everybody wants a piece and there’s actually a lot to fight about,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican political consultant in Phoenix who has ties to the party establishment.
One thing Democrats have going for them: Republicans are unlikely to be any less divided than they have been since Trump took over the party in 2016.
With the Sinema vs. Gallego drama raising some uncomfortable questions, Democrats in Arizona and Washington have tried to delay choosing sides.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said after Gallego’s announcement that it was “too early to make a decision” on the 2024 race.
Kelly also declined to get too caught up in the dynamics of a potential three-way race, saying there’s “plenty of time” to work it out.
“I’m not going to preempt Senator Sinema on this,” he told reporters at the Capitol. “I’ll work with both of them.”
However, Hobbs subtly suggested that he would not be supporting his old friend Sinema. Hobbs and Sinema are former social workers who campaigned together for the state legislature a decade ago, Sinema was elected to the Senate and Hobbs to the House.
Congratulating the Arizona Democratic Party’s new leadership team on Twitter, Hobbs wrote that she looked forward to helping the party “reclaim its seats in the US House and Senate.”