Throughout much of 2021, left-of-center political analysts often asked themselves, What is Kyrsten Sinema’s deal? As she battled all year against simple Senate passage of the Build Back Better legislation, and against the filibuster reforms needed to enact other Biden priorities like voting rights, it became quite the parlor game. Sinema’s Democratic partner in Senate obstruction, Joe Manchin, had the obvious excuse of representing one of the reddest states in the country. Sinema’s Arizona is a battleground state that is trending blue. The fact that her centrist Arizona Senate colleague Mark Kelly, who is up for reelection this very year, did not follow Sinema down the road to perdition, became a real sign of her extraordinary path off the trail of party orthodoxy.
As Sinema consummated her heresy or apostasy — depending on how you looked at it — with her January 13 speech defending the filibuster, the issue became less a matter of how her colleagues felt about her than whether her constituents would hand her an anchor and point her to the nearest cliff. Polling in Arizona shows her support levels among fellow Democrats dropping like a rock. According to one state poll from Civiqs, Sinema’s favorability ratio among the Democrats who sent her to the Senate is now an incredible 8-80, a ten-to-one negative margin. And it sure looks like if any regular Democrat challenges her when her term is up in 2024, Sinema will get her butt kicked. According to Data for Progress polling, U.S. Representative Ruben Gallego would defeat Sinema by an astounding 74-16 margin if they met today.
All this Democratic angst, some believe, will be countered by Sinema’s new Republican friends. And when she made her final stand in defense of the filibuster clear, GOP joy overflowed. Mitch McConnell said she had “saved the Senate as an institution.” Meanwhile, back home in Arizona, the same polls showing Democrats despising Sinema showed Republicans beginning to admire her, as The Hill reported:
New polling from OH Predictive Insights, a Phoenix-based nonpartisan pollster, finds 44 percent of Arizona Republican voters surveyed said they see Sinema favorably, compared with just 42 percent of Arizona’s Democratic voters.
Trouble is, smiling upon a pol for screwing up the hated opposition party’s agenda is not the same as voting to reelect her. According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of Sinema’s voting during her two years in the Senate when Trump was president, she voted with the 45th president half the time. That was about the same as Manchin’s level, but far lower than nearly all Republicans. The GOP is a party with extremely low tolerance for dissidence. The Republican voters who give Sinema favorable ratings can’t cross over to support her in a Democratic primary, and aren’t going to vote for her in a general election against an actual Republican. And why should they? Whatever else she isn’t, Sinema is a bisexual, religiously indifferent, pro-choice politician. By definition she is anathema to many, perhaps a majority of, Arizona Republicans. Sure, she could run for reelection in 2024 as an independent, but that’s a difficult row to hoe against two major-party nominees in a closely contested state where voters feel no need to create coalitions across party lines.
Whether you view her as a brave and principled dissident or a scurrilous traitor, Sinema is probably, from a political point of view, toast. Yes, it’s a long time until 2024, but unless she turns herself and Manchin around quickly, memories will last of the eccentric Arizonan who had no compelling political motives for dropping a hammer on her president and her party but did so anyway for what appeared to be an extended act of exhibitionism. Few members of either of America’s major parties like a turncoat in this era of partisan polarization. Republicans won’t save Sinema for professing an independence none of them profess for a single minute.