It’s generally assumed that Arizona U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced her independence from the Democratic Party recently because she has so thoroughly alienated Democratic voters that she would be toast if Representative Ruben Gallego persisted in challenging her when her term expires in 2024. My colleague Jonathan Chait plausibly argued that her gambit is to coerce the Arizona Democratic Party into backing her (implicitly or explicitly) as an independent candidate on the grounds that she would otherwise throw the election to a Republican — possibly 2022 GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, who may run for the Senate once her ridiculous challenges to her November defeat have run their course.
But there’s a very early poll on behalf of Gallego’s Senate campaign showing Sinema is so unpopular that she might become a virtually irrelevant factor in the 2024 Senate contest in Arizona. In a hypothetical three-way general-election race with Lake and Gallego, Sinema comes in at an anemic 13 percent with Lake (at 41 percent) and Gallego (at 40 percent) in a dead heat. Perhaps more strikingly, Gallego (48 percent) and Lake (47 percent) would also be in a dead heat if Sinema didn’t run at all in the general election. If these sort of numbers persist in future polls, any blackmail effort by Sinema to threaten to throw the Senate seat to the Republicans if Democrats don’t back her might not get much traction.
Sinema’s persistent problem is simple: She’s paying a high price for the short-term awards of appointing herself (along with Joe Manchin) the autonomous arbiter of an evenly divided Senate. She cannot plausibly win a contested primary in either party. She’s worked hard to anger Democrats (a January poll showed her losing a primary to Gallego by a staggering 74-to-16 margin) and isn’t remotely reactionary enough on cultural issues to win a majority of Republicans. Moreover, by killing the Democratic trifecta, the 2022 midterm results have likely all but eliminated opportunities for the kind of high-stakes deal-making at which Sinema excels (as she has just again demonstrated by helping finesse an immigration dispute that threatened to unravel an omnibus appropriations measure). Her real constituency is on Wall Street and K Street, whose deep pockets could help finance an independent reelection bid — but not a winning one, if any of the numbers we’ve seen are even remotely accurate. It’s more likely the senior senator from Arizona will be looking for employment from her wealthy friends in New York and Washington, D.C., in January 2025 rather than preparing to serve a second term.
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