Though she hasn’t formally announced a decision, all signs continue to suggest that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who left the Democratic Party and became an independent in December, will run for reelection in 2024. She is fundraising on Facebook, talking up her accomplishments, and has already taken the procedural step of notifying the Federal Election Commission that she intends to run for office. In-state politicos expect her to run, even though she’s still maintaining a low national profile.
Avoiding the spotlight has been a difficult task: Sinema has become the subject of liberal derision for much of her tenure for blocking progressive priorities, defending the Senate filibuster, and inspiring many memeable moments. She’s polled terribly with Democratic voters in the state, especially after foiling the most ambitious version of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda, and the pressure from progressives culminated in her party-switch announcement.
Whether an independent candidate can win a major statewide race in Arizona is an open question, and for good reason: Third-party candidates have rarely done well in national races around the country, and Sinema would be the state’s first independent elected senator.
But based on early polling, Arizona’s political landscape, and her 2018 campaign experience, you can see the rough outlines of what a general election might look like. And in my conversations with campaign strategists and Arizona political operatives, it seems clear: Sinema can win the Arizona Senate race as an independent, especially if Republicans nominate a far-right candidate.
Exactly what a third-party Sinema for Senate campaign looks like is still unknown. As an independent, she won’t have to run in the 2024 primary election, and she has plenty of time (until April 2024) to gather the necessary signatures to qualify to appear on the state’s ballot for the November general election. She could also always join the newly recognized No Labels Party, which her Democratic critics have suggested.
Sinema’s independent run would likely focus on setting up a contrast with the major party candidates about what the point of a senator is: She’d seek to cast herself as a maverick in the style of John McCain, able to buck political labels and wield power. Her campaign would zero in on the politically moderate, wealthier, and unaffiliated voters that live in the state’s suburban neighborhoods and would aim to peel away support from a Trump-aligned Republican. And it would need to raise a lot of money — at least $40 million to be competitive, according to in-state experts.
Winning as an independent would be a herculean effort. Sinema wouldn’t have the same party apparatus to reach voters as she would have if she was supported by the state Democratic Party, and she would have to not only win over a majority of the state’s independent voters, but also cut deeply into the margins of both her Republican and Democratic opponents. Depending on who the state’s Republicans select as their Senate candidate, she could have a decent chance of winning a plurality.
“There’s a reason why there aren’t a lot of independents who have won elections in Arizona, or really across the country,” Barrett Marson, an Arizona Republican strategist who aided Sinema’s 2018 opponent Republican Martha McSally, told me. “If someone can do it, it would probably be Kyrsten Sinema.”
Who would run against Sinema?
Only one major candidate has formally entered the Arizona Senate race so far: Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, a longtime Phoenix-area congressman, announced his candidacy in January after months of public speculation and open condemnation of Sinema’s job performance. Frequently described as a progressive, Gallego has taken every opportunity possible to criticize Sinema for obstructing Biden’s legislative agenda and undermining progressive goals, like raising the minimum wage, passing voting rights legislation, and codifying the right to an abortion.
The two have a long history: One of Gallego’s first jobs in politics was working as part of an effort led by Sinema to defeat an anti-gay marriage proposal in 2006 (Gallego was eventually fired by Sinema). Since then, they’ve taken parallel trajectories through Phoenix-area politics.
After Sinema left the party, her decision was viewed as both a sign of weakness and a strength. Some pointed to polling showing that she likely wouldn’t have been able to win a primary race; others thought that as an independent she’d be able to scare off a challenge from the left. Still, Gallego managed to clear the Democratic primary field before launching his bid. His biggest rival, Rep. Greg Stanton, the former mayor of Phoenix, bowed out of contention a few days before Gallego made his announcement, despite teasing a run after Sinema’s news.
Gallego is seen as a party workhorse (campaigning for Democrats, defending the party’s platform on the national stage, attacking state and national MAGA Republicans), but few elected Democrats with national name recognition have backed his run, including many of Sinema’s colleagues, Arizona’s other senator, Mark Kelly, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the Senate Democrats’ campaign chief, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan.
Republicans, meanwhile, are in a different kind of disarray. Their most recognizable figure in Arizona — and the de-facto leader of Donald Trump’s political movement in the state — is Kari Lake, the election-denying, failed gubernatorial candidate whose political ambitions have led to speculation that she might be Trump’s running mate in his 2024 presidential bid. While she has been trying and failing to overturn the November election results in state court, she has been reportedly preparing a Senate campaign.
Lake’s own spaghetti-at-the-wall post-midterm career is emblematic of the Arizona Republican Party’s current identity crisis. After back-to-back statewide losses over the last six years, party leadership and its membership have decided not to return to the Chamber of Commerce/McCain-style conservatism that had been so effective over the last three decades in the state.
Instead, the Arizona GOP leadership election earlier this year turned out to be a battle between Trump-MAGA Republicans and even further right-wing activists who were trying to out-Trump their opponents. Now that Trump and his message have become the GOP establishment, there doesn’t seem to be room left for the old GOP guard, given that former two-term governor Doug Ducey has stayed out of state politics and business-oriented Republicans have lost primaries in the state.
These ideological divides are important because they show just how vast the gulf is between the Republican and Democratic Party options Arizona voters will likely have next year. They also offer a broad road map a Sinema campaign would likely use to win over voters in the middle, especially disaffected Republicans who have been hesitant to back Trump-aligned candidates.
What Arizona voters want
Despite Democrats’ recent success in statewide races, political consultants, pollsters, and veterans warn out-of-staters not to think of Arizona as a blue state in waiting.
Republicans make up a bit more than 34 percent of registered voters in the state, with independents close behind at 34 percent, and Democrats make up just over 30 percent. Since the November election, Republican and independent/unaffiliated voter registration has outpaced Democratic registration, and those gains are concentrated in the suburbs around Phoenix and Tucson, the state’s largest population centers. According to state law, Sinema would need signatures from 3 percent of the total number of registered independent voters as of January 2024, and file to run by April 2024.
“Arizona isn’t a purple state, it’s magenta, it’s center-right,” Mike Noble, the chief of research and a pollster at the Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights, told me. “Republicans can still do well in Arizona as long as they appeal to moderates.”
That’s precisely the opposite of what the Arizona Republican Party seems to be doing. But this is where Noble and other strategists see an opening for Sinema. “Kyrsten Sinema is hoping, praying that it is a MAGA-style candidate that makes it through the primary to face her in a general election. [Her] path to victory is bleak if a moderate Republican comes out of the primary,” Noble said. If Kari Lake or failed Senate candidate Blake Masters are the GOP Senate candidate, Noble said they would push moderate Republicans, which make up about 30 percent of the GOP electorate, to Sinema.
A pre-2016, moderate Republican Senate candidate, meanwhile, cuts those losses to just about 10 percent of the GOP electorate, according to OH Predictive Insights’s polling.
Sinema comes in last in all of Noble’s head-to-head match-ups, but she’s not in an untenable position. No candidate garners a majority in Noble’s polling, or a runaway lead in two or three-way races, and anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of voters would be undecided in those contests. More than a year out from the election, this breakdown isn’t surprising, but it shows just how much room there is for the race to get more competitive.
A successful Sinema campaign, therefore, would require pulling in about a third of the state’s Republican voters, at least half of the state’s moderates, and anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the state’s Democrats, Noble estimates. That’s a daunting task, but it’s not impossible — and Sinema’s accomplished something like that before. Her 2018 victory was powered by independents, suburbanites, and disaffected Republicans, though her win came with institutional Democratic support. She was the first Democrat to win a Senate election in Arizona in three decades, even though she hardly campaigned as a “Democrat.” She also accomplished something no Democrat had been able to do since 2006 — flip Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county, which has been crucial to any candidate’s hope of winning statewide and seen as a national bellwether.
That’s where Sinema’s independent message comes in. The ads Sinema has run so far on Facebook, which the political writer Kyle Tharp first reported on, build on her 2018 message of partisan independence. “She doesn’t follow the parties in DC, she’s solely focused on delivering meaningful solutions,” the ads read. She’s also pushed positive news stories emphasizing her bipartisan bonafides, including working with Republicans to propose immigration reform and border security bills, rallying support for the Respect for Marriage Act, and casting herself in the mold of McCain or Jeff Flake, the retired former senator who Sinema replaced.
Though the ads only ran for a few days in February, they also show that Sinema still has access to ActBlue, the Democrat-aligned online fundraising platform that has been key to Democratic candidates’ ability to raise the millions they need to win tough races. That access will surely be a boon to Sinema, who is already a prolific fundraiser and has $8 million of cash on hand, according to the FEC.
That money will be key to communicating the central thesis of a Sinema campaign: that she is not extreme.
“You just don’t have enough Democrats in the state of Arizona to win with Democratic votes alone,” said John LaBombard, a political strategist and former Sinema communications director, told me. “The throughline that I see is that these are independent voters who tend to reject extremes and tend to sort of gravitate more toward ‘common sense,’ independent streak, maverick kind of people.”
That whole brand was Sinema’s saving grace in 2018, when her opponent, Martha McSally, did an about-face during her race, turning from a conventional House Republican lawmaker into a hard-right Trump defender. At the same time, Sinema resisted calls from Democratic allies across the state to stake out more progressive positions on issues like immigration, marijuana legalization, and health care. Campaign memos from the time emphasized this “independent voice”; national media called it an aggressively centrist campaign.
She’s likely to employ a similar kind of campaign message this time, using her substantial legislative record to show why her theory of being a senator works: emphasizing the billions she won for Arizona and Western states to combat droughts in the Inflation Reduction Act, the hundreds of millions pouring into the state’s superconductor manufacturing industry through the CHIPS and Science Act, and the additional funding for broadband access coming through the bipartisan infrastructure law.
LaBombard, who expects Sinema will run again, also thinks Sinema won’t have trouble raising money and recruiting staff. Though some progressive and Democrat-aligned firms quit Sinema’s team after her announcement, LaBombard told me that he expects she’ll have plenty of options. “There’s going to be Democratic consultants who look at Sen. Sinema and say, yeah, she and I don’t agree on every issue, but god, she’s a winner,” he said.
And there’s always the chance that national Democrats stay out of the contest, choosing not to alienate Sinema or help Gallego. Other strategists told me that given Sinema’s friendship with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, it’s not inconceivable for Senate Republican PACs to go easy on anti-Sinema spending.
Then again, she could also end up deciding not to run. But would a maverick do that?
Clarification, March 21, 1:45 pm ET: This story has been updated to clarify political writer Kyle Tharp’s profession.