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Can Sinema win re-election in Arizona as an independent?

Sinema Somerton RCBH.jpg
Victor Calderón/KAWC
U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, right, speaks with officials from the Regional Center for Border Health and Yuma Regional Medical Center at RCBH in Somerton on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. On the left is RCBH President and CEO Amanda Aguirre.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Political analysts in Arizona say Kyrsten Sinema did the only thing Friday she could to give her a possible political future: shed the Democratic label.

"The clear choice that she has made here is to choose the ground of her fighting,'' said Chuck Coughlin. "And by avoiding a Democratic primary she has substantially chosen better ground to fight on.''

What it comes down to is the question of whether Sinema, having taken some unpopular stances among the Democratic party base on issues like giving tax breaks to corporations, refusing to raise the federal minimum wage and scuttling voting rights legislation, had any chance at all in a low-turnout 2024 primary which is likely to bring out those who hew more to the party line.

"She's done a very good job of reading the room,'' said pollster Mike Noble.

"Right now it makes sense because she's very vulnerable in a Democratic primary,'' he continued. "Someone could take her out because she's not 'pure enough' for the party.''

And even Republican consultant Stan Barnes said while he believes Sinema is "acting on principle'' in her decision to register as a political independent, she is doing it "in a strategic way.''

"She sees the Republican Party taken over by Trump politics,'' he said. More to the point, Barnes said, Sinema saw how the GOP has lost statewide races by those who have chosen that path.

"At the same time, she sees the Democratic Party chasing its 'woke' tail,'' he continues. "I believe that she has the confidence to step into this no-man's land, where no successful politician has gone before in Arizona.''

Sinema, for her part, told Capitol Media Services she's not yet ready to talk about 2024, preferring to steer the conversation about what she is doing now and the issues that remain at the Capitol.

"It won't surprise you to know that I'm in the middle of it, doing the work,'' she said. "And that's where I'm going to stay focused.''

But Sinema said the decision has been a long time in coming.

"I'm not sure that this really is a surprise to the folks in Arizona,'' she said.

"Everyone knows I never really fit well into any kind of political dogma or party structure,'' Sinema continued. And she noted that her successful 2018 race to unseat Republican Sen. Martha McSally focused around her promise to be an "independent voice'' for Arizona, a move that enabled her to win the race in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats -- and independents outnumber both major parties.

Sinema refused to say if she thinks she could have won a Democratic primary in 2024.

"I'm not here to talk about the next election or electoral politics,'' she said. "What I've done today by registering as independent is really join the thousands of Arizonans who don't feel they're represented perfectly by any political party and just want to focus on a government that gets stuff done.''

If nothing else, the announcement puts immediate pressure on Congressman Ruben Gallego to decide if he's ready to make a run for the Senate. He has said for some time now that was a decision for 2023.

"We're going to, obviously, reassess that now,'' he told Capitol Media Services. "But I'm not ready to confirm that I'm jumping in.''

Still, Gallego, who represents portions of central and south Phoenix and the city's western suburbs, said that the decision by Sinema actually improves his chances of winning a 2024 statewide race.

"Democrats have shown they can hold their base and consolidate their base to the point where we almost took every seat possible in Arizona,'' he said.

"Republicans are the people that are having problems holding their base together,'' Gallego continued. And he figures that Sinema, in a three-way general election, would attract GOP voters who showed just this past month that they are not willing to support nominees who don't have mainstream beliefs.

Barnes, for his part, said he believes that the "America First phenomenon'' remains dominant within the grass roots of the state Republican Party.

"And because of that, the likelihood that the nominee will be that kind of person is higher than not,'' he said.

What all that means said Barnes, a former GOP legislator, is the party has a "family fight it must go through in the next year to determine what it wants to be.''

"If Kari Lake would have won, we would know what the Republican Party is, it's the America First party of Arizona,'' he said.

"But Kari lost, and the U.S. Senate was lost, and the secretary of state's race was lost,'' Barnes said, with all three GOP contenders tied close to -- and endorsed by -- former President Trump. "And so the party, in a sober way, has to look at itself and say 'What are we, how do we win elections.' ''

And that, he said, has yet to play out.

But it isn't just the situation and division among Republicans that will affect Sinema's chances in a three-way race.

"Clearly, the Democrat base will be divided,'' Coughlin said. He figures she's likely to pick up anywhere from 35% to 40% of registered Democrats.

"And that substantially complicates the race for the Democratic nominee,'' Coughlin said.

He said the calculation that Sinema is making is that she can hang on to that 40% of her now-former party and an equal amount perhaps from Republicans disaffected with the turn the GOP has taken.

"The magic biscuit in the basket is can she go grab 70% of unaffiliated voters,'' Coughlin said. "That feels to me like a winning coalition.''

What also is clear, he said, is the race is going to be in Maricopa County where nearly two thirds of the registered voters are located.

He figures Pima County voters will support the Democratic nominee. And most rural counties will back whoever the Republicans choose, though Coughlin said Sinema would need to at least remain competitive.

And that, in turn, requires taking the state's largest county by a substantial margin.

What also becomes a factor is who from the GOP gets into the race.

"If you're a Republican congressman, you want to be a U.S. senator,'' said Barnes. He said that makes the "first tier'' of candidates the veterans in the House including Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs and Debbie Lesko.

"I imagine those three individuals are looking at themselves and saying, 'What are my opportunities?' '' Barnes said.

But he said that Jim Lamon, who spent nearly $20 million -- most of that his own cash -- to come in second in this year's Senate GOP primary to Blake Masters, still may have an appetite for another race.

"And throw in Kari Lake who we know has skills and came in second (in the governor's race) and I think the field is wide open,'' Barnes said.

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who also has sided with those who believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, also is reportedly weighing a bid.

Gallego acknowledged Sinema's 2018 playbook of winning the Senate seat by effectively distancing herself from her party affiliation.

"Her reason for being was that, 'I, alone, can win this seat,' '' he said. But Gallego said politics have changed in the last four years.

"Democrats in 2022 did very well in Arizona,'' he said, campaigning as Democrats. And Gallego said he believes that once Sinema saw the results she realized that 2018 tactic wouldn't sell among Democrats in 2024.

A three-way race could prove expensive. Gallego said he needs to raise "as much as possible.''

"I don't think there's a number that you can put this on because you're going to have three very well-financed campaigns,'' he said.

So far Sinema has the cash edge, with almost $7.9 million cash on hand as of the end of September, the most recent report available. That compares with $1.1 million in Gallego's campaign warchest.

But Gallego also will benefit from an anti-Sinema faction.

The Change for Arizona 2024 PAC already had raised $1.1 million in its bid to have her defeated in a Democratic primary.
And the organization said in a press release Friday its goal now is to defeat Sinema "with a real Democrat.''

Sinema said she's not concerned, saying she has a record for voters to see of "delivering results for the people of our state.''
"I'm good at it,'' she said. "I'm going to keep being good at it.''

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