Sinema Vérité

Whether Kyrsten Sinema will run for re-election in 2024 is the subject of endless Washingtonian curiosity.
Whether Kyrsten Sinema will run for re-election in 2024 is the subject of endless Washingtonian curiosity. Photo: Bonnie Cash-Pool/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
February 9, 2023

There’s a consensual delusion playing out within part of the left these days that Kyrsten Sinema—the subject of endless Washingtonian curiosity on account of her tacky yellow-winged frocks, wigs, go-go boots, oenophile bisexual ironman lifestyle, date nights with Kevin McCarthy, and, yes, Democrat-to-independent conversion—might somehow decide not to run for re-election in 2024. Of course, that would make things easier for the Democrats—easier for Rep. Ruben Gallego, her pesky Democratic challenger, who has been aiming his fire at Sinema for years; for majority leader Chuck Schumer, who presumably prefers to stay neutral rather than antagonize Sinema, who votes with his caucus the vast majority of the time; and for caucus more generally, which is sick of her complicating their priorities as a mini-Manchin. Perhaps, the wistful fantasy goes, Sinema will just decide she’d rather ride things out writing bestsellers in the desert and sitting on the board of companies like Pfizer.

Alas, this is all nonsense: Sinema, a fundraising machine and darling of Wall Street and Big Pharma, alike, will run for Senate in Arizona as an independent, even if that means she’s a spoiler for Democrats. Why would she have registered as an independent if she wasn’t an ambitious candidate? Sinema, after all, was abandoned by her prior campaign team—consultants, pollsters and advertisers—on the calculated gamble that she would lose a Democratic primary and needed to switch parties. She is also acting like a candidate, raising money from the likes of Blackstone C.E.O. Steve Schwarzman, who just hosted a fundraiser for her at his house in Palm Beach, presumably reciprocating some good will after Sinema axed the carried interest loophole from the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Perhaps denial is the first step toward acceptance. But, either way, the Democrats are currently handling Sinema with kid gloves. I’m told from a senior party aide that Schumer will not pressure her to back out of the race. He also won’t tell Gallego to stand down, either. That would be a fool’s errand, anyway, which could be cut and clipped in either of their ads. “If they could have convinced Gallego not to run, they would have already,” said a former Senate aide. “He now has an open primary to himself, he’d be crazy not to run.” 

Sinema allies assume that Democrats will get past their emotional rejection of her and think logically about their chances of winning with Gallego and Sinema on the same ballot. “You think Democrats are going to fuck around with Arizona to prove a point to a woman who votes with them 93 percent of the time?” a Sinema ally said. “It’s going to be a bad year, they can’t fuck around.” 

Eventually, the rubber will hit the road. The Democrats already have tough races in West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio, where Trump won in a landslide. They also have to defend Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. The Arizona primary isn’t until August 2024, but at some point, Gallego will demand the support of the party. Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee could demure, as they do for independent Angus King, standing down in deference to a sitting senator. But that’s a gamble, too. After all, Sinema is so unpredictable that if she were to win, she could return hell-bent on destroying Democrats by caucusing with Republicans.  One Democratic consultant framed the dilemma artfully: “Kyrsten Sinema is rat-fucking the Democrats, and Gallego is just fucking the Democrats.” 

The Game of Chicken

At this point, Sinema’s path to victory is unclear. She’s so deeply unpopular with Democrats that her best shot at winning is if the Republicans once again nominate an extreme candidate, like Kari Lake or Blake Masters, both of whom have intimated that they are looking at the Senate seat. Governor Doug Ducey has told people that he’s not interested in running. Fellow moderate Karrin Taylor Robson, though, would pose a unique challenge. In a best-case scenario, Sinema could steal votes from an extreme Republican nominee while also retaining some Democrats and securing independents. 

But even this scenario would still be a struggle. The Replace Sinema PAC has a poll showing Gallego tying with Lake at 36 percent in a three-way race, with Sinema taking nine points from Lake and 14 points from Gallego, ending up with 24 percent. A Public Policy Polling poll from December is even more brutal, showing Sinema with just 14 percent of the vote, while Lake wins with 41 percent and Gallego comes up close with 40 percent. Her allies find hope in Arizona’s independent population: Republican registration is 35 percent, and Democrats are 31 percent. No Party or Independent comprises 34 percent, and the latter accounts for the largest growing voting bloc.

Naturally, Sinema allies also don’t trust the polls and note, obviously, that a lot can happen in a year and half. “I’ve been saying to people about Sinema: if you get 25 percent of Republicans, 25 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Independents and that comes to 43 percent of the vote, that is enough to win,” said Chuck Coughlin, an Arizona strategist. “I don’t think her numbers are there right now, particularly with independents, because they are all over the map. I think she would get that with Republicans, but I don’t have data to support that, and she’ll get pummeled by Ruben so holding on to 25 percent of Democrats will be hard.”

In a state where the floor is 40 to 45 percent for either party, it’s hard to work out a path for Sinema with Gallego in the race. As I previously reported, Masters said he was not going to jump in if he was head-to-head with Sinema, but a three-way race is more appealing. Even if he’s disliked by female voters, a minority of Republicans, he has a chance to win by simply claiming 40 percent of the Republican vote, with Sinema taking 20 percent of the Democratic vote. The same arithmetic applies to Lake, the election denier who nearly won the gubernatorial race in 2022. Meanwhile, Masters and Lake could crush Gallego in a head-to-head. 

So how does she do it? I hear that Sinema will paint Gallego as a victim of the woke mind virus, a guy owned by the left, as she tries to appeal to independents and Republicans. As one former Democratic Arizona official told me, Democrats “loathe her,” and trying to win them back might already be a lost cause, a strategic waste of time. In fact, Democrats were lukewarm about her during her first run, but she nevertheless benefitted from the unpopularity of Martha McSally

Gallego, of course, will paint Sinema as a Wall Street and Big Pharma proxy, a Republican in Democrats’ clothing. Gallego, who raised more than $1 million on the day he announced his run, is also an obvious favorite among the grassroots and the Latino base, and could become a shiny object for national liberals if he becomes an MSNBC regular. Without a primary challenger, Gallego may choose to run a more moderate campaign focused on protecting the climate of Arizona or trying to solve the water crisis. 

But Sinema allies seem to think there is no shortage of opposition research on the mouthy, twice-married Gallego that can be utilized at a later date. “As a Republican, we begrudgingly give them credit for how they stage-managed candidates, like how they were able to hand the election to Biden and how they had relatively drama-free primaries last cycle,” said a former Senate Leadership Fund source. “But she’s playing chicken with them and she can play spoiler depending on who the G.O.P. candidate is.” 

The Campaign Manager?

Sinema’s campaign will surely be cash-plush. She raised $800,000 in the last quarter and has $8.2 million on hand, a top war chest for a Senate Democrat. But she doesn’t have a team. Her prior general consultant Rich Davis of Dixon/Davis dumped her and so did her pollster, Molly Murphy of Impact Research. I’ve reached out to shops around town from both parties, and they all seem to agree that she’s in a sort of no-man’s land where consultants on both sides are reluctant to touch her. Longtime Mitt Romney aide Stuart Stevens, who also worked on Larry Hogan’s campaign, said he’s not interested. He and others suggested that Sinema could run her campaign without a G.C. or even a political advertising firm, just a traditional advertising firm. In the end she doesn’t seem like the type to take anyone’s advice, pollster or focus group. 

“I’ve always thought that we consultants are overrated,” Stevens told me. “I think this becomes a skins and shirts game. Either you work for Democrats or Republicans, you can’t do both. If you’re a Democratic consultant it’s not great for your business if you work with her.” Maybe she could get a national bipartisan firm, like Mercury, to work for her. But it’s always unclear if they have conflicts of interest or are unwilling to piss off the Democratic party by taking her on. What’s clear is that Gallego has staffed up in a serious way by taking on John Fetterman’s former consultant Rebecca Katz

Sinema’s game of chicken doesn’t come without risk as she lines up her Plan B. Some point to Evan Bayh, who had $10 million in his campaign account after he retired from the Senate in 2010. While working as a lobbyist he dipped into that political slush fund to dole out about $1 million to support Congressional races. When he ran again for Senate, in 2016, he used the remaining $9 million. But Sinema is actively raising cash from powerful allies on Wall Street and Big Pharma where she could possibly work. “You don’t raise all of this money if you’re not running,” said a Sinema ally. “And if you’re looking for a job, that’s the surest-fire way to piss everyone off by taking the money and then not running.” 

But even following through and running has its risks if she decides to eventually cross over again and convert to the higher calling of lobbying. “If she runs to be a spoiler, she’s going to spend $50 million and nine months of her life to get 20 percent, and it ends your career,” said a former senior Senate aide. “Who would deal with you? Republicans will think you’re an asshole. Democrats will hate you because you gave up a seat or you forced Gallego to spend all of this money.” 

Or maybe she just says to hell with politics, becomes a Solidcore instructor and fills in for Tucker Carlson when Tulsi Gabbard can’t? With Sinema, anything is possible.