WASHINGTON — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party reshapes the dynamics of the 2024 Senate race in Arizona, creating fresh obstacles for Democrats to hold the seat in two years.
Sinema’s announcement Friday that she will become an independent prompted fury and told-you-so reactions from her Democratic critics, who vowed to fight to win back the seat in 2024. Sinema’s office said she will continue to not attend meetings of the Democratic caucus but intends to keep her committee seats assigned to her by Democrats, preserving the 51-49 Senate balance.
While Sinema won’t yet say whether she will run for re-election as an independent, the prospect shakes up the dynamics of the race. If she runs, it could mean a three-way battle between a Republican, a Democrat and Sinema as an independent.
And if Sinema — who despite being a regular headache for her party leaders remains ideologically closer to Democrats than the GOP — pulls more votes from Democratic-leaning voters, that could pave the way for a Republican candidate to win in 2024.
“I am not surprised. But I’m still shockingly disappointed at how awful she continues to be,” said Michael Slugocki, an outgoing vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party. He said Sinema has had “no relationship and no contact with the state party for months” and did not inform them prior to her decision.
“It does shake up this race” in 2024, he said. “She’s deliberately trying to make it difficult for Democrats in Arizona.”
He added that her decision could also make it harder for Democrats to carry Arizona on the presidential level again in two years, if she spends two years attacking her party and splintering its successful coalition. “It does make things more difficult for Joe Biden, but I don’t think she cares at all.”
Already, Arizona Republicans are buzzing about Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb running for Senate with the support of gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who narrowly lost her race and recently encouraged him to run against Sinema, according to a confidant of hers who detailed the conversation to NBC on condition of anonymity in order to not publicly disclose private conversations.
“Kari is getting lots of calls but she’s pretty disillusioned right now and she likes the sheriff and told him she wants to see him run for senate,” the Lake confidant said. “Lamb is beloved by the base and could really clear a primary field.”
A spokesman for Lamb, Corey Vale, told NBC News that the sheriff is “humbled and honored by the outpouring of support he has received from the people of Arizona. He is seriously considering running for the United States Senate in 2024.” The sheriff and his wife, Vale said, “will be praying about this over the holidays and making a decision in early 2023.”
Sinema’s decision comes as her approval ratings among Arizona Democratic voters have tanked, raising questions about her ability to win renomination. A bipartisan poll by Fabrizio Ward and Impact Research in September found that Sinema's favorable rating among Arizona Democrats was 37%. Her rating was 36% among Republicans and 41% among independents. Overall in the state, her favorable rating was 37%, with an unfavorable rating of 54%.
It has been a long and messy divorce between Sinema and Democrats, which escalated when the first-term senator irked liberal activists early in 2021 by flashing a playful thumbs down during a vote to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Her support of the Trump tax cuts also forced Biden to scale back his agenda in his major party-line bill.
The state party censured Sinema last year after she opposed a Senate rules change to pass a major voting-rights bill.
“She’s trying to eliminate a primary she knew she’d lose,” said a former Sinema aide, who requested anonymity to criticize the senator without fear of retaliation. “Trying to save her ass.”
Sinema's trial ballon
Sinema’s best leverage over her party is that she might be more willing than they are to see a Republican win. Given that she didn't announce a re-election campaign along with her party change, her move may be a trial balloon for whether she can attract enough support to have a meaningful chance to win as an independent. And if she does run, getting on the ballot as an independent candidate is relatively easy in Arizona.
Writing in the Arizona Republic, Sinema called the two-party system a “false choice” for her state.
“When I ran for the U.S. House and the Senate, I promised Arizonans something different,” the senator wrote. “I pledged to be independent and work with anyone to achieve lasting results. I committed I would not demonize people I disagreed with, engage in name-calling, or get distracted by political drama.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who represents Phoenix and had already been considering challenging Sinema in 2024, said the senator is in it for herself.
“We need Senators who will put Arizonans ahead of big drug companies and Wall Street bankers. Whether in the Marine Corps or in Congress, I have never backed down from fighting for Arizonans. And at a time when our nation needs leadership most, Arizona deserves a voice that won’t back down in the face of struggle,” Gallego said in a statement after Sinema’s announcement. “Unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”
Matt Whitlock, a former Senate Republican campaign operative, responded on Twitter: “Ruben is furious because he knows in a 3-way primary he’d come in third by a long way.”
Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., a former Phoenix mayor who just won his third term in the House, also is taking a look at running for the Senate seat, said a source familiar with his thinking.
Sinema’s move drew cheers from other Republicans, including the Donald Trump-aligned election denier Lake.
"Great news!" she tweeted.
Hannah Hurley, a Sinema spokesperson, didn't comment Friday on the senator's 2024 plans or respond to suggestions that an independent candidacy could make her a spoiler and help Republicans. "She's made crystal clear she isn't focused on campaign politics," Hurley said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Friday he has agreed to preserve Sinema's committee seats for the next two years, and praised the Arizona senator. "Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been," he said in a statement. "I believe she’s a good and effective Senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate."
A GOP voter registration edge in Arizona
Arizona is a former Republican stronghold where Democrats have been on a winning streak in federal contests: Sinema won her Senate race in 2018, and Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., won two races in 2020 and 2022. The state also voted for President Joe Biden in 2020.
The GOP retains a voter registration advantage in the state, according to the Secretary of State’s office, making independents and potentially soft Republicans important to Democrats’ ability to win statewide. NBC News exit polls show Kelly carried independents by 16 points and won 9% of Republicans; in 2020, Biden carried independents by 13 points and won 6% of Republicans.
“Conventional wisdom says Republicans have the advantage in a three-candidate race like that because they have a registration advantage in Arizona,” said Roy Herrera, a Democrat and past adviser to Sen. Mark Kelly and Gallego.
“But I’m not sure Sinema stays in the race as an independent because she doesn’t have a political base anymore and she knows she would come in third,” Herrera said. “It’s pretty confusing. It’s wild. It’s Arizona politics. Never a dull moment.”
Still, Kelly’s 5-point win last month has given the state party confidence that it can win with a mainstream Democratic candidate.
A political group that has been laying the groundwork to challenge Sinema in two years said her move proves they were right. “In one way, Sinema just made our jobs easier by bowing out of a Democratic primary she knew she couldn’t win,” said Emily Kirkland, an activist with the Primary Sinema PAC. “Now, we’ll beat her in the general election with a real Democrat.”
Slugocki rejected the prospect of Democrats backing off and supporting an independent Sinema in a bid to stop Republicans, vowing that Democrats will offer a candidate of their own.
“There is every intention that the Arizona Democratic Party will run a true Democrat in 2024,” he said, adding that he favors Gallego, and that he’s not convinced Sinema will ultimately run. “Some people are guessing she won’t run and that she’ll go straight into being a corporate lobbyist.”