WASHINGTON — Democrats are grappling with how to handle a potential re-election bid by newly minted independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in 2024, fearing that a three-way battle could split their voters and throw the race to Republicans in Arizona.
Democratic leaders won't say whether they expect to grant her the protections and financing of an incumbent.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declined to engage with questions about whether the party would support her in 2024 or whether he’d treat Sinema like any Democrat seeking re-election, should she ask for the party's backing.
“Look, right now I’m focused on the lame duck,” he said Wednesday in an interview on Capitol Hill.
A spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which protects incumbents, said it had no comment.
Sinema’s exit presents a thorny dilemma for Democrats. They can't throw her overboard because her vote is key to the party's 51-seat Senate majority for the next two years — they might need her vote to approve nominations or must-pass bills. But with the Arizona state party determined to back a Democrat in the race, and multiple prospects gearing up to run, national Democrats will face pressure to support a nominee of their own.
The situation is "slightly unique," said a Democratic strategist working on Senate races, who said the party is waiting to “see how things play out on her end” in terms of announcing whether or not she runs. “There are multiple factors involved, including the national party apparatus, the state party dynamics," this person said.
The strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a complex situation, said Arizona is a must-win for the party to keep its majority in a difficult 2024 cycle. If Sinema proves she's best-positioned to defeat Republicans, it may nudge some national Democrats to back her, said the source, while noting that others, like Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., appear to be gearing up to run.
"Once she announces whether she’s running for re-election or whether she will, frankly, cash out, then folks will get a better sense," the Democratic strategist said. "It’s challenging."
Sinema's office wouldn't say whether she'll run for re-election, with a spokesperson insisting she’s not focused on campaign politics. Her office added that she didn't attend Democratic caucus meetings even when she was a member of the party and will continue to avoid them.
Democratic senators sidestep
Many Democratic senators sidestepped the question this week.
Asked how the DSCC should handle a possible Sinema 2024 run, Sinema's Arizona colleague, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, “I haven’t given that any thought."
Kelly, who was re-elected in November by a 5-point margin, said he has a “very good relationship” with Sinema but wouldn’t say if he wants her to run again. “I’ve worked very closely with her to the benefit of the people of Arizona and this country," Kelly said.
Further complicating matters is that Democrats don’t yet have a DSCC chair, with Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., indicating that he will relinquish the position for the 2024 cycle. Democrats face a challenging map in two years, defending three seats in GOP-leaning states and another five in closely divided states.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., also steered clear.
“I’m trying to stay out of Arizona politics,” he said.
Schumer said he has granted Sinema’s request to preserve her committee assignments through the Democratic Party, meaning the 51-49 partisan organization of the chamber won’t change.
“She’s always been an independent. This just commemorates it,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who wouldn’t comment on her possible 2024 bid when asked about it during a Senate vote, adding, “I don’t talk about elections in the building.”
Many Democrats have praised Sinema’s legislative work after she spent two years at the center of several bipartisan deals that became law, from the infrastructure package to a measure to tighten up gun laws and background check requirements.
“Her change in partisanship to independent reflects very much her own leadership style and she’s a very independent member of our caucus,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who also faces re-election in 2024. She wouldn’t say if Democrats should back her but said her working relationship with Sinema won’t change.
'Split the Democratic vote'
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a former DSCC chair, said: “That’s a call for somebody else.”
“I got to thinking about the question especially as it applies to Angus King. Angus King, we’ve never had a Democrat run against him,” he said, referring to the two-term independent senator from Maine who caucuses with Democrats and is up for re-election in 2024.
Some Republicans believe a three-way contest would help the GOP candidate win, given that Sinema votes more with Democrats and is ideologically closer to her former party.
“If she decides to run, that could well split the Democratic vote and help the Republicans,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former chair of his party’s Senate campaign arm.
Prior to her party switch, Sinema had stronger relationships with Republican senators than just about any Democrat.
“She and I talk all the time. She has a lot of friends on our side of the aisle, including me,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “And I think she’s decided she’s genuinely an independent, and is charting her own course.”
Gallego, a favorite of many progressives who has long been considering a Senate run in 2024, argued that Sinema running as an independent wouldn’t hurt him or another Democratic candidate.
“A candidate as unpopular as Kyrsten running only helps the Democrat win,” he said, arguing that Sinema only changed parties because she shows she would lose in a Democratic primary. “So I’m very excited for her to stay in the race.”