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Why Sinema's Defection Just Made 2024 More Interesting

AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

In case you missed it earlier, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema is no longer a Democrat, officially.  In a surprise announcement, she has gone the Lisa Murkowski route, becoming an independent who will continue to caucus with her previous party in the US Senate.  This does not functionally change much in terms of the balance of power in the upper chamber over the next two years, during which time Democrats will hold a 51-49 edge, thanks to their runoff election victory in Georgia this week.  Sinema becomes the third technical 'independent' in the caucus, joining socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.  They're both lockstep Democrats, by and large.  When was the last time either one of them caused their unofficial party to lose an important vote on anything?  

Sinema is definitely more progressive than, say, Joe Manchin (who may very well have gotten screwed by Schumer's assurances ahead of his clinching vote on the 'Inflation Reduction Act,' which doubled the size of the IRS ahead of this type of new scrutiny for middle and working class Americans, as enshrined in a separate Democrat-only partisan bill).  But she's enough of a wild card that she derailed the 'Build Back Better' monstrosity, sending left-wing activists into spasms of fury.  We all recall the harassment she faced, from getting chased into a bathroom, on camera, to the disruption of a wedding at which she was a guest.  No doubt remembering her treatment, and anticipating a bruising primary from the Left, Sinema decided to chart a third course:

Americans are told that we have only two choices – Democrat or Republican – and that we must subscribe wholesale to policy views the parties hold, views that have been pulled further and further toward the extremes. Most Arizonans believe this is a false choice, and when I ran for the U.S. House and the Senate, I promised Arizonans something different. 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...When politicians are more focused on denying the opposition party a victory than they are on improving Americans’ lives, the people who lose are everyday Americans.  That’s why I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington. I registered as an Arizona independent.  Like a lot of Arizonans, I have never fit perfectly in either national party.  Becoming an independent won’t change my work in the Senate; my service to Arizona remains the same. 

An interesting logistical note:

I suspect she'll be able to easily clear the number signatures she'd need to get on the ballot as an independent.  It looks likely that Democrats will nominate someone more reliably partisan than Sinema (quite possibly this guy), while Sinema will make a play for centrists in both parties.  Then there are the Republicans.  A sane, realistic, victory-minded Arizona GOP would make the obvious move of nominating current Gov. Doug Ducey in this race, assuming he doesn't get chased off by Trump again.  Ducey, despite taking some slings and arrows from the populist Right, is popular in the state. In the blue wave year of 2018, he won re-election by a dominant 14 points.  He's exactly the type of Republican who'd be perfectly positioned to too back some of the disaffected 'McCain-style' voters that the party needs inside the coalition to win these kinds of elections:

In state after state, the final turnout data shows that registered Republicans turned out at a higher rate — and in some places a much higher rate — than registered Democrats, including in many of the states where Republicans were dealt some of their most embarrassing losses...In the key Senate states mentioned in this article, Republican House candidates received more votes than Democratic ones. The final Times/Siena polls showed that voters in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada preferred Republican control of the Senate. It’s fair to say voters in these key states probably preferred Republican control of government, in no small part because more Republicans showed up to vote. They just didn’t find Republican candidates they wanted to support at the top of the ticket.

Joe Biden carried Arizona, which now has two Democratic Senators and an incoming Democratic governor. Read that again. The state GOP needs to do something differently, perhaps focusing on being not crazy and actually winning, rather than spending a lot of their time censuring each other and demanding others' resignations for ineffectiveness elsewhere (regardless of whether they have a point).  That said, the state's voters remain red-tinted in a lot of ways, as the GOP carried 6 of 9 Congressional seats this year, sweeping all three battleground districts and winning the combined House 'popular vote.'  A well-regarded 'traditional' or 'normal' Republican was the top 2022 vote-getter statewide, winning re-election by double digits.  There's a clear roadmap to winning back Arizona, but the GOP needs to respond to what voters are telling them.  It's not a red state anymore; it's a purple state that could be purplish-red, or could slide deeper blue if Republicans refuse to adjust.  

Ducey would put Republicans in an excellent position to win back not only this seat, but also the US Senate, due to the highly favorable 2024 upper chamber map.  If Ducey corralled even most of the regular GOP coalition, with fewer defections to someone like Sinema -- with much of the Democratic base voting for their nominee -- Arizona's recent Dems + independents + disaffected Republicans coalition would shatter.  Think Rubio/Crist/Meek in Florida in 2010.  The race would be Ducey's to lose.  The upshot: I understand why Sinema is making this move, but it could make it harder for her, or her erstwhile party, to hold that seat in two years.  Especially if Republicans make non-self-destructive decisions next time around.  Stay tuned...

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