Opinion

Kyrsten Sinema is gambling that her filibuster vote will help her win again in 2024

And if progressives can’t find a serious candidate to challenge her, she’s probably right

January 22, 2022 3:33 am

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema gives a thumbs up as she stands with Mayor Acquanetta Warren of Fontana, Calif., as they arrive for President Joe Biden’s signing ceremony for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act at the White House on Nov.15, 2021. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jim Small is the editor in chief of the Arizona Mirror, an affiliate of States Newsroom that first published this commentary.

She may not have single-handedly derailed President Joe Biden’s presidency by ensuring that none of his ambitious legislative agenda ever reaches his desk, but Arizona’s senior senator certainly has become the face of the Democrats’ circular firing squad.

And her highly choreographed speech a week ago in which she rhetorically dug Biden’s political grave — from her quavering voice to her purple dress to her silver cross necklace — understandably made her public enemy No. 1 for outraged Democrats across the nation.

In the wake of that speech, and the assurance that nothing will ever persuade her to end the filibuster, change how it works to make it more difficult to use to enforce minority rule or carve out an exception to it for voting rights legislation — despite the hypocrisy that, barely a month earlier, she voted to do just that for a bill that raised the debt ceiling — pundits have sought to explain her motivations and predict her political fortunes.

Particularly on the left, there’s been near unanimity among national political analysts and talking heads that Sinema’s obstruction on the filibuster all but destroys her chances of getting reelected as a Democrat in a state that is in the deep purple phase of transitioning from red to blue.

But I think any analysis that writes Sinema’s political obituary wildly underestimates how shrewd she is and fails to recognize a relatively simple truth about today’s politics.

Make no mistake: If Kyrsten Sinema thought it was in her best political interest to change the filibuster, she’d have been leading the charge.

I’ve seen up close how her ambition and politics have changed since 2004, when she was first elected to the Arizona Legislature, and I have no doubt that she’s as canny and conniving a politician as Arizona has ever seen. What she’s doing now with the filibuster and Biden echoes things she did years ago that have flummoxed — if not infuriated — her ostensible progressive allies.

I’ve seen up close how her ambition and politics have changed since 2004, when she was first elected to the Arizona Legislature, and I have no doubt that she’s as canny and conniving a politician as Arizona has ever seen.

– Jim Small

Like how she praised Russell Pearce, the scion of xenophobia and nativism who was facing a recall election in 2011, and boasted about being able to work well with him. Or when she co-sponsored legislation that was used to criminally prosecute immigrants who paid to be smuggled into the United States.

Those were both done in service of shoring up her centrist bona fides in advance of a 2012 congressional bid in a purple district. Sinema rightly calculated that those policy positions and votes may anger progressives, but wouldn’t alienate most of the white liberal voters she needed to win over in a three-way primary. And when the general election rolled around she could (and did) point to those and other bills as examples of how she would work across the aisle in Congress.

Sinema was elected in 2018 by a slim margin, and she achieved victory because she won over enough moderate Republicans and right-leaning independents who were turned off by Donald Trump. Her opponent was Martha McSally, a fellow congresswoman and a moderate Republican who, in the pre-Trump days, had fashioned herself as someone with an independent streak who wouldn’t be beholden to the GOP.

That was a problem for Sinema and the Democrats, who would have much preferred Trump sycophant Kelli Ward — who now heads the Arizona Republican Party — win the primary, as McSally was tailor-made to appeal to the center-right crowd.

But Trump changed the GOP and McSally, faced with a primary election against Ward, ditched her outspoken criticism of Trump and instead embraced the then-president, believing her senatorial hopes would be dashed if she didn’t. That hard pivot gave Democrats all the ammunition they needed to paint McSally as a Trump lackey and for Sinema to present her record of independence as the real deal, unlike her opponent’s politics of convenience.

In the process, Sinema went so far in crafting her brand as an “independent” that she wholly distanced herself from the Democratic Party, didn’t endorse its candidate for Arizona governor and refused to say if she planned to vote for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey

Here’s where the conventional wisdom about Sinema’s chances in 2024 falters: There won’t be someone who can present themselves as a middle-of-the-road Republican on the ballot. Extremism is the coin of the realm in the modern Republican Party, and it’s all but certain that whoever wins the party’s nomination in 2024 will be less like Martha McSally and more like Kelli Ward. As angry as they might be with her, Sinema knows Democrats will still side with her over a Big Lie-spouting, pandemic-downplaying, misinformation-peddling Republican.

And she’s banking on that in her craven pursuit of power. The most important audience of that speech about the filibuster was those center-right voters she won over in 2018. Sinema campaigned as a centrist, and centrists don’t do anything that could remotely be considered radical — and there’s little more radical in the Senate than scrapping the filibuster to pass controversial legislation.

Of course, her gambit isn’t without risk. Just this week, Sinema lost a longtime supporter when pro-choice group EMILY’s List withdrew their supportAn effort is well underway to mount a primary challenge against Sinema, with hundreds of thousands of dollars being pumped into it. Progressive icon Bernie Sanders says he would support a challenge to his colleague. A few dozen well-heeled donors told Sinema they’ll close their wallets if she doesn’t reverse course on the filibuster.

But if progressives can’t find a viable candidate — someone who already has a base of support, can raise money and mount an aggressive campaign — their disgust with Sinema won’t matter. Phoenix Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego would fit the bill, and will top progressives’ wish list. Barring someone like him getting into the race, Sinema’s strategy to piss off the left in order to attract the center-right is likely to pay off and position her for a 2024 campaign win.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.

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