Arizona politics got wilder with a challenge for Sinema’s seat

I first heard rumors about Rep. Ruben Gallego challenging Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in small Arizona political circles last summer. Liberal dissatisfaction with Sinema reached my ears much earlier. Years ago.

In fact, it wasn’t long after Sinema became the country’s first openly bisexual senator in 2019 that local LGBTQ grassroots leaders noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to get Sinema to perform at queer events.

The community’s frustration spilled over last year after it refused to end the filibuster over two voting rights laws. More than 100 Arizona LGBTQ leaders and allies sent a joint letter to the Human Rights Campaign demanding that the national LGBTQ civil rights organization withdraw its support for Sinema. In December, Sinema resigned from the Democratic Party and declared himself independent.

Spotted portrait illustration by LZ Granderson

opinion columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and life in America.

So as you can see, Gallego’s announcement Monday that he would challenge Sinema in the Democratic primary came as something of a slow train. Ironically, the fact that a Democrat is officially challenging Sinema puts the national party in an awkward position, but it’s actually the frustrated Arizona Liberals who are on the clock now.

I’ll explain.

The deadline for reporting all money a candidate receives and spends in the first quarter is April 15, but the books close on March 31. That leaves Gallego and his supporters a little over two months to raise enough money to prove they both love him or enough blue rage at Sinema to justify national resources. And it can’t just be big checks from outsiders. There must be evidence that there would be both votes and dollars. As one political activist told me, national leaders will focus more on the small checks from local residents to gauge Gallego’s viability before deciding how to support him.

And if his numbers are strong in the first quarter, the national party will need to back him, which will no doubt impact the incumbent’s maneuvers in the Senate. Keep in mind, however, that Sinema has yet to announce that she is even seeking re-election. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would not say if he would support her if she did. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin wouldn’t say that either. Neither would Gary Peters, chairman of the Democratic Senators’ Campaign Committee.

If this was baseball, she’d be out. But that’s politics, and Gallego — while popular — isn’t necessarily known across the state for his fundraising skills, I’m told. So the National Democrats are less timid than patient. You really don’t have to say anything until Arizona wallets do it first.

Also, this whole dynamic is new to all of us.

While we now have independents in the Senate alongside Sinema, Maine and Vermont don’t have nearly as many variables to negotiate, starting with race. Maine and Vermont are more than 95% white. Almost a third of Arizonans are Latinos. Indigenous and Black make up another 11%. Then there’s the politics around the border – and I’m not talking Canadian. But the biggest variable is size. Of the state’s 4.3 million registered voters, a third are independents.

Like Sinema.

Republicans are first and Democrats are third on the list.

So the math for national democrats quickly becomes complicated. Whatever they do, they don’t want to stage a general election campaign that would give a bootleg Republican a shot at the seat.

That’s why the Federal Electoral Commission’s quarterly report is so instrumental in determining the party’s next move. The amount of local funds going to Gallego – or any other challenger – provides clarity. If there’s no measurable evidence that Arizona Liberal voters are genuinely willing to move away from Sinema, why would Schumer and company speak out against them and alienate a potential ally during the primary? And remember, Gallego must prove he’s a viable candidate, not just against Sinema, but against any Republican who might stand against him.

But who knows, in the end Sinema might decide she could be more effective (and better paid) outside of office, paving the way for a more traditional campaign. Her profile has been raised and her expertise is being sought. She may see the lukewarm Liberal support and the daunting path to re-election and decide she’d better take the time to appear at some of those weird events again. Arizona politics got wilder with a challenge for Sinema’s seat

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