Is Arizona becoming more purple? What 2024 Senate race tells us

In 2018, while still a member of the Democratic Party, Kyrsten Sinema ran her Senate campaign as the self-proclaimed “Arizona Independent,” a distinction that helped her become the first Democrat to win the seat in three decades.

Five years later, progressives are betting that Arizona, a longtime Republican stronghold, has shifted far enough to the left that Democrats don’t have to rely on an iconoclast like Sinema to win. Democratic MP Ruben Gallego launched his campaign for her seat last week, painting the race as a choice between an inaccessible incumbent bound to special interests and a challenger who would be a lobbyist for working families.

There are several questions that need to be answered before next year’s election, mainly whether Gallego has left the field; how much influence former President Trump will have on the Republican primary and what role, if any, Sinema will play in a possible three-person race. But the biggest question might be, how purple is Arizona?

“I wish I could say Arizona is turning blue and all the good work we’ve done is convincing people that progressive ideas are right, but that’s not the state of the state just yet,” he said Stacy Pearson, a Phoenix-based Democratic strategist and longtime Sinema ally. “Arizona is no more progressive, but it remains opposed to extremism.”

After decades of GOP dominance in the state, Democrats have notched up a string of statewide victories in the recent election, including Joe Biden’s presidential victory, Mark Kelly’s Senate victories in 2020 and 2022, and the Democratic victory over the governor, The Senate, Secretary of State and Attorney General are up against Trump-backed candidates in November.

Arizona is crucial for Democrats, who have a two-seat majority in the Senate and will defend 23 of 34 seats for re-election next year. Three of those contests are held in states won by Trump in 2020 – Ohio, West Virginia and Montana.

Sinema has not announced whether she intends to stand for re-election and her office declined to comment. In her public comments, she pointed to the work that still needs to be done in this session of Congress and said it’s too early to talk about politics.

“A never-ending focus on campaign politics is why so many people hate politics,” Sinema told a Phoenix radio station Friday before Gallego’s announcement. “We just got through a really tough election cycle, so I think most Arizonans want a break.”

A person walks into a hallway.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) on November 3, 2021 in the US Capitol.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Allies of Sinema say they expect her to run away. She has about $8 million in campaign funds at her disposal.

John LaBombard, a Democratic strategist who has worked with Sinema and other moderate Democrats, said she can differentiate herself politically from “extremes” on both sides of her.

“The things she said about the broken partisan system, I really think that will resonate with a lot of independents,” he said. “It might also resonate with enough Democrats and Republicans to obviously make this a really close dogfight, but one that Kyrsten is really well positioned in.”

When Sinema announced last month that she was leaving the Democratic Party to become independent – and framed the decision as an attempt to withdraw from party politics – some were furious, but few were surprised.

“A growing number of Arizonans — people like me — just don’t feel like we’re a good fit for one party or another,” she told CNN at the time.

In Arizona, independents outnumber Democrats. Of nearly 4.2 million registered voters, 34.7% are Republicans, 34% are Independents, and 30.5% are Democrats.

According to a January Morning Consult poll, Sinema’s popularity rating rose 13 percentage points to 42% among independents and 5 percentage points to 43% among Republicans after she announced she was leaving the party. Their support for the Democrats fell 12 percentage points to 30% among Democrats.

While some Democrats are concerned about splitting the vote in a three-way race, Gallego’s allies say Sinema doesn’t have enough support to spoil the race.

“Ruben Gallego can win this race with or without Sinema,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist working for Gallego’s campaign. “Democrats are fairly united in their disappointment with Sen. Sinema and the promises she broke.” Gallego’s campaign said he sold more than 1 million in the 24 hours after announcing he would be running the race raised US dollars.

Sinema, a former progressive activist and Green Party member, has adopted a more moderate, independent streak during her five years in the Senate. She was one of eight Democrats who voted against raising the minimum wage on a 2021 pandemic relief package and along with Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.V.) pledged efforts to end the filibuster, the rule that requires it , to block Most bills clear a 60-vote hurdle before they are considered.

In the last session of Congress, when Democrats regained control of the Senate, Sinema helped negotiate some of the key legislation her party passed, including last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the bipartisan bill on gun safety and a law promoting semiconductor manufacturing in the United States.

At the same time, she uses her influence as a moderate in a parity-divided chamber to wring painful concessions from her party. To secure their vote on last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, a tax reform, health care and climate change bill, Democrats scaled back a provision that allows Medicare to directly negotiate drug prices and protected the carried-interest loopholes that private -Equity professionals use to tax their compensation at a lower rate.

As Sinema’s profile rose, so did Democrats’ anger against her. While she and Manchin tried to lower the cost of Build Back Better, Biden’s $3.5 trillion social safety net law fell through. Protesters from Arizona’s Living United for Change followed her into a bathroom at Arizona State University, where she teaches at the School of Social Works.

Several of her former associates and supporters formed the Change for Arizona 2024 political action committee to put Sinema on the helm and now replace him. Sacha Haworth, an advisor to the group who led communications for Sinema’s 2018 campaign, said donations jumped 600% within 24 hours of Gallego’s announcement.

“There was a lot of energy to defeat them, whether in a primary or a general, and now there’s a face to put on their opponent,” Haworth said. “Until now it was an abstract concept.”

In his announcement video, Gallego focused on his family’s financial struggles growing up and presented himself as an advocate for people living paycheck to paycheck. Sinema recently returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, a gathering of the business and government elite in Switzerland.

“There is no such thing as a lobbyist for working families,” Gallego said in his announcement video. “If you’re meeting with the powerful rather than the powerless, you’re doing this job wrong.”

Katz, who helped Democrat John Fetterman win a Senate seat in Pennsylvania last year, said the lesson from the 2022 cycle is that voters want candidates who appear like they understand what they’re going through.

“While Washington is focusing on labels, voters seem to want candidates who actually look like they don’t give a damn,” Katz said.

Meanwhile, Republicans have tried to portray Gallego’s entry into the race as messy for Democrats.

“The Democratic Civil War is underway in Arizona,” said Philip Letsou, spokesman for the Senate Republican campaign arm. Senate Majority Leader “Chuck Schumer has a choice: stand with open borders with radical Ruben Gallego or support his incumbent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.”

When asked last week whether he would support Sinema or the Democratic nominee, Schumer (D-New York) told reporters that she was an excellent member of the Senate, “but it’s way too early to make a decision.”

Most Democratic senators have avoided saying whether they would support Sinema if she decides to run for re-election.

Republicans, meanwhile, may soon face their own internal struggles. Several Republicans who lost statewide races in 2022 are also considering running for Senate in 2024, according to news reports, including Kari Lake and Blake Masters, Trump-backed gubernatorial and Senate candidates who lost in the general election; Karrin Taylor Robson, a former member of the state board of regents who lost the GOP gubernatorial primary to Lake; and solar energy executive Jim Lamon, who lost the Senate primary to Masters.

Other possible contenders include Republican Rep. Juan Ciscomani, whose southwestern Arizona district voted for Biden in 2020, and Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb.

Daniel Scarpinato, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff to former GOP Gov. Doug Ducey, said Republicans must run as if they needed to garner as much support as possible in the general election.

“You have to go into this race and assume that she won’t stay in it and that you have to win by 50[% of the vote] plus one,” he said. “If she sticks with it, there’s a very good chance she’ll get more Republican votes than Democrat votes in the general election, and that makes it all the more important that the Republicans nominate a strong candidate.”

Trump still has influence over Republican primary voters, but it’s unclear if he will influence the primary while campaigning on his own. Arizona has been seen as a key test of the strength of Trump’s election misinformation — he endorsed candidates in key states’ races who questioned or denied the results of the 2020 election, which he lost to Biden.

“If we’ve learned anything from the last three elections here in Arizona, [it’s that] Arizona is a conservative state, but we’re not a Trump state,” said Barrett Marson, a Phoenix-based Republican strategist. Is Arizona becoming more purple? What 2024 Senate race tells us

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