Politics

Arizona Democrats Have Turned on Kyrsten Sinema

Just 8 percent of her party’s voters view the senator favorably. What could she be thinking?

Kyrsten Sinema, in a pink face mask, talks on a cell phone.
What’s her deal? Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Polling data can be hard to parse, and it’s never smart to extrapolate the views of an entire population from the results of a single survey. All the same, by any measure , it appears that Arizona Democrats are not too pleased with the job performance of their senior senator.

Take a gander at this absolutely wild graph, from Civiqs via the Daily Kos, tracking Arizona Dems’ views on Sen. Kyrsten Sinema up to Jan. 14:

A graph showing Kyrsten Sinema's favorability rating over time among Arizona Democrats.
Civiqs via Daily Kos
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You rarely see this rapid a turning-on-one’s-own in party politics. Over the past year, in Civiqs polling, Sinema went from a 50 percent net favorable rating among Arizona Dems to a 72 percent net unfavorable rating.

Other recent polls have also turned up ominous, if slightly less disastrous, results for the senator. For instance, a poll by OH Predictive Insights from November found that 42 percent of Arizona Democrats had a favorable view of Sinema. But given a choice between her, a Republican, or another Democrat, 72 percent of the party’s voters said they’d go with the other Democrat. FiveThirtyEight points out that even the few incumbent senators in the past century who’ve lost their primaries—including Republicans Bob Smith and Richard Lugar and Democrats Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter—weren’t polling as low among their own party’s voters when they lost as Sinema is now.

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Arizona Dems aren’t being capricious. They seem to be paying close attention to what’s going on in Washington: The two major inflection points on the chart coincide with Sinema’s vote in March 2021 against including a minimum wage hike in the COVID relief bill and her May 2021 decision to skip the Senate’s vote on establishing a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

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That’s not the weird part. We should expect that party-registered voters would care that the senator they elected is repeatedly tanking their party’s agenda at a rare and precious moment when they control both chambers of Congress in addition the White House.

The weird thing here is that Sinema, who could stand to lose a Democratic primary if she runs for re-election in 2024, doesn’t seem to care. Usually, legislators’ positions on issues are informed by some combination of their own beliefs, the interests of their donors, and those of their constituents. So what are we to make of the fact that, at a crucial turning point for U.S. democracy and a record low point in her standing among the people who put her in office, Sinema opted to derail the Democrats’ voting rights legislation? Does she have some deeply held personal attachment to the filibuster, an institution whose history she can’t even get right?

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Arizona does tend to demand, and reward, senators who go against their own parties every now and then. But not too often: The late John McCain, Sinema’s “hero,”would occasionally help the Democrats out, as when he voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act. But he sided with his own party on plenty of big agenda items and was more than willing to throw red meat to the GOP base come campaign season, such as the time he famously pivoted on immigration by airing an ad demanding that Washington “complete the danged fence.” In contrast, Jeff Flake, another Arizona Republican, ended up retiring when it became clear that he would lose the 2018 GOP primary, thanks to his harsh criticisms of Donald Trump. Right now, Sinema’s future prospects look a lot more like Flake’s than McCain’s, albeit on the other side of the aisle.

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And, anyway, Sinema’s votes can’t be explained by the ideological makeup of Arizona’s general electorate: She’s siding with the GOP way more often than she needs to—and according to Civiqs’ tracking, she’s even 20 points under water with independents, who flipped on her in early 2021 around the time she signaled her opposition to raising the minimum wage in the COVID package. Among Republicans, she has a net favorable rating, which jumped after she missed the Jan. 6 commission vote. But she wouldn’t last a second in a GOP primary. The Arizona Republican Party, which is now fully consumed by pro-Trump conspiracy theories and far-right extremism, would never cast its lot with a centrist former Dem.

One often-repeated theory is that Sinema simply doesn’t intend to run for office again and may see her future in lobbying. But U.S. senators don’t usually dash for that door after just a single term in office. Recently, journalist Amy Siskind claimed that Sinema hopes to run for president in 2024 as a straight-down-the-middle candidate, and she’s establishing a legislative history to back herself up. It seems almost too bizarre to be true—but then again, so does the rest of her behavior.

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