While the White House and Democratic congressional leadership are publicly hoping U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s departure from the party won’t change much in Washington, D.C., progressives in her home state of Arizona and across the nation are already pushing to replace the newly declared Independent if she runs for reelection in 2024.
The “Primary Sinema” campaign rebranded on Saturday as “Replace Sinema” following the senator’s Friday announcement — which came just days after Democrats secured 51 seats in the Senate with Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) winning his second crucial runoff in as many years.
The Change for Arizona 2024 PAC project was launched in September “to educate the public about the ways Kyrsten Sinema has let down Arizonans and caved to special interests,” said the campaign, which has raised over $500,000 from thousands of grassroots donors. “Now, as Kyrsten Sinema has left the Democratic Party, the group’s effort will shift toward defeating her in a potential three-way general election and replacing her with a real Democrat.”
Sinema — who insists she won’t caucus with the GOP — is now one of three Independents in the upper chamber, joining Sens. Angus King (Maine) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who both caucus with the Democrats. Sanders notably sought the party’s nomination for president in 2016 and 2020.
The “Replace Sinema” campaign on Sunday spotlighted Sanders’ morning appearance on CNN, during which he called her out for so far serving as a “corporate Democrat” who, along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), has “sabotaged enormously important legislation.”
“I happen to suspect that it’s probably a lot to do with politics back in Arizona,” Sanders said of Sinema abandoning the party. “I think the Democrats there are not all that enthusiastic about somebody who helped sabotage some of the most important legislation that protects the interests of working families and voting rights and so forth.”
“So I think it really has to do with her political aspirations for the future in Arizona,” added Sanders, who said he’d be watching closely to see who may challenge her in two years. “But for us, I think nothing much has changed in terms of the functioning of the U.S. Senate.”
In response to a video Sinema shared about her decision — which she has framed as an attempt to “stay focused on solving problems and getting things done for everyday Arizonans” — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted that “not once in this long soliloquy does Sinema offer a single concrete value or policy she believes in.”
“She lays out no goals for Arizonans, no vision, no commitments,” the progressive “Squad” member added. “It’s ‘no healthcare, just vibes’ for Senate. People deserve more. Grateful this race and nomination has opened up.”
Pushing back against Sinema’s statements about the move, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said: “Bye Felicia… This isn’t about the party, this is about your pharma donors! Stop lying!”
Others also took aim at Sinema’s wealthy donors and history of obstructing key priorities of President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats, including efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and increase taxes on corporations.
“We are not surprised that she would once again center herself,” Alejandra Gomez, executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), told The New York Times. “This is another unfortunate, selfish act. It is yet another betrayal—there [has] been a slew of betrayals, but this is one of the ultimates, because voters elected her as Democrat, and she turned her back on those voters.”
While suggesting her shift won’t impede the party, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement that “this is a predictable outcome for Sinema as she has entirely separated herself from any semblance of representing hardworking and struggling Arizonans. Her alignment with wealthy and corporate interests has crippled her ability to support the Democratic agenda.”
Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told The Hill that “she should join her friends on Wall Street in 2024, and Democrats should nominate someone truly on the side of the working class who can unite and win Arizona.”
Morris Pearl, chair of the Patriotic Millionaires, highlighted that “in the past year alone, she torpedoed efforts to raise corporate taxes in Biden’s Build Back Better Act, killed the momentum to change the carried interest loophole in the Inflation Reduction Act, and tanked the movement to change the filibuster to safeguard American elections — all things that Democrats rightly wanted to do to make life better for working people.”
“By registering as an Independent, Sinema is just admitting what the rest of us have known for years—she has no allegiance to the Democratic Party or Democratic voters. Sinema works for her ultrarich, corporate donors, and no one else,” he added. “Her label change might improve her prospects of winning a corporate board room seat after her inevitable demise in 2024, but it won’t change the fact that she has never and will never have the best interests of ordinary Arizonans and Americans at heart.”
Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats tweeted that “Sinema and her big corporate donors know her politics have no path forward among Democratic primary voters. She’s made this decision simply to cling to power as one of corporate America’s leading obstructionists to the Democratic Party agenda.”
“After seeing her horrifically low poll numbers with Democratic voters, Sinema is once again doing everything she can to protect herself and big corporate donors at the expense of multiracial democracy,” Shahid told The Hill.
“Either Kyrsten Sinema is actively helping the Republican Party by splitting the Democratic vote, or she is a fundamentally self-interested person who would rather throw lives under the bus than give up her political career,” said Ellen Sciales of the Sunrise Movement, who wants to see a progressive challenger. “We’re wondering if she’s just trying to force the Democratic Party to not challenge her in 2024 because she knows her polling is incredibly unpopular.”
“There’s a whole question about her calculus here,” Sciales continued. “One thing is really clear: She’s not thinking about the people of Arizona, she’s thinking about her own political career.”
As the Times detailed:
The working assumption in Arizona political circles has long been that progressive anger at Ms. Sinema was concentrated among Democratic political activists, and that she could survive a primary from her left. But recent polling suggests that she has lost the confidence of many Arizona voters outside the center-right Chamber of Commerce types whom she has cultivated with the latest iteration of her political identity.
A Civiqs survey conducted shortly before Election Day found she had an approval rating of just 7% among the state’s Democrats, 27% among Republicans, and 29% among Independents.
While some such as Pearl were more optimistic about 2024, others warned that despite victories by Democrats in statewide races last month, the party could face a significant battle if it runs a candidate and Sinema seeks reelection — a topic she has declined to address in recent days, despite an abundance of media attention.
“I am not surprised. But I’m still shockingly disappointed at how awful she continues to be,” said Michael Slugocki, an outgoing vice chair of the Arizona Democratic Party. He said Sinema has had “no relationship and no contact with the state party for months” and did not inform them prior to her decision.
“It does shake up this race” in 2024, he said. “She’s deliberately trying to make it difficult for Democrats in Arizona.
He added that her decision could also make it harder for Democrats to carry Arizona on the presidential level again in two years, if she spends two years attacking her party and splintering its successful coalition. “It does make things more difficult for Joe Biden, but I don’t think she cares at all.”
Arizona-based pollster Mike Noble, chief research and managing partner at OH Predictive Insights, told The Hill that “the fastest growing political party in the state is actually Independent voters.”
“There’s got to be representation for folks more in the middle,” he said. “I could absolutely see Democrats having a progressive candidate, Republicans having a more hard-right candidate, and then you have Sinema in the middle. Absolutely there is a path to victory there for her.”
Stacy Pearson, an Arizona-based Democratic strategist who wasn’t surprised by Sinema’s move given criticism from the party in their state, agreed that Sinema has a decent shot at winning.
“Democrats in Arizona only comprise 30% of the electorate,” Pearson pointed out. “It’s the smallest bloc behind Republicans on top and Independents in second place.”
Grijalva told the Times that he would support fellow Democratic Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego if he runs for Senate in 2024 but also issued a warning: “Anybody that underestimates Sen. Sinema is being foolish… She’s going to be formidable if she decides to run.”
The newspaper interviewed Gallego, who referenced Warnock’s Tuesday win:
“I wish she would have waited for the Democrats at least to enjoy a couple more days after the victory,” he said. “But, you know, she’s not known really for thinking of others.”
Mr. Gallego said he would make a decision about what office to seek in 2024 in the new year. He had just gotten off the phone with his mother, who was catching up on the news.
“She said: ‘I heard Sinema is not running. Make sure to talk to me before you do anything,'” Mr. Gallego said.
The other potential Democratic candidate whose name is already making the rounds is another Arizona congressman: Greg Stanton, a former Phoenix mayor who on Friday tweeted an image of results from a statewide survey about his possible run for Senate.
“Democratic leaders were cagey on Friday about how they would approach the 2024 race or a potential Independent Sinema campaign,” according to the Times. “Representatives for Senate Democrats’ campaign arm and for Senate Majority PAC, the leading Democratic super PAC devoted to Senate races, declined to comment on Friday afternoon about Ms. Sinema’s move.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that Sinema “asked me to keep her committee assignments and I agreed. Kyrsten is Independent; that’s how she’s always been. I believe she’s a good and effective senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate. We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes.”
Whilte House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre struck a similar tone:
Sen. Sinema has been a key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months, from the American Rescue Plan to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, from the Inflation Reduction Act to the CHIPS and Science Act, from the PACT Act to the Gun Safety Act to the Respect for Marriage Act, and more. We understand that her decision to register as an Independent in Arizona does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate, and we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her.
Meanwhile, progressive strategist Max Berger said of Sinema ditching Democrats, “The level of shamelessness that it takes to do something like this at this particular moment in history, it’s really mind-boggling.”
“The White House and leadership have no choice but to treat her like a very important figure in the Senate, but they should be working to defeat her as quickly as possible,” he argued. “No one should have the slightest amount of deference or respect for her because what she’s done is a betrayal of the voters of Arizona and of American democracy and it’s loathsome.”