Primarying Kyrsten Sinema Won't Stop Her In Time

Kyrsten Sinema’s election to the Senate in 2018 was one of the Democratic Party’s few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing election. Democrats took back the House by a slim margin, but actually lost seats in the Senate, narrowly squeezing Sinema into the open slot left by Jeff Flake’s retirement. Democrats arguably knew who Sinema would be going in — she had said her Senate role model was Joe Manchin and amassed a shockingly pro-Trump voting record while in the House — and her first days in office basically confirmed this. Still, I doubt many of the party’s top brass expected this

Now, it appears the party’s progressive wing is dead-set on pushing Sinema out of office as soon as possible — in 2024, to be exact. Punchbowl News reported on Tuesday that Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, one of Sinema’s most vocal critics from the other side of the Capitol building, flew to New York this weekend to meet with some of Sinema’s donors, most likely to say some version of “is this shit what you paid for?” Gallego comes from a similar mold as Mark Kelly, who won Arizona’s other Senate seat in 2020 (against Sinema’s former opponent):  distinguished military service, moderately progressive platform, didn’t blow up his party’s only chance at triumvirate governing in a decade. But no matter how likely Gallego is to snipe the seat, a primary campaign against Sinema will essentially be too late. Barring some electoral upset of enormous proportions, the Democrats aren’t likely to change their tenuous hold over the Senate majority in 2022, if they keep it at all, which means Manchin and Sinema are almost guaranteed another two years of their congressional hostage crisis. And for now, the damage is done: Build Back Better is largely dead, as are voting rights. The filibuster is still intact. Whatever bits and pieces of the Biden administration’s ambitious agenda do get passed will go through Sinema’s personal special-interest checklist. 

That ties into the other problem with primarying Sinema. It’s unclear precisely which donors Gallego met with this weekend, but for many of Sinema’s backers, obstructionism and utter fealty to the pharmaceutical industry is exactly what they paid for. Sinema has, by all metrics used by big business, been extremely good at her job. And even if she loses it, everything the senator has done so far suggests she’d be more than happy to decamp from Senate after six years in favor of a couple of cushy board seats for Big Pharma companies and weekend sommelier classes

Despite all this, she’s still technically a member of the Democratic Party, which is enough to make a certain subsection of the group circle the wagons whenever she’s threatened. Politico reported on Tuesday that a handful of Democrats are privately pissed at Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s strategy of isolation and intimidation against Sinema and fellow obstructionist Joe Manchin, arguing that it both didn’t work and opened their seats up to primary and/or general election challenges. Democrats have been extremely hostile to primary challenges based on ideological shifts within the party, successfully shutting out more progressive challengers even in safely blue seats and local-level races, so it’s not inconceivable that when push comes to shove, the party machinery sticks by Sinema in 2024. 

Shrewder observers are probably waiting a bit to make the call. If Democrats lose their slim majority in 2022, it changes the stakes of Sinema’s seat. If the 2024 midterms start to look more promising, it’s possible that party leadership will at least tacitly greenlight Gallego’s campaign against her. But you never know. Sinema’s pitch of moderate centrism in a purple state like Arizona is catnip to the Democratic machine, and it’s just as likely they’ll lose their nerve and double down on her if it means potentially regaining a majority in a presidential year. Either way, once again, Sinema looks fine. If she’s shuffled out of the Senate, all signs point to a very lucrative private industry career waiting for her on the other side. It’s hard to think of something more Democratic than that.

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