Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I) is staring down a tight deadline to make a decision on whether or not to run for reelection in Arizona, joining an already heated race that includes Republican Kari Lake and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego.
Sinema has kept mum about her reelection plans since the Democrat-turned-independent changed parties in 2022. Earlier this month, she told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that she was committed to staying “laser-focused on the policy, on actually solving real problems.”
But questions are growing about her next move and how it could impact the race, which could be the deciding factor in whether Republicans are able to flip the Senate.
“As of today, she has more than enough time to qualify for the ballot,” said Kirk Adams, who served former Gov. Doug Ducey (R) as chief of staff.
“I think the issue is whether or not in this hyperpartisan, polarized environment there’s room for a governing senator like Kyrsten Sinema,” he added.
Sinema is the last senator to hail from a battleground state who has not yet said whether they intend to run for another term. The Arizona seat, rated as a “toss up” by the nonpartisan election handicapper Cook Political Report, represents one of the best flip opportunities for Republicans this fall.
To the frustration of both parties, though, she’s largely avoided questions about her plans.
Asked about the timing of a decision on a Senate run, Sinema told The Hill this month, “Oh my god, what a waste of a question.” Sinema’s campaign did not respond to further requests for comment.
FILE – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., questions Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifying before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing to examine the national security supplemental request, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)
There have been some hints that Sinema might still be considering a reelection bid. The Arizona Republic reported last week that Republican donors Eric and Macall Stenson were set to host a fundraiser for her Friday, though the timing of the event was thrown into question as the Senate stayed over the weekend to hash out Ukraine-Israel aid legislation.
But Sinema is grappling with logistical and political hurdles as she weighs her decision. As a registered independent, Sinema needs to collect roughly 42,000 signatures by the April 1 deadline to register — a feat that strategists say is possible as long as she has enough money.
She’d also have to piece together a unique coalition of voters in a potential three-way race, no easy feat considering she was censured by the Arizona Democratic Party in 2022 when she was still with the party after bucking some of its priorities.
Recent polling on a hypothetical three-way race shows a tight match-up between Gallego and Lake, with Sinema trailing in third.
Samara Klar, a professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy, said the challenge for Sinema has been juggling two different constituencies: the state she represents and the national party she’s aligned with.
“Kyrsten Sinema as a kind of nonpartisan, independent candidate in Arizona had a really hard time doing that because the independent constituency she was trying to represent was not jiving [with the] national Democratic Party that she also had to carry water for,” Klar said.
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Adding to her difficulties was the collapse of a bipartisan Senate border bill that she had helped negotiate — legislation that some strategists believed could better position her politically if it had passed.
“I think one of the reasons she’s … apparently not running is because you can’t find a poll that shows her doing well in that three-way race,” said Stan Barnes, a former GOP state senator and Republican consultant. “And regrettably, I think the most recent exercise with the border deal that ended up going nowhere has hurt her reelection stock in Arizona.”
At the same time, Sinema still maintains more than $10 million in the bank despite lagging in fundraising. By comparison, Gallego raised $3.3 million last quarter with $6.5 million in the bank, while Lake raised $2.1 million during the same period and ended last year with more than $1 million in the bank.
Sinema has undergone one of the starkest political evolutions for a politician in recent memory, as a Green Party candidate early on in her career before switching to the Democratic Party and then ultimately becoming an independent.
Though Sinema has often frustrated the Democrats, such as when she voted against a minimum wage increase as part of a COVID-19 relief package, or when she blocked Democrats from changing the filibuster rules, she has also been a key negotiator in bipartisan legislation on issues such as infrastructure and gun safety.
Democratic strategist Stacy Pearson believes voters will remember how Sinema moved the ball on key pieces of legislation even as she infuriated members of her party.
“She’ll have the money to remind us of the other things she’s gotten done — codifying marriage equality, passing meaningful gun legislation,” Pearson said.
Senate Democrats believe they’ll be in a strong position in the state even as Sinema’s status remains in limbo.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, told The Hill earlier this month that “we’re confident a Republican will not represent Arizona in the Senate.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have been taking steps to gear up for the general election regardless of how the Senate race shakes out. The chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), announced Tuesday he was backing Lake in the race.
Daines and John Barrasso (Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, are also expected to attend a March 6 fundraiser for her in Washington, D.C., according to two sources familiar with the matter.
“Kyrsten Sinema can run or not run. The fact of the matter is she’s a distant third in every single poll,” NRSC spokesperson Tate Mitchell told The Hill.
Lake’s campaign, similarly, said the Arizona independent had no pathway for another reelection bid and sought to tie her to President Biden.
“All the polling is clear: Kyrsten Sinema has zero path to victory,” said Lake campaign spokesperson Alex Nicoll.
“She is nothing more than a fake independent who has voted with Joe Biden almost 100 percent of the time. Kyrsten spends more time on private jets than in Arizona. Kari Lake is the common sense candidate who will secure the border and get the economy back on track.”
Some Democrats in the state, meanwhile, are still angry at Sinema. Ahead of the collapse of the border deal, Democratic strategist Matt Grodsky poured cold water on the idea that a legislative victory like that could boost Sinema politically among Democrats.
“I think, to be polite, if that was a genuine thought she had, I think it just goes to show how out of touch she is with her party and its base,” Grodsky said. “I mean, they have just not forgiven her for what they view as obstruction over the last few years and not passing things that were, in a lot of people’s views, like at our fingertips to pass.”
Barnes, the former state senator, said he wanted to see Sinema run in order to see a potential three-way race in Arizona play out, arguing it “might be the greatest political science experiment of any of the 50 states” with three strong Senate challengers.
But even he sees a rapidly closing window for Sinema.
“I have recently decided she’s probably not running because there are things a person would do if you were really going to be running, even [an] unorthodox campaign like an independent U.S. senator,” Barnes said. “But I mean, the door is just about to close, physically speaking.”