Voices: Kyrsten Sinema’s been one of the biggest roadblocks in Biden’s presidency – could Ruben Gallego push her to the side?

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In the least surprising news of the young year of 2023, Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego announced on Monday that he will challenge the newly independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona.

Ms Sinema has become public enemy number one for Democrats, mostly since she delivered a thumbs down during a vote to overrule the Senate parliamentarian to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Her support for the filibuster and her staying mostly mum on Build Back Better frustrated President Joe Biden and other Democrats to no end (her taciturn nature also contrasts starkly with that of the verbose Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia). During the vote for the Inflation Reduction Act, she sided with Republican John Thune on an amendment that nearly sunk the bill until Senator Mark Warner of Virginia proposed a replacement.

At the same time, many considered Ms Sinema – the former Green Party activist who rose through the ranks in Arizona’s legislature and the House of Representatives until she became the first Democrat to win a Senate race in the state in 2018 in 30 years– a formidable opponent. Her competetive streak is well known; she competes in Ironman competitions.

When the seat opened up in 2017, Republicans in Arizona told me they knew that Ms Sinema would be a juggernaut candidate, which she was. As a senator, she can claim she has a legitimate record of accomplishments, including the bipartisan infrastructure law, the first significant piece of gun legislation in almost three decades, and codifying same-sex marriage protections.

While she has not announced whether she will seek re-election since going independent, expect her to lean heavily on that record of a bipartisan dealmaking in the vein of the late John McCain.

But Mr Gallego has a strong record, too. A retired Marine and Iraq War veteran and one of the most outspoken critics of his party’s Latino outreach, he’s frequently criticised Ms Sinema for simply not showing up in Arizona, most recently when she went off to Davos to speak at the World Economic Forum, where she once again defended the filibuster.

He’s also been a consistent supporter of the Biden administration. He was part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus that huddled for hours in late 2021 as they pondered whether to allow the bipartisan infrastructure bill Ms Sinema brokered without passing Build Back Better. Unlike members of the Squad, he ultimately relented.

He’s also carefully bided his time in the House, having passed on running for Senate in 2020 given that Democrats considered eventual winner Mark Kelly a top prospect.

And like most Marines, he loves talking smack both in the halls of Congress and on Twitter. When Republicans almost broke out into a fight on the House during the speaker vote, he joked with his Democratic buddy Representative Eric Swalwell that they’d get involved in another fight on January 6 again, after they tried to form a blockade during the insurrection in 2021.

When he and I spoke in 2021, he noted how, for all the talk about Mr McCain, Ms Sinema didn’t do much in terms of speaking directly to voters about where she stood, a staple of the late Republican presidential nominee’s tenure in politics.

Many Democratic Ssenators seemed less than enthused when I spoke with them last month when asked about supporting a challenger to Ms Sinema This was likely due to the fact that they fear splitting the field and allowing a Republican to win and the fact that the Senate is far more insular and clubby than the lower chamber.

At the same time, while she has become an effective dealmaker, her stock has plunged in Arizona. A Morning Consult poll found that her approval rating improved little after her defection, though her support did improve with Republicans and independents. Her low numbers make her one of the most unpopular senators.

In addition, she is likely to face a lack of grassroots contributors, given she angered many of them as she obstructed the Biden agenda. Regardless of whether she runs, she faces numerous hurdles if she wants another term.