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Can Kyrsten Sinema Win in Arizona?

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s transition from a relatively predictable moderate Democrat to a mercurial independent has shaken up the upcoming Senate election in her home state. Her party switch topped off her breaks with party orthodoxy on key agenda items, which has enraged rank-and-file Democrats in Arizona and led to mainstream liberal Rep. Ruben Gallego launching a well-funded challenge from the left even before her departure from the party. 

Amidst all of this chaos, Sinema herself has not disclosed her plans for 2024, when voters will either reelect or replace her in the Senate — in fact, she may not even opt for re-election at all. Notably, she has continued to meet large-dollar donors and has begun to outline plans for what a prospective path to reelection as an independent might look like against both a Democrat and a Republican challenger. NBC News obtained a copy of this particular memo, and the strategy laid therein deserves a thorough review. 

Sinema’s campaign team believes that there is a path to victory if she wins 10–20% of Democratic voters, 25–35% of Republican voters, and most importantly, 60–70% of independent voters. At face value, this seems achievable, assuming that she can consolidate a broad center coalition as an independent against two partisans.

But looking at the current situation as described by early polling, all three of these assumptions seem very unlikely. First, the 10–20% of Democrats she would need seems a bit far-fetched given her current standings among Arizona Democrats. Gallego’s entry into the race is definitive proof of grassroots opposition. When Sinema was still a Democrat in 2021 and 2022, polls conducted of a hypothetical Gallego-Sinema primary showed the incumbent getting a maximum of 24% affirmative support

While this is above 20%, this figure is drawn from a primary poll. As she has since dropped the party label, Sinema will not benefit from a baseline of pro-incumbent support from within the party, especially as their apparent nominee would be an uncontroversial Democrat: Representative Ruben Gallego.

Second, looking at the Republican numbers, 25–35% would be extremely high for a candidate like Sinema to win with the GOP electorate present in Arizona. While Sinema does have some residual approval among Republicans, it’s hard to imagine this fractional share turning out for her over their own party’s candidate. Sinema’s independent posture is still more aligned with the Democratic Party, even as she derides some of its elements. All this has given traction to the idea that Sinema’s general left-of-center track record and positioning would cannibalize the left coalition and ensure a Republican victory. The reality, however, is more complicated.

Modeling three-way races is extremely difficult, but there is little evidence at the moment to suggest that Democrats would be hurt decisively by Sinema entering the race. In fact, the most recent polls of the three-way race, from pollsters Noble Predictive Insights (Gallego +8), Public Policy Polling (Gallego +7), and Emerson College (Gallego +7), all have Democrats leading by a healthy margin — in fact, in Emerson’s poll, Gallego’s margin improves with the addition of an independent Sinema candidacy. In each case, Republicans were more favorable towards Sinema’s candidacy than Democrats were, likely because of the significant friction that has built up between Sinema and the Democratic base due to her various votes and rhetorical stances over the last few years.

Finally, and most importantly, the memo dictates that Sinema has to win an outright supermajority (between 60 to 70 percent) of independent voters. Today, Sinema’s popularity with independents is still likely either underwater or barely above. This is likely because of her voting record having significant elements that can be criticized from both the left and right, leading many “soft” independents to view her much in the same way that Democratic and Republican partisans would. After all, there is a wealth of research that suggests that individual independent-affiliated voters mostly do not have distinct political preferences from regular partisans.

Can Sinema win? The possibility isn’t yet worth dismissing out of hand; it should be noted that there is a modern precedent for an independent candidate winning against two partisan candidates. Most recently, Maine Senator Angus King in 2012 and 2018 beat Democratic and Republican candidates and garnered majorities of the vote. However, Maine has a distinct political climate that allows for quixotic coalitions — being a small state in an isolated corner of the country, Maine politics are more local and allow politicians to build their own brands (further shown by the existence of Wins-Above-Replacement superstars like Susan Collins and Jared Golden).

More apt would perhaps be the 2006 Senate race in Connecticut. With incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman’s perceived moderation, he received a strong primary challenge from then-ex-Greenwich selectman Ned Lamont. Lamont narrowly won the primary and Lieberman organized his own party, “Connecticut For Lieberman”. 

While consolidating most of the moderate (and even conservative) votes, Lieberman ended up beating Lamont and another Republican who failed to get over 10% of the vote. Lieberman‘s voting record aligned well with the state’s historical brand of moderate Republicanism, preventing the state GOP’s preferred candidate from breaking through. 

But Arizona is a larger, more politically diverse state than either Maine or Connecticut. There is a large conservative faction that is very unlikely to break from the Republican line to support a more moderate option, especially if it becomes clear that the Republican has greater support than the independent.

It is also worth noting that all of these elections feature winners whose political profiles were defined in the pre-Trump era, when polarization was significantly lower than it is today. In a state like Arizona, where two-party competition was driven due to (rather than in spite of) national polarization, this becomes prohibitively more difficult to pull off. Negative polarization allows both partisan camps to argue to their own Sinema-curious voters that a vote for her would simply facilitate a victory for the other party.

Despite these signs suggesting Sinema is very unlikely to win, there are some data points she can take solace in. Recent polling seems to indicate that her highest favorables are among non-Democrats. She does not have to try to outflank her GOP rival, but moderation and a pull toward Republican orthodoxy on issues where the party is viewed more favorably, such as on immigration and economics, may ease the permission structures to allow right-leaning independents and Republicans to vote for her.

Another lane for her would theoretically be to ride the wave of surging independent affiliation. Polls indicate that independents are her likeliest supporter demographic, and Sinema’s campaign memo indicates that her staff agree with this proposition as well. As independent voters make up a larger and larger share of the electorate, her ceiling rises progressively. These independent voters are plentiful and powerful in Arizona’s suburbs, where the legacy of Senator John McCain’s independent streak runs strong.

Lastly, Sinema’s recent posturing in front of large private equity donors indicates that she will likely have the necessary resources to prosecute a viable independent campaign. Ruben Gallego and the many Republicans running all have their own fundraising operations aided by party apparatuses, but Sinema as an independent has to craft her own. Right now, however, Sinema has $11 million cash on hand, with much more likely to come. Given that there are 13 months to election day, that is a strong financial position to be in. 

Despite these crumbs, however, the reality still remains that if Sinema runs, she would be an underdog for re-election against either the Democratic or Republican candidate. On the campaign trail, she might well pull more votes away from the GOP, as both her campaign memo and the existing public polling suggest. This could be exacerbated if the Republicans nominate a weak candidate, justifying a revolt from within their own party to who they may see as a better-positioned candidate. But with so much uncertainty this far out from the election, Split Ticket will maintain the present race rating of Tossup. 

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