’Tis the season of Kyrsten Sinema. The wig-wearing triathlete senator from Arizona has quickly become one of the most hated figures in present-day American politics. She’s blocking her own party’s agenda; she’s shutting down questions from reporters; she’s schmoozing with lobbyists and jetting off to Europe. Sinema is “not demonstrating the basic competence or good faith of a member of Congress,” Representative Ro Khanna of California told Rolling Stone. Progressive activists have committed to “bird-dogging” Sinema until she caves. And as Democrats devote countless column inches to deciphering Sinema’s motivations, progressives have vowed revenge in the form of a primary challenge. Sinema is not doing what her voters want, liberals argue, so Arizonans should elect someone who will.
But Sinema does not seem rattled by any of it—and it’s not clear that she should be. Unseating her would be difficult. She isn’t up for reelection until 2024, so any primary challenge is years away. Voters’ memories are short, and the political landscape will be different by then. Ousting a sitting senator is a dubious project, and even if lefties were to defeat Sinema with one of their own, a more progressive candidate might find it harder to win a general election. Arizona is still a purple state, and Sinema’s popularity among independents and Republicans remains fairly high. “I’ve seen [progressives] throw everything at her to create this narrative that she’s in this very perilous situation,” Mike Noble, the research chief at the Arizona-based nonpartisan polling firm OH Predictive Insights, told me. But “I don’t see a need for her to be hitting the panic button.”
Polls show Sinema’s support among Democrats waning. Her approval rating on the left fell 21 points from March to September, according to Morning Consult. The progressive polling firm Data for Progress tested potential challengers in a recent survey of individuals it describes as likely Democratic primary voters. “We find that U.S. Senator from Arizona Kyrsten Sinema is poised to lose her primary in 2024,” a press release about the survey reads. “Life comes at you fast.”
But polls, as any pollster will eagerly tell you, are merely a snapshot of a moment in time. And this particular moment in time, however high-stakes it feels, is in the year 2021. It’s difficult to predict who these likely Democratic primary voters will be, let alone anticipate America’s political atmosphere. “She shouldn’t be panicking,” Garrett Archer, an Arizona-based data analyst, told me. “The primary is so far away, we don’t even know what the makeup of the electorate is going to look like.” Life, in other words, might not come fast enough for progressives.
Sinema, whose office did not respond to multiple requests for comment, is not underwater yet. She’s lost some standing among Arizona Democrats, but her approval rating is still at 56 percent, according to Noble’s most recent poll. (At this early juncture, approval polls are probably more reliable than likely-voter models.) Sinema can afford to anger the Democratic base a little, so long as she gets at least 50 percent of it in her primary race, Noble said. John McCain won only 52 percent of the GOP primary vote in his last election, in 2016, but he still won the general by 13 points. Similarly, Sinema’s power is her cross-party appeal: 42 percent of independents view her favorably, and she’s almost as popular among Republicans.
Another Democrat could challenge Sinema in 2024 and win. That person would have to be similarly well known, with plenty of money and optimism to spare: Winning a primary challenge against an incumbent senator is extremely difficult; only five people have done it this century, according to FiveThirtyEight. Four of those five went on to lose the general election. (And Sinema’s state is more difficult terrain for Democrats than any of those primary victors’ states were.) If another Democrat did win the nomination over Sinema, they might struggle in the general. The new candidate’s fate would depend, in part, on the GOP nominee: a Donald Trump type could turn off Arizona’s Mormon community and suburban voters; a more moderate candidate could win them over.
Sixteen percent of Republican women in Maricopa County, where most Arizonans live, broke with their party to vote for Sinema in 2018, making her the first Democrat to win a Senate race in the state in 30 years. I wrote about some of those women then—and I called them up again for this story. Jane Andersen, a former Republican, told me that Sinema represents the interests of moderates. “She was elected in a state that has extreme conservatives and a lot in the middle,” Andersen said. “She’s doing a fantastic job.” Relying on conservative and independent voters to build a Democratic majority in the Senate always carried the risk that, when push came to shove, those voters wouldn’t go along with Democrats’ goals. I recognized a little bit of Sinema in these women—an eagerness to buck expectations. “Censure and threats from one’s party can be a badge of honor,” Laura Clement, an ESL teacher and independent voter from Mesa, told me in an email. “She’s powerful, and I want to keep people like her in power.”
Winning reelection as a Democrat, though, might not be Sinema’s calculation at all. She may not even be in the party in three years’ time. The senator has clearly squandered her support among national Democrats, and she also appears to have alienated her in-state Democratic allies. In the meantime, she’s been cultivating a network of wealthy donors. What does it mean? Some political commentators have speculated that Sinema could be planning to ditch the Democrats and become an independent. She might even caucus with the Republican Party if the GOP takes back Congress next year. It’s happened before: Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched parties while serving in the Senate. And Sinema’s supporters might not be wholly opposed to the idea. “She doesn’t just quickly line up to vote in lockstep when the party leader blows the whistle,” Clement said. “I love how she keeps everyone guessing.”