Even Off The Ballot, Kyrsten Sinema Looms Large In Arizona

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is not on the ballot this November, but that hasn’t stopped her from playing a central role in Arizona’s marquee Senate and gubernatorial races.

Sinema has strongly backed Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly’s bid for reelection, even as Republicans have repeatedly used her as a foil to challenge Kelly’s qualifications as a moderate and a lawmaker independent of national Democrats. On the other hand, she had stayed relatively silent on state Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ run for governor, even as Hobbs, a Democrat, trails Republican Kari Lake, a far-right former news anchor with a specialty in election denial.

But in a statement to HuffPost on Wednesday, Sinema indicated for the first time that she supports Hobbs.

“Arizonans vote for the candidate they believe best represents Arizona values, and that’s why I voted for Katie Hobbs for Governor,” Sinema said.

Sinema’s role in the two races shows how her relationship with the state’s Democratic Party remains rocky at best after her refusal to budge on eliminating the filibuster, which contributed to the sinking of much of President Joe Biden’s initial agenda. And the outcomes of both contests could help shape how voters view Sinema’s own reelection bid in 2024, when she is likely to face a serious primary challenge.

“If Mark wins, that’s probably bad for Sinema’s future in the Democratic Party,” said one Democratic strategist in the state, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly. “And if Mark loses, there will be a freakout that shores up her standing.”

Sinema has donated $10,000 to Kelly’s campaign and $60,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She’s also hosted a fundraiser for Kelly and sent out multiple fundraising messages to her own extensive email list, providing a further boost to Kelly’s already high-powered fundraising efforts.

“Over the past two years, Mark has been a great partner in our work securing the border, strengthening Arizona’s water future, and lowering prices for everyday Arizona families,” Sinema told The Arizona Republic last week, ticking off three issues where she and Kelly have both tried to separate themselves from the national Democratic Party brand. “I was proud to support his campaign in 2020 and I’m laser focused on keeping him in the Senate.”

Her messaging echoes Kelly’s own. For instance, his campaign released an ad on Tuesday featuring a rancher who lives on the Arizona-Mexico border praising Kelly’s independence.

“I don’t agree with him on every issue,” the rancher, identified as Bill, says in the 30-second ad. “But he listens to people.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is seen in the U.S. Capitol on May 24.
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is seen in the U.S. Capitol on May 24.

Tom Williams via Getty Images

Listening to GOP television ads and attacks from Blake Masters, the venture capitalist who won the Republican Senate nomination with the backing of former President Donald Trump, you might get the impression Kelly and Sinema are adversaries rather than allies.

“We were wondering which way Manchin, which way Sinema was going to vote,” Masters said at a campaign event in August, shortly after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. “You never have to ask which way Mark Kelly is going to vote. You know the answer. He’s going to vote with Chuck Schumer.”

Masters deployed a similar line during the only debate between him and Kelly, arguing that he could work with “moderate” senators like Sinema.

A recent ad from Our American Century, a conservative super PAC primarily funded by casino magnate Steve Wynn, opens with a similar slight. The ad, which pretends to be supportive of Kelly but actually highlights the senator’s unpopular purported progressive stances, features a shot of Sinema when the narrator declares: “Other Democrats may abandon Biden, but the president doesn’t worry about Kelly.”

Earlier in the 2022 cycle, One Nation ― a conservative nonprofit controlled by allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ― released multiple ads praising Sinema for her support of the filibuster, and knocking Kelly for not echoing her stance.

At times, Sinema and Kelly have seemed attached at the hip. Shortly after he was sworn in, Kelly joined Sinema in breaking with other Democratic senators to support a massive arms sale to the United Arab Emirates sought by the Trump administration. He also worked with her and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to kill the nomination of a progressive to a key Labor Department post, and the two helped negotiate a bipartisan gun safety law this summer. Kelly and Sinema have nearly identical voting records, both voting with Biden 94.5% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s vote tracker. (Only five Senate Democrats voted with Biden less.)

At the same time, Kelly has broken with Sinema on several key issues, including filibuster reform and raising the minimum wage to $15.

And occasionally, Kelly has seemed bemused by Sinema’s maneuvering. When Sinema was holding up the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act this summer over a provision to tighten the so-called carried interest loophole, which primarily benefits private equity partners, a HuffPost reporter asked Kelly if it was an important issue for his constituents.

“I hear a lot about prescription drugs,” Kelly responded, referring to a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act to allow Medicare to use its buying power to negotiate drug costs.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) departs after a vote on Capitol Hill on May 19.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) departs after a vote on Capitol Hill on May 19.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Despite their similar voting records, Kelly is far more popular than Sinema among the party faithful because of his “bedside manner,” as the Democratic strategist put it. Sinema holds relatively few public events, and does not keep in close touch with key progressive and Democratic constituencies like labor unions, even as she builds close ties with business groups and corporate lobbyists.

“He’s willing to have a dialogue with progressives,” Alex Alvarez, the executive director of Progress Arizona, said of Kelly. “He’s been able to build a relationship with the progressive community in Arizona. That doesn’t mean we’ve always agreed with him.”

Mike Noble, the managing partner of OH Predictive Insights, which does regular polling of Arizona, said the focus on Sinema from the news media and the left has almost certainly helped Kelly.

“In this very polarized environment, people haven’t been going after his voting record as much, and when you look at that voting record, it probably does not look very independent,” Noble said. “He’s done a great job of not losing his base ― Sinema’s base is gone ― but among independents, he has pretty decent favorability.”

If Sinema’s support for Kelly is unequivocal, the situation with Hobbs, the Democratic nominee for governor, is trickier. Hobbs first entered politics as a volunteer for Sinema’s state legislative races. The two women, both social workers, quickly became friends and occasional running buddies. When Sinema ran for state senate, she encouraged Hobbs to run for the seat she was vacating. Hobbs also moved up into Sinema’s state senate seat when the latter ran for Congress.

But the relationship between the two women today seems frostier.

In June 2021, Hobbs wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling out Sinema and Manchin’s opposition to the filibuster, arguing that its elimination was necessary to pass legislation that would protect voting rights in Arizona and other states.

“Sinema and I serve the same state. We both know that if we do nothing now, Arizonans’ access to the ballot will be stripped away by Republican legislators,” Hobbs wrote at the time. “If Republicans want to make the right to vote a partisan issue, that’s their problem. I know — and I believe that U.S. senators know, too — that access to the ballot isn’t a red or blue policy but a basic American value.”

Sinema’s relatively late endorsement of Hobbs ― the election is less than two weeks away, and mail ballots went out in Arizona on Oct. 12 ― mirrors her occasional lack of engagement in statewide races. She never endorsed David Garcia, a progressive who won the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 and lost by a wide margin to GOP Gov. Doug Ducey. And she did not back Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s run against then-incumbent Sen. John McCain in 2016.

In an interview in August, Hobbs said she had not talked to Sinema about her campaign.

“We haven’t spoken about it,” she said. “I’m just really focused on running the campaign I need to run. But I would welcome anyone’s support that would help us build the coalition we need to win this race.”

Arizona Secretary of State and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs speaks at a press conference on Oct. 7 in Tucson, Arizona.
Arizona Secretary of State and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs speaks at a press conference on Oct. 7 in Tucson, Arizona.

Mario Tama via Getty Images

In a statement this week, Hobbs’ campaign said she is excited to work with her fellow Democrats. “Katie will continue to work with Senators Kelly and Sinema after she wins to combat the rampant inflation in our state, solve Arizona’s ongoing water crisis, and secure our border once and for all,” a spokesperson said.

An AARP survey from September, conducted by a bipartisan duo of pollsters, tested the popularity of all three Democrats. Fifty percent of likely voters in the state had a favorable view of Kelly, while 46% had an unfavorable view. Hobbs was slightly less well-known, with 46% holding a favorable view and 42% holding a negative one. Sinema was the least popular of the trio: Thirty-seven percent had a favorable view of her, and 54% had an unfavorable view.

But the partisan makeup of Kelly and Hobbs’ coalitions was sharply different than Sinema’s. Kelly boasted a 92% favorable rating among Democrats, a 48% favorable rating among independents and just 14% favorability among Republicans. Sinema, meanwhile, was essentially equal among all three groups: Thirty-seven percent of Democrats, 41% of independents and 36% of Republicans held a favorable view of her.

Since the AARP’s survey field date in September, the GOP has gained in both Arizona races. Public surveys still show Kelly with a small lead over Masters, but Biden remains deeply unpopular and a motley crew of GOP groups are funding ads backing Masters. Lake, meanwhile, has charged into a slight lead over Hobbs.

The reasons for Hobbs’ struggles are manifold. Lake, formerly a longtime TV anchor in Phoenix, has a celebrity that the relatively low-key Hobbs, who has served just a single term in statewide office, could not possibly replicate. Hobbs’ decision not to debate Lake has been a weekslong story, likely throwing her campaign off-track far more than a weak performance would have.

The possibility of a split decision in the major statewide races ― a Kelly victory paired with a Hobbs loss ― could potentially reinforce Sinema’s arguments about how Democrats need to nominate centrist candidates with appeal to independents and Republicans to win in Arizona. While Hobbs is not generally considered a movement progressive, she has not strained to separate herself from the national brand the way Kelly and Sinema have.

For instance, Hobbs backtracked on her initial support for the Biden administration’s decision to end Title 42, which allowed the government to expel migrants faster during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Kelly and Sinema opposed the administration from the beginning. (A judge blocked the administration’s move, and Title 42 remains in effect.)

However, anger at Sinema among the Democratic base may simply be too great for any electoral arguments to preempt a primary challenge. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) has mused publicly about challenging Sinema, and way-too-early polling shows a primary electorate willing or even eager to toss Sinema aside.

“There’s enough interest from really credible candidates on the ground that it’s going to happen,” Alvarez, of Progress Arizona, said. “Everybody’s just looking for the best option here.”