In a move that came out of left field, Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced that she is leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent. This decision, coming right after a midterm that saw Democrats gain the single seat needed to regain a true majority, throws not just the current Senate organization into question, but also throws the upcoming 2024 Senate race into question as well.
With Sinema and a Democrat both potentially being on the ballot, Republicans might have a golden opportunity to regain a seat in this purple state.
Sinema hasn’t stated her caucusing intentions
While Krysten Sinema has stated outright that she won’t caucus with Republicans, and that she intends to retain her committee assignments from Democrats, it’s unclear if she actually intends on caucusing with Senate Democrats. Caucusing is important because it’s how committee assignments are handed out. Two independent Senators – Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont – currently caucus with the Democratic Party, and receive committee assignments as a result.
On the one hand – committee assignments are not handed out to Senators who don’t caucus with a party. On the other hand, with an incoming 51-49 Senate, Sinema caucusing with nobody would effectively reduce this to a 50-49-1 Senate. This isn’t quite as bad as the evenly-divided Senate would be, but it would certainly be an inconvenience. Even if Sinema doesn’t caucus with the Democrats, it might be in their best interest to have her retain committee assignments.
Sinema was probably going to lose a primary
Krysten Sinema is not popular with Democrats. Poll after poll over the last year has shown her approval among voters in Arizona to be underwater, especially among Democrats. Representative Ruben Gallego – a progressive from a deep-blue Phoenix-based seat – has made it no secret that he’s interested in a primary challenge. But Sinema’s announcement throws this entire strategy into disarray – while Gallego would now have a clear path to the Democratic nomination, if Sinema opts to run for re-election anyway she would be able to remain on the general election ballot regardless – provided she achieves the number of signatures needed, of course.
While Sinema would be almost certain to lose as an independent if a Democrat is on the ticket, she could well shave off enough votes to ensure that the eventual Democratic nominee loses. The Democratic path to victory in Arizona relies on independent and registered Republican voters, who might be turned off by a hardline progressive like Gallego. There’s already no guarantee Gallego could win one-on-one versus a Republican – but in a three-way race, this becomes even harder.
Republicans have a clear opening if Sinema runs for re-election
If Sinema opts to run for re-election, and makes it on the ballot, Arizona Republicans would have a golden opportunity to flip the Senate seat. A mainstream Republican like outgoing Governor Doug Ducey or Treasurer Kimberly Yee could actually be outright favored from the start, but even a subpar nominee could have a clear chance at victory.
Why is this? Well, the Republican Party has a fairly firm floor in Arizona, even with abysmal nominees; Blake Masters, perhaps the worst candidate Republicans have nominated in a swing state since Terri Lynn Land, still managed to receive 46.5% of the vote. It’s very possible that Sinema would receive more than 5% of the vote, and this would almost certainly come predominantly from Democratic-leaning voters. Even a very, very conservative vote total of only 5% for Sinema could be the difference between a Democratic hold or a Republican flip.
Of course, there’s no real reason to give the Arizona Republican Party the benefit of the doubt here – their track record as of late has been abysmal, especially in the candidate quality department. It’s quite possible that Kari Lake, Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, or Kelli Ward, for example, decide to run for Senate. But if Sinema and a Democrat are on the ballot, this could enable a Republican that would otherwise lose to win. And flipping Arizona could have major ramifications – with three red-state Democratic seats up in 2024 (Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia), and virtually no Republican states to target, a flip in Arizona could effectively end Democratic chances of holding the Senate.
Democrats might now be posed with a choice: do they stand down in 2024 and let Sinema run on her own, or do they field a candidate and risk allowing an easy Republican flip? Either path presents major issues for the party going forward.