While Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is not up for reelection this year, her colleague Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) is. The contrast between the two is stark, and Arizona voters will be left to decide if Kelly’s left-leaning progressive policies are too radical for the red-leaning swing state when compared to Sinema’s centrist policies.
Sinema has found herself in the spotlight since the beginning of the 117th Congress. Like her moderate ally Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), Sinema has often broken with her party on a slew of issues ranging from taxes to the filibuster. Kelly, by contrast, has largely voted with his party.
Throughout the latter half of 2021, Sinema remained firmly opposed to her party’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act (BBB), a bill that Kelly supported. Because of objections made by both Sinema and Manchin, Democrats were ultimately forced to halve the bill to $1.85 trillion.
Sinema has said that she will not “negotiate through the press,” and during the BBB saga she largely stayed mum on her attitudes toward specific policies.
However, behind closed doors, Sinema said that she would oppose including a substantial income or corporate tax increase in the bill, which Democrats considered essential to meet their promise that the bill would be fully paid for.
Sinema has also refused to radically weaken or abolish the filibuster, which blocked Democrats from passing expansive federal voting laws. Democrats said that the process should be destroyed as a “relic of the Jim Crow era.”
Sinema, by contrast, has described the filibuster as a “tool … for the protection of the minority” and refused to accede to pressure to destroy it.
After Sinema announced her opposition to BBB and to weakening the filibuster, DNC operatives in her home state threatened a vote of no confidence against the new Arizona maverick—a threat which they carried out in January.
Since then, several progressive-leaning groups have popped up to oppose Sinema, with many eying more party-faithful Democrats to primary Sinema in 2024. The most likely candidate whose name has been tossed around is Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a progressive in the House who voted with his party to advance the $1.85 trillion spending package in late-2021.
In July 2021, following her refusal to vote down the filibuster, the left-wing polling firm Data for Progress wrote a hit-piece on the senator as part of an effort to discredit her among Democrats.
“Her dedication to preserving the filibuster has stood as a significant obstacle to enacting a number of important bills and to more general Democratic governance despite the party’s trifecta in Washington, DC,” wrote the group in a blog post.
Amid these constant attacks, Sinema’s popularity among Arizona Democrats has fallen.
According to a September 2021 opinion poll by OH Predictive Insights, roughly one-third of Arizona Democrats have an unfavorable view of Sinema.
But what ground she has lost with her own party, she has gained among independents and Republicans.
The poll showed that nine percent of independents held a “very favorable” view of Sinema, in addition to 33 percent with a “somewhat favorable” view of the rogue Democrat. In total, Sinema’s favorability among moderates was at a net plus of six percent, a not-insubstantial feat for any politician who hopes to win in Arizona.
Among Republicans as well Sinema has gained some support.
Five percent of GOP respondents reported a “very favorable” view of Sinema, while 35 percent of Republicans reported a “somewhat favorable” view. Still, among Republicans Sinema ends up at a net negative of nine percent disapproval.
Despite progressives’ best efforts to discredit her, Sinema also maintains support from most Arizona Democrats. While a third disapprove of her work in Congress, many more—56 percent—reported a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of Sinema.
Kelly, by contrast, fares much better among Democratic voters, but far worse among others.
The poll found that Kelly had a net approval rating of 69 percent among Democratic voters, 13 percent higher than Sinema.
But compared to Sinema’s net favorability rating of six percent among independents, Kelly only has the net support of one percent of nonaffiliated voters.
This could be disastrous for Kelly later this year. Arizona has long been considered a battleground state, and its most recent elections have been exceedingly close. During the 2020 special election that won him his seat, Kelly won by roughly 79,000 votes out of a total of 3,355,317 votes cast.
According to data gathered by the Arizona secretary of state, independents make up around 32.2 percent of registered voters. Another 34.9 percent are Republicans, and 0.9 percent are Libertarians, while only 32 percent are Democrats.
These numbers show that conservative voters still hold a slight numerical edge over liberals across a state level, meaning that Democrats need the support of the state’s huge share of independent voters to fill the gap. The dearth of independent support for Kelly could have a devastating impact on his chance of getting reelected in November.
And the poll results make it clear that Kelly’s progressive politics have not wooed the red-leaning swing state’s crucial independents as thoroughly as Sinema’s moderate politics have.
Sinema entered national politics in 2012 as a House candidate for Arizona’s ninth congressional district, which has generally leaned blue since its creation following the 2010 census, but Republicans and Libertarians maintain a strong presence in the district.
She quickly marked herself as a centrist, joining the economically-conservative Democrat Blue Dog Coalition and the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group that incentivizes working across the aisle to reach bipartisan compromises. In 2014, she was endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of only five Democrats to receive such an endorsement that year.
In 2018, Sinema announced that she would mount a campaign for the U.S. Senate after incumbent Republican Jeff Flake announced he would not seek reelection. The bid was an ambitious one—red-leaning Arizona had last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1988.
Sinema, touting a solidly moderate record in the House, was able to flip the seat, winning 50 percent of the vote to GOP challenger Martha McSally’s 47.6 percent.
In the Senate, Sinema has maintained the same centrist ideals that marked her tenure in the House.
But now that Democrats narrowly control the House, Senate, and White House, these ideals have put Sinema in opposition to much of the rest of her party and she has been accused of obstructing Democrats’ policy goals and of being in the employ of monied interests.
In Arizona—which has only voted for two Democrats in presidential elections since 1952—the same centrist policies that put her in conflict with the Democrat party-faithful are likely to win Sinema favor with her Arizona constituents.
Sinema’s policies are also a stark contrast to Mark Kelly’s left-wing policies, which largely follow the party line.
During a 2020 special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain, Kelly ran—like Sinema—as a moderate who voiced support for bipartisanship. Arizona voters approved of the moderate approach and 2020 marked the first time that two Democrats were sent to the U.S. Senate by Arizonans since 1953.
Nevertheless, Kelly’s 2020 victory does not necessarily indicate a substantially left-wing shift in Arizonans’ views.
Compared to Kelly, Joe Biden’s victory in Arizona was extremely narrow: Biden reportedly won 49.36 percent of the state’s vote compared to former President Donald Trump’s 49.06 percent. However, the race has faced significant scrutiny for potential fraud, putting this narrow Democrat victory into doubt.
Kelly’s victory was likely due in large part to his presentation of his campaign as a moderately center-left one; Though Biden tried to market himself as a moderate as well, his positions on border security, racial politics, gender, and other controversial issues were significantly more left-wing than Kelly’s stated positions.
After two years in Congress, however, Kelly has shown himself to be far more progressive than his 2020 campaign indicated.
In 2021, Kelly helped to introduce the “For the People” Act, which would have made expansive changes to federal voting law. One of the bill’s most criticized measures would have required states to allow convicted felons, including convicts who were on probation, to vote.
In Arizona, as in many other states across the United States, voting by felons is prohibited.
Kelly also supported the Build Back Better package, which was especially unpopular with economic conservatives and libertarians, who retain a strong presence in Arizona.
The package would have devoted half a trillion dollars to climate change policies, including tax incentives to benefit unionized electric vehicle manufacturers over un-unionized firms. It also would have granted the IRS unprecedented powers to look into Americans’ bank transactions, a measure that was scrapped after criticism by Manchin.
November’s election is expected to be far kinder to Republicans than the 2020 election was.
This is in part due to dissatisfaction with the Biden administration, which Republicans have blamed for ever-increasing inflation and energy prices, supply chain shortages, record-breaking levels of crime, and unprecedented illegal immigration along the southern border. In addition, midterm elections almost always favor the out-of-White House party.
According to Rasmussen’s daily presidential tracking poll, Biden’s popularity has hovered around 42 percent since September 2021, and it has remained lower on average than Trump’s popularity at the same point in his presidency.
These factors paint a grim portrait for Democrats on the national stage, who are likely to be caught up in the crossfire of Biden’s declining popularity.
Arizonans, who barely supported Biden in the first place, may find Kelly’s lockstep march with the administration particularly distasteful compared to Sinema’s track record of standing against the president and her party.
A series of factors will contribute to the outcome of the Senate election in Arizona. But given her omnipresent role on the national stage, it is likely that Sinema will not be far from the minds of Arizona voters when they decide whether to re-elect Kelly.
If Kelly wins reelection, it will indicate that Arizonans have turned significantly further to the left than they used to be; but if he doesn’t, it will indicate that Arizonans still prefer a moderate in the strain of McCain to a progressive like Kelly.
Steve McMahon, a Washington-based Democrat strategist, indicated that he thinks Arizona remains mostly moderate, making Sinema a godsend for the party.
“Instead of criticizing Kyrsten Sinema, progressives should thank God that she’s able to win in a competitive state like Arizona, because without Kyrsten Sinema, there would be no Majority Leader Chuck Schumer,” McMahon said.
Either way, the election will send a clear signal to Arizona Democrats and their donors on where Arizona voters stand and could make a key difference in how the party treats Sinema moving forward.