Democrats’ next Senate campaign chief is going to inherit a huge Kyrsten Sinema dilemma.
The Arizona centrist’s turn to independent status is shaking up the Senate’s 2024 map just days after Democrats closed this year’s midterm battle with a huge win in Georgia. And Sinema isn’t the only one ramping up the pressure on the party: Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) could soon force Democrats into tough spending decisions as he explores a bid that could produce a brutal three-way race, if Sinema runs again.
Though Sinema’s switch avoids a contested Democratic primary, it opens up a nightmare scenario for the party: With three candidates on the ballot, a GOP nominee can capitalize on centrist and liberal divisions and win a Senate seat with a plurality vote. Democrats are not eager to intervene at the moment, but at some point they may have to make a call about whether to support Sinema, back whoever wins a primary or sit out the race altogether.
Fresh off his big win in Georgia, outgoing Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair Gary Peters (D-Mich.) conspicuously demurred when asked about Sinema: “At this moment, I’m really happy to say that’s the job of the next DSCC chair.” Peters added that he won’t return to the DSCC for a second term, despite entreaties from his colleagues.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with Peters’ successor as campaign chief, already has to convince Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to run again in 2024. Arizona promises to present a hurdle of its own no matter what the candidate lineup looks like, challenging Democrats to keep the peace with a liberal base that opposes Sinema while also recognizing that a divided party may struggle to win a general election in the state.
“They’ll have to make a call. It’ll be a tough decision, probably … the standard is, the DSCC protects the incumbents. I don’t think that’s going to change. But it’s not my call,” Tester, a former campaign chair himself, said on Monday. He added that “of course” he considers Sinema a party incumbent: Maine Independent Sen. “Angus [King] is. She caucuses with us. She’s an incumbent.”
Sinema doesn’t quite align with King in one respect: She won’t attend caucus meetings. Yet, by accepting her committee assignments from Democrats, the party believes she will functionally convey a 51-seat majority with her vote for the next two years.
That’s why Tester sees Sinema more like King, who’s won two races against nominal Democratic opposition. The national party has declined to run candidates against King and attacked his GOP opponent in 2012.
Sinema’s political persona is far more complex, though. Many progressives loathe her, hurting her numbers among Democrats in Arizona and fueling Gallego’s potential Senate ambitions. On the other hand, she was the state’s first Democratic Senate victor in 30 years when she prevailed in 2018 — with support from the DSCC. She also enjoys more cross-party appeal than most senators.
“I will wait to answer that question until she decides what she’s going to do,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former DSCC chair and an outgoing member of the party leadership, said of future Sinema support. “I think she’s a really good legislator.”
Like Murray, the White House and Schumer praised Sinema since her party switch, keeping her on friendly terms and refusing to alienate a critical swing-state senator. Sinema has nearly $8 million on hand and has declined to say whether she will run for reelection.
The past two election cycles have shown that every Senate race is crucial to building a durable majority. And Democrats are about to enter a cycle that will find them playing defense in three red states, on top of several more potentially competitive races. Schumer has given no timeline on when he will make his selection to lead DSCC, but his Democrats aren’t exactly openly lobbying for the job.
Democrats are “probably thinking that, while it doesn’t change much today, that Ruben Gallego and Sinema splitting the Democratic vote and making it easier for a Republican win … that’s a plausible scenario,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Both Cornyn and McConnell praised Sinema on Monday, a signal that Republicans will have some decision-making of their own to do. Many Senate Republicans count Sinema as a close friend, complicating decisions about how hard to try and oust her in a battleground state that they technically don’t need to flip the chamber.
Incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) revealed little of his party’s plans for the Copper State. He said Republicans are “going to keep a close eye on Arizona” and said “it’s going to be a competitive state in 2024.” Cornyn said he’s “sure there’ll be a Republican candidate.”
Democrats have gained momentum in Arizona in recent years as Republicans struggle to nominate candidates who can appeal to a broader voter base. Sinema’s home-state Democratic colleague Sen. Mark Kelly beat GOP pick Blake Masters by about 5 points in November.
During her first term, Sinema has helped cut deals on gun safety with Cornyn as well as on infrastructure, microchips and marriage equality with a group of centrist colleagues. But she drew the ire of the left and favor from Republicans for defending the filibuster and opposing some Democratic tax policies.
Kelly said he hadn’t given “any thought” into how the DSCC should treat her potential candidacy. And asked if she should run again, he was noncommittal but praised working “with her to the benefit of people in Arizona and this country.” He called questions about her 2024 race “a very hypothetical thing. Nobody’s announced they’re running for anything in Arizona, as far as I know.”
Gallego is keeping his options open: “We’re definitely getting support from national Democrats if I run. I’ve already spoken to a lot of national Democratic donors. From the senatorial campaign committee, I can never predict,” he said in the Capitol on Monday.
And he sent a clear signal that he expects his party to avoid Sinema.
“A campaign like that wants to invest in someone that’s going to win,” Gallego added. “There is no possibility of Kyrsten Sinema winning as a third-party candidate … it would not be a very smart investment.”
Most Democratic senators aren’t going anywhere near the topic. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said “it’s way too early to think about” the 2024 Arizona Senate race.” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) said she’s “not going to speculate or tie the hands of the future DSCC chair.” And Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he’s “not getting into Arizona politics.”
Even those who had plenty of nice things to say about Sinema would only take it so far.
“We have worked on a lot of deals together. Don’t always agree with her, but I think she’s proven to be a very effective legislator,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). As for the political questions of how Democrats might treat a Sinema candidacy, he shut down a reporter: “I think I gave you much more than you expected to get out of me anyway.”
Nancy Vu contributed to this report.