Sinema Switches

Clearly preparing for a re-election campaign while her standing before the Democratic Party electorate is poor, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced that she is leaving her party and will represent Arizona as an Independent. 

According to job approval ratings that were taken from polls conducted well before the November election, Sen. Sinema’s numbers had dropped to the point where she would be a severe underdog in a Democratic primary against her likely intra-party opponent, US Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Phoenix). In a three-way race against Gallego and a Republican nominee, however, her re-election chances significantly improve.

The Fabrizio Ward/Impact Research Arizona September survey, part of the Republican and Democratic research firms’ joint polling series conducted for AARP, is the most comprehensive of the available current data that polled a Senator who was not on the ’22 ballot. The Sinema results found her saddled with a poor 37:57% favorability index ratio among Democratic voters. Obviously, these numbers suggest that her ability to win a partisan Democratic primary in 2024 is tenuous to say the least.

Therefore, faced with a similar situation to that of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski* where polling data showed that she would again have trouble in a 2022 Republican primary, Sinema’s re-election prospects can improve, as they did for the Alaska Senator, by changing the election paradigm.

In Sen. Murkowski’s case, her team helped qualify a ballot initiative in 2020 that ultimately transformed the nominating system to a jungle primary format that allowed four candidates to advance into the general election. Adding a Ranked Choice Voting option to the election format then allowed Sen. Murkowski to best take advantage of the significant support she has among Democrats. Therefore, Sen. Sinema changing the Arizona electoral paradigm to a three-way general election could produce a similar successful outcome to what Sen. Murkowski engineered in the 2022 Alaska campaign.

Let’s look at Sinema’s numbers. Taking her approval ratings among Democrats (37%), Republicans (36%), and Independents (41%) from the Fabrizio Ward/Impact Research poll, such figures suggest the new Independent incumbent would attract approximately 38% of a proposed general election vote in a three-way race should even these weak numbers hold.

Extrapolating even further, a Republican nominee would likely obtain about 31% and a Democratic candidate 29%, when reasonably apportioning the remaining votes based upon projected 2024 turnout and the state’s partisan voting history.

Therefore, Sen. Sinema would seem to have a re-election path, even if her approval ratings don’t substantially improve, and assuming the other candidates run the type of competitive Arizona Senate campaigns that we have seen conducted recently. While there is much conjecture in this numerical breakdown, a Sinema victory path in this scenario is far brighter than running in a partisan Democratic primary against a strong opponent with a better political base.

There are obvious plusses and minuses to her making this move. First, in running as an Independent, Sen. Sinema avoids a Democratic primary and allows her to win re-election in just one election. The downside here is that she will need to obtain 45,000 valid petition signatures from Arizona registered voters in order to qualify for an Independent ballot line. Fortunately for her, she can begin collecting these signatures immediately, so even this large number should be attainable over such a long duration.

Next on the downside, she will receive no institutional party outside support and experience a more difficult time raising money. On the positive front, Sen. Sinema held almost $8 million in her campaign account at the end of September, according to her latest published Federal Election Commission campaign finance disclosure report, so she at least has a base with which to start funding her re-election bid. Additionally, having to compete in only one election means her required expenditures will be lower.

Additionally, the Senator will not likely have access to national Democratic consultants because the party leadership successfully prevents them from servicing a candidate who is not a Democrat. Conversely, she will be able to attract competent local talent who don’t typically receive institutional party contracts.

The 2024 Arizona Senate race will be another contest attracting huge national attention. Sen. Sinema’s move to the Independent ballot line certainly increases her chances of winning, but she is obviously no lock to claim a second term in the next election.

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