When I met Kyrsten Sinema she was still in the Arizona state legislature and we were both serving on the board of a DC-based non-profit. It didn't take me many conservations with her to realize she is suffering from a severe mental disorder and that she was capable of pulling a gun out of her designer handbag and shooting everyone in sight. I always took care to not sit within her range of vision. How she ever got elected to anything was always a puzzle for me. But she was a Mormon in a state where voters like Mormons, even lapsed ones like her, and her bizarre origin story-- which is almost completely made up-- had some appeal. (Mad Cawthorn is the only other politician who has lied so blatantly about their biography; he may have seen how she was able to get away with it before doing it himself.) You don't been psychiatric treatment to understand how ill she is. But after trying a few times, first as an anti-capitalist independent (winning 8% of the vote and coming in 5th of 5 candidates) and then as an all-around radical Green, espousing opinions that would be completely anathema to the re-invented, insanely conservative Kyrsten Sinema we all know and hate today.
By 2006 she was declaring herself "the most liberal member of the Arizona State Legislature." Around that time, actual liberals in the state legislature were warning me that she was full of shit, especially about her supposed devotion to immigrant rights. "The only thing that made her a 'liberal,'" one of her then-colleagues told me, "was gay rights and reproductive rights, which were both kind of self-serving. That's Kyrsten; it's always all about her." While she was still in the state legislature claiming to be the most liberal member, she had a bizarre definition of feminism: "These women who act like staying at home, leeching off their husbands or boyfriends, and just cashing the checks is some sort of feminism because they're choosing to live that life. That's bullshit. I mean, what the fuck are we really talking about here?" Perfect for EMILY's List though, which has continued push her miserable career.
Today, L.A. Times reporter Melanie Mason, tried explaining how Sinema has undergone a transformation that has taken her from a tutu-wearing, Republican-hating antiwar activist to a conservative Democratic U.S. senator, who uses Republican Party canned talking points when she speaks in public. (Today she was out with Texas Republican John Cornyn berating Biden for the problems at the border.) "That evolution," wrote Mason, "has taken on national consequence. For the first time in her career, she finds herself in the ruling majority party. In an evenly divided Senate where a single Democratic defection can upend President Biden’s agenda, Sinema, along with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and a handful of other moderate members, has emerged with outsize influence. With one emphatic thumbs down on including a minimum wage increase in the recent COVID relief bill, she cemented her reputation as someone willing to spurn the progressive wing of her party. More battles loom over her vow to uphold the Senate filibuster, even if that imperils Democratic priorities."
She "cemented her reputation as someone willing to spurn the progressive wing of her party" years ago by running up the most right-wing voting record of any Democrat in Congress and by becoming the chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, where she opposed all progressive policies without a second thought.
It's hard to find a Democrat to defend her but Mason reached out to Arizona veteran GOP strategist, Chuck Coughlin (lately an independent), who told her that Sinema is "looking at defining what a Western Democrat looks like-- a Western populist Democrat that’s not owned by the unions or traditional Democratic constituencies [like] minorities and women. She’s not going to be so pigeonholed." After all, she's "known for bold fashion choices (she has worn candy-colored wigs to make up for missed dye jobs at the salon during the pandemic) and punishing workout regimens (she has competed in the Ironman triathlon and teaches cycling classes)."
Just as Sinema has undergone a political shift, so has her home state. The onetime Republican bastion is much harder to peg these days-- politicos there describe it alternatively as purple, magenta, red with blue splotches. Progressives in Arizona warn that alienating the state’s liberal base may not be the winning strategy it once was.
“She has a theory that picking fights with the left helps her,” said Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona. “I think that is a real misreading of the moment.”
With a handbag slung over her shoulder, she appeared to make a pronounced demi-curtsy as she signaled a thumbs down for a minimum wage vote that was bound to attract attention. The echoes of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, who used a similar thumbs-down gesture to block a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, were inescapable.
“She wants to see herself as a maverick. When McCain did these things, he bucked his party because he voted for something that would potentially save lives,” said Tomas Robles, executive director of Living United for Change Arizona, a Latino advocacy group. “Her votes have been the exact opposite.”
Sinema has said she backs a higher wage but disagreed with the procedural attempt to do so in the stimulus bill. The episode, though, spoke to a larger question of which Arizona voters Sinema is courting. Many observers noted that Sen. Mark Kelly, her fellow Arizonan who will face the same electorate next year, diverged from Sinema and voted yes.
A recent poll found that roughly half of Arizona residents back a $15 minimum wage. The support varies widely by party-- 72% of Democrats and 52% of independents were on board, compared with just 22% of Republicans.
“It’s not something we see often in a time of base politics,” said the pollster, Mike Noble, “but Sinema’s recent vote on this issue is a classic attempt to win over voters across the aisle.”
...As Sinema ascended the ranks-- first to the state Senate, then both chambers of Congress-- she tacked toward the center. Her messaging focused relentlessly on healthcare costs, jobs and defying Democratic orthodoxy.
Sometimes, those breaks from the party struck liberals as excessive. In the House, she sided with then-President Trump on a law increasing penalties for those who re-enter the country illegally. In the Senate, she was the sole Democrat to reject her party’s efforts to restore net neutrality during the Trump era.
Still, the move to the middle has worked. In 2018, her Republican opponent, Martha McSally, tried to use Sinema’s lefty past against her, airing an ad that mocked Sinema’s unconventional pink costume at an antiwar protest. The attacks fell short. Sinema eked out a two-point win, even as the Democratic candidate for governor-- whom Sinema pointedly did not endorse-- was walloped by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
Key to her victory was winning the state’s independents, a substantial share of the electorate, and college-educated white women, many who had sided with the GOP in the past. She won 118 precincts that backed Donald Trump in 2016, many in the sprawling suburbs of Maricopa County.
“That’s where Arizona is right now. It’s that mix” of political leanings, said Cheryl Lombard, president of Valley Partnership, an association of real estate developers in Phoenix. Sinema was able to attract “people like me,” Lombard said, “more moderate Republican women who were probably why President Trump and McSally lost.”
Sinema leans heavily on her mantra of bipartisanship, arguing that it’s the best way to ensure long-lasting results.
“It’s easy-- and too often, expected-- for elected leaders to line up on either side of a partisan battle,” Sinema, who declined an interview request, wrote in a statement to The Times. “What’s harder is getting out of our comfort zones and building bipartisan coalitions that get things done for everyday Americans-- and that is the approach I promised Arizonans I will use.”
Her commitment will be tested in this hyper-polarized era, in which Republicans have so far shown little appetite to give Biden bipartisan cover. Her vote for the final COVID relief bill, which passed with no GOP support, opened her up to criticism from conservatives that she had abandoned her aisle-crossing pledge. Her office said Republican proposals in the final bill, such as relief for restaurants and money for homeless children, made the measure bipartisan, even if the vote tally did not.
Liberals, meanwhile, fear the fixation on cooperation could undercut a more compelling pitch to voters: that Democrats have delivered results.
“The way you make Arizona bluer is by passing popular policies that improve people’s lives,” said Kirkland of Progress Arizona.
Nowhere is that tension more explicit than in Sinema’s protection of the filibuster, a rule that requires 60 votes for major legislation to pass. That longstanding position will be challenged as Democrats rally around two voting rights bills that have gained momentum in the face of sweeping efforts nationwide by Republicans to suppress access to the ballot at the state level. Sinema is a co-sponsor of both pieces of legislation in the Senate.
That support appears diametrically in conflict with her defense of the filibuster. Public response from Republicans has been scathing. Local activists said Sinema’s staff told them she believes she can find 10 GOP senators to endorse the bills. Her office said the number of senators was not discussed, just the commitment to work in a bipartisan manner.
Progressives say Sinema has a chance to prove her commitment to voting rights by championing this cause and perhaps giving some leeway on her firm backing of the filibuster.
That could mend some fences with activists like Laura Terech, who canvassed on Sinema’s behalf in 2018 but says she can’t see herself doing so again.
“I realize this is a moderate state. She needs to be able to go to doors and say, ‘I’ve only voted with Democrats 72% of the time,’” said Terech, who works with the progressive groups Indivisible Arizona and Civic Engagement Beyond Voting. “But I’m not sure who she thinks is going to knock on those doors if she alienates her base.”
Former Flagstaff, Arizona city council member & 2020 congressional candidate, Eva Putzova, now runs Catch Fire, helping train progressives how to run against conservatives. You can imagine she's no fan of Sinema's. This afternoon she told me that "Sinema has been signaling to Arizonans that she simply doesn't care about their needs. Her votes, her inaccessibility to meet with activist groups, and her stance on the filibuster that prevents any transformative legislation from getting through the Senate are enough to realize that her being a one-term Senator is politically the best option for working people not only in Arizona but also nationally. Catch Fire is a completely transpartisan organization dedicated to developing and supporting progressive leaders who one day run for offices, spearhead ballot measure campaigns, start advocacy organizations, or lead other forms of civic engagements. We have about two years to prepare leaders for a senatorial campaign and we will do our best to make sure that in 2024 Arizonans get some options. With an already active group of Arizonans in our leadership program, we are certainly on our way. When politicians talk about bi-partisanship in policymaking they reveal their true motivations-- interest in maintaining the power of the two parties rather than their dedication to service for the people."
If Sinema had to face a credible primary opponent today, she would be in jeopardy of losing. Arizona Democrats are figuring out who she is-- and don't like what they see. A new poll released today by OH Predictive Insights of registered voters. Overall 40% of voters have an unfavorable opinion of her and 39% have a favorable opinion. Her unfavorables will continue to grow as she shows her defiance by moving further and further right, digging her own political grave. Among Democrats, her favorability is just 50%. The same Democratic voters, asked how they feel about Mark Kelly, also a conservative Democrat-- who not a dick like Sinema-- had a very, very different response-- 80% favorable.