Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s surprise decision to become an independent forces Democratic leaders to answer a fundamental question: How should they treat her if she runs for office in Arizona?
In talks with party leaders and rank-and-file members on Monday, Democrats dodged the sensitive issue and handled the politically tense situation delicately, knowing that one misstep could backfire and have serious ramifications for their left.
“When they call me for advice, I will give it in confidence,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, told CNN when asked if the leaders of party had to stay out of the race.
Durbin added, “I plan to stay out of Arizona politics.”
See Bernie Sanders’ reaction to Sinema’s departure from the Democratic Party
If Sinema runs for a second term but party leaders instead put their muscle behind a Democratic nominee, the electorate could split in the purple state and help Republicans win back a critical seat. Plus, backing a Democrat in the race could risk alienating Sinema whose decision to continue to align with his former party in his committee assignments essentially solidifies their 51-49 majority.
But if they get behind Sinema or remain neutral in the race, as they have with other independents who caucus with them, they would infuriate progressives keen to topple moderate Sinema for her refusal to dump the filibuster. of the Senate and endorse many of their priorities over the past two years.
And no matter how they handle the mercurial senator, they could end up with a messy three-way race in 2024 at a time when they’ll be battling to defend 23 seats to the GOP’s 11 — which has caused anxiety in the ranks democrats.
For now, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and his top aides have said they are in a wait-and-see mode, planning to see how the field forms and whether Sinema does indeed run as an independent in the 2024 cycle. Then, they said, they will start making crucial decisions.
“When she says she’s going to run, you come back to me,” Senator Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat and a member of her party’s leadership, told reporters.
But already, the ground seems to be taking shape.
Sinema tells CNN why she is quitting the Democratic Party
Representative Ruben Gallego, a member of the Arizona House delegation, told CNN that “we are already building the team” and that he will make a decision about a race next year. He said he would contact Schumer and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee soon — and he ruled out the possibility that Sinema could win as a third-party candidate or that a Republican could pick up a victory in a three-way race. He argued that a Sinema nomination “ensures a Democrat wins.”
“They could do whatever they want,” Gallego said when asked about the party leaders’ decision on how to handle the race. “But it will be a waste of money trying to support a third-party candidate because it just won’t happen. Not in Arizona.
But Gallego could have a challenge in the primary — potentially from Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton, who won re-election in his swing district in the fall.
Stanton told CNN on Monday that he was “seriously considering” the race.
“Until recently, my goal was to win frontline re-election in 2022,” Stanton said. “Sen. Sinema’s recent decision to leave the Democratic Party has no bearing on my thinking.
But it’s a decision that forces Republicans and Democrats to weigh what comes next.
Sen. Gary Peters, the current chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, plans to step down from the position in the 2024 cycle, and no new senators have announced plans to take on the position at this time.
“At this time, I’m really happy to say that it’s the job of the next DSCC chairman to make this decision,” the Michigan Democrat said when asked how the party committee should handle an independent race. , given that he generally supports Democratic incumbents.
Sinema asked what she didn’t like about the party leadership. Listen to his response
Sinema, who has a large war chest of nearly $8 million in cash, has not said whether she will run again, although many suspect she quit the party to save herself a fight. grueling primary in 2024.
“I’m just not worried about people who might not like this approach,” Sinema told CNN on Thursday. “What worries me is continuing to do what is good for my state. And there are people who certainly don’t like my approach, we hear a lot about that. But the proof is in the pudding.”
On Monday, Sinema made a brief appearance in the Senate, voting for a Biden judicial nominee before walking away and ignoring questions from reporters.
But in the halls of the Capitol, both sides were weighing how his move might cloud the map of 2024.
“It will be a competitive state in 2024,” said Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana who will chair the National Republican Senate Committee in the next cycle.
Republicans are hoping the progressive push to oust Sinema will only boost their chances of taking the seat.
Indeed, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, attacked Sinema as a “corporate democrat” who “helped sabotage” Biden’s agenda.
On Monday, he wouldn’t say whether he thinks Democratic leaders should try to bring her down in 2024.
“I think that decision is up to the people of Arizona,” Sanders said Monday.
A like-minded liberal, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, also addressed the issue.
“I’m just not focused on that,” Warren said. “I am focused on what we have to do in the next two weeks. It is my responsibility.
Over the past two years, Sinema has been a complicated and polarizing figure for Democrats. The newly independent senator helped secure victories for the Biden administration on a major infrastructure package, prescription drug pricing, same-sex marriage legislation and the first gun violence law in a generation. But she also pushed back against Democratic efforts to raise corporate and personal tax rates — and she, along with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, stood firm against Democratic efforts to dump the filibuster and pass a suffrage bill, saying the 60-vote threshold is essential to preserve minority rights to shape legislation.
Like Sinema, party leaders are now watching Manchin closely as he considers whether he will run in 2024. On Monday, he would not rule out joining Sinema and rejecting his Democratic Party tag and becoming an independent.
“I’m going to watch all these things,” Manchin told CNN. “I’ve always been watching all these things, but I have no intention of doing anything right now. Whether I do something later, I can’t tell you what the future holds.
In private meetings, Schumer was careful not to criticize Sinema, according to senators who spoke to him. In statements from the White House and Schumer on Friday, both praised Sinema’s record in the Senate and made it clear they would continue to work with her. It’s a message that several senior Democrats also echoed on Monday.
Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a member of the party’s leadership, said she and Sinema worked together on the mental health provisions at the heart of the gun laws, among other issues.
And when asked if she would side with Sinema, Stabenow didn’t say.
“It’s something you know I’m sure we’ll talk about later.”
“It’s a call for someone else,” added Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, when asked about which party backs Sinema in 2024.
Even Sen. Mark Kelly, the newly re-elected Democrat from Arizona, avoided the sensitive topic on Monday.
“I’ve worked closely with Senator Sinema – two years now to get things done,” Kelly said. “The DSCC, and what they’re doing there, is outside of my area of expertise.”
Kelly would not have said he would support her if she showed up.