Analysis: Why Kyrsten Sinema’s tactics may backfire


(CNN)Democratic hopes for passing big legislation through the Senate rely on Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both have made things difficult for Senate Democrats because they are moderates who have been hesitant to pass big spending packages.

But while Democrats are lucky to have a Democrat of any ideological persuasion representing West Virginia, they may not be getting the best bang for their buck from Sinema.

Sinema has, for the last few years, had the same ideological record as Manchin. As I’ve noted before, Manchin’s ideological record is about the best Democrats can hope for from West Virginia.

    But Democrats can hope for more from an Arizona Democrat. Their party has a much easier time winning in Arizona than West Virginia.

      Start with what happened in last year’s presidential election. President Joe Biden won the state of Arizona by 0.3 points. West Virginia, unlike Arizona, is a red state. Biden lost the state by 39 points. This came after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lost the state by more than 40 points in 2016.

        Arizona, on the other hand, is purple and has been chugging to the left. Biden did 4 points better than Clinton, who in turn did 6 points better than Barack Obama in 2012.

        Part of what may be happening is that Sinema thinks that Arizona is a redder state than it actually is. That’s understandable insofar as Democrats have only started winning statewide races there with regularity recently. Sinema became the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate race since 1988.

          This feat, however, was repeated by Mark Kelly in 2020. Kelly won by basically the same margin against the same opponent as Sinema and in a tougher political environment. Biden, too, became the first Democrat to win the state on the presidential level since 1996.

          Beyond Kelly and Biden, Democrats in Arizona now control two of the five seats on the state’s corporation commission, the secretary of state’s office and superintendent of public instruction office. They also hold five of the nine US House seats.

          Compare that to Manchin. He is literally the only Democrat to be representing West Virginia in any statewide or federal office.

          Arizona’s electoral environment is more similar to Georgia, which has become more purple in recent years as well. Biden won the state by about the same amount as he did Arizona. The state just elected Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the Senate. They haven’t obstructed Biden’s agenda to anywhere near the same degree.

          So what else might explain Sinema’s ways? It’s been reported that Sinema holds up former Arizona Sen. John McCain as a role model. McCain was, of course, a thorn in former President Donald Trump’s side and didn’t always vote in-line with his party.

          If she’s trying to copy McCain’s ways, Sinema isn’t doing a great job. McCain usually voted with his party. In his final full year in the Senate, he voted with his party more than 90% of the time on party unity votes (i.e. those where at least 50% of one party voted a different way from 50% of the other party). This was about on par for him. McCain voted with his party less than the median senator, but not that much less.

          Sinema is an entirely different legislator. She votes against her party far more than the median legislator on party unity votes, according to the CQ Almanac. From 2013 to 2019, she’s never voted with her party more than 75% of the time.

          There is one way though in which Sinema is similar to McCain: She’s upsetting her party’s base. By voting the way she does, Sinema may be leaving herself open to a primary challenge — a possibility certain liberal groups are already eyeing.

          And unlike Manchin, who has beaten back primary challenges easily, Sinema isn’t going to face a primary electorate where less than 40% of registered Democrats call themselves liberal.

            Democrats in Arizona are about as liberal as the national average, according to both the 2020 primary exit polls and CES. More than 60% of Democrats called themselves liberal in both surveys.

            The bottom line is that Sinema may be unnecessarily moderate for her own electoral good. Maybe it’ll work out for her. Still, It’s possible though that not only is she making Biden’s life more difficult, but her own electoral future more difficult as well.