We still don’t know whether Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., will seek a second term next year. What we do know is that she has spent a lot of time rubbing elbows with the wealthy donors whose support she’d count on if she did.
Those fetes are crucial, particularly because of her decision in December to leave the Democratic Party and become an independent. She still officially caucuses with Senate Democrats, despite Republicans’ blatant overtures to cross over. But a new article by Politico’s Jonathan Martin shows that while Sinema has worked tirelessly to cultivate a bipartisan, above-the-fray mien in public, behind the scenes she has been busy burning bridges in a way that will leave her not just independent but isolated.
The column is filled with tidbits about Sinema’s behavior behind closed doors at Republican-heavy events, where she has opted to “belittle her Democratic colleagues, shower her GOP allies with praise and, in one case, quite literally give the middle finger to President Joe Biden’s White House.”
Behind the scenes, Sinema has been busy burning bridges in a way that will leave her not just independent but isolated.
Among the many snide comments attributed to Sinema are digs at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and her pro-filibuster buddy Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. (she feels she has “better tax policy ideas” than he does). The barb most people have latched onto is about the weekly Democratic caucus lunches, which she’d already rarely attended even before she went solo:
“Those lunches were ridiculous,” she told a small group of Republican lobbyists at a reception in Washington this year in explaining why she had stopped attending her caucus’ weekly luncheons in the Capitol, according to an attendee.
First off, she explained, she was no longer a Democrat. “I’m not caucusing with the Democrats, I’m formally aligned with the Democrats for committee purposes,” Sinema said. “But apart from that I am not a part of the caucus.”
Then she let loose.
“Old dudes are eating Jell-O, everyone is talking about how great they are,” Sinema recounted to gales of laughter. “I don’t really need to be there for that. That’s an hour and a half twice a week that I can get back.”— Politico
“I spend my days doing productive work, which is why I’ve been able to lead every bipartisan vote that’s happened the last two years,” Sinema reportedly said. In fact, as writer Kyle Tharp pointed out on Twitter, Sinema has apparently decided that “productive work” is selling her used stuff on Facebook Marketplace. Because it’s certainly not meeting with her constituents. While she may appear at these fundraisers and at gala affairs like the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, let’s not forget that Arizonans had to chase her into a bathroom just to ask her about whether she supported Biden’s agenda back in 2021.
It’s not clear who many of the sources for Martin’s reporting are, but that matters less than that Sinema felt willing to say these things in front of these crowds at all. It’s evidence of extremely poor judgment, especially when so much of the Senate’s activity is built on personal relationships. The bipartisan wins in the last Congress aren’t replicable in this one, not when House Republicans have already lambasted their Senate counterparts for being too open to compromise. Her willingness to bad-mouth her supposed allies makes it even less likely that she’ll be spearheading any deals in the near future.
Moreover, it seems Sinema was unaware that many of the people she was entertaining with her riffs on her colleagues don’t have her best interests at heart. It may say “I” next to her name now, but so long as she still provides a vote for Democratic interests, she’s a problem for many of the Republicans in the crowds. And while she has a long history of political shapeshifting, she can’t change her scales enough to win a GOP primary against someone like failed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., has already announced that he’ll run for the Democratic nomination to replace Sinema. For all her pandering to the supposed “middle-of-the-road Arizonan,” polling on behalf of Gallego’s campaign last year had her crashing and burning in a potential three-way race. That’s on top of previous polling that had showed her with a net unfavorable rating among basically every demographic in the state. And just last month, Gallego was well ahead of his competition in both head-to-head and three-way races.
It may say “I” next to her name now, but so long as she still provides a vote for Democratic interests, she’s a problem for many of the Republicans in the crowds.
I’m not sure how Sinema’s hobnobbing with elites will do much to change those numbers, no matter how much money big donors throw at her. Sinema may be banking on the newly established “No Labels Party” in her state to help counteract the structural disadvantages of running as an independent. Or maybe she hopes being able to contrast herself with a far-right extremist like Lake leaves her enough votes to eke out a victory. Or she may just be betting on her shilling for bankers to land a cushy gig once her term expires.
But for all her self-regard as an indispensable, savvy dealmaker, I’m just not sure that Sinema is very good at this game. Washington is a town that doesn’t forget slights easily, and if someone else is sitting at her desk come 2025, I doubt any Democrats will be heartbroken.