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Kyrsten Sinema does not press the panic button

It’s Kyrsten Sinema’s season. The wig-wearing triathlete senator from Arizona has quickly become one of the most hated figures in American politics today. She blocks her own party’s agenda; she closes questions from reporters; she chats with lobbyists and flies to Europe. Sinema “does not demonstrate the basic competence or good faith of any member of Congress,” California Representative Ro Khanna told rolling stone. Progressive activists have committed to “bird-dogging” Sinema until she collapses. And while Democrats devoted countless inches to deciphering Sinema’s motivations, progressives have vowed revenge in the form of a primary challenge. Sinema isn’t doing what her voters want, liberals argue, so Arizonans should pick someone who will.

But Sinema doesn’t seem to notice – and it’s not clear if she should. Getting her out of the chair would be difficult. She won’t be eligible for re-election until 2024, so any primary challenge is still years away. Voters’ memories are short and the political landscape will be different by then. Impeaching a sitting senator is a dubious project, and even if left-handers beat Sinema with one of them, it could be harder for a more progressive candidate to win a general election. Arizona is still a purple state and Sinema’s popularity among independents and Republicans remains quite high. “I have seen [progressives] throw everything at her to create this story that she is in this very dangerous situation,” Mike Noble, the chief of research for the unbiased polling agency OH Predictive Insights in Arizona, told me. But “I see no need for her to press the panic button.”

Polls show Sinema’s support among Democrats is declining. Her approval score on the left dropped 21 points from March to September, according to Morning Consult. Progressive polling agency Data for Progress tested potential challengers in a recent survey of individuals describe it as likely Democratic primary voters. “We find that U.S. Senator from Arizona Kyrsten Sinema is on the brink of losing her primary in 2024,” reads a press release about the investigation. “Life is coming your way quickly.”

But polls, as any pollster will eagerly tell you, are just a snapshot of a moment in time. And this particular moment in time, no matter how high the risk, is in the year 2021. It’s hard to predict who these likely Democratic primary voters will be, let alone anticipate the political atmosphere in America. “She shouldn’t panic,” Garrett Archer, an Arizona data analyst, told me. “The primary is so far away that we don’t even know what the make-up of the electorate will look like.” In other words, life may not come soon enough for progressives.

Sinema, whose office has not responded to multiple requests for comment, is not yet under water. She’s lost some prestige among Arizona’s Democrats, but her approval rating is still at 56 percent, according to Noble’s most recent poll. (At this early stage, approval polls are probably more reliable than likely voter models.) Sinema can afford to anger the Democratic base a little, as long as she gets at least 50 percent of them in her primary race, Noble said. John McCain won just 52 percent of the GOP’s primary vote in his last election, in 2016, but he still won the general by 13 points. Likewise, Sinema’s strength is its inter-party attraction: 42 percent of independents consider her favorable, and she’s almost as popular among Republicans.

Another Democrat could challenge Sinema and win in 2024. That person should be known the same way, with a lot of money and optimism about it: winning a primary challenge against a sitting senator is extremely difficult; only five people have done it this century, according to FiveThirtyEight. Four of those five went on to lose the general election. (And the state of Sinema is more difficult terrain for Democrats than the states of those primary victors were.) If another Democrat won the nomination over Sinema, they might have a hard time in general. The fate of the new candidate would depend in part on the GOP nominee: A Donald Trump type could take out the Mormon community and suburban voters in Arizona; a more moderate candidate might convince them.

Sixteen percent of Republican women in Maricopa County, where most Arizonans live, broke with their party to vote for Sinema in 2018, making her the first Democrat to win a Senate race in the state in 30 years. I then wrote about some of those women – and I called them up again for this story. Jane Andersen, a former Republican, told me that Sinema represents the interests of moderates. “She was elected in a state with extreme conservatives and many in the middle,” Andersen said. “She does a fantastic job.” Relying on conservative and independent voters to build a Democratic majority in the Senate always carried the risk that, when it came down to it, those voters wouldn’t agree to the Democrats’ goals. I recognized a bit of Sinema in these women – an eagerness to go against odds. “Censorship and threats from your party can be a badge of honor,” Laura Clement, an ESL teacher and independent voter from Mesa, told me in an email. “She is powerful and I want to keep people like her in power.”

Winning reelection as a Democrat may not be Sinema’s calculation at all. In three years, she may not even be in the party. The senator has clearly squandered her support among the National Democrats, and she appears to have done so alienated its in-state Democratic allies. In the meantime, she has built a network of wealthy donors. What does it mean? Some politics commentators have speculated that Sinema may be planning to ditch the Democrats and become independent. She could even consult with the Republican Party if the GOP takes Congress back next year. It’s happened before: Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched sides while serving in the Senate. And Sinema’s supporters may not be completely against the idea. “She won’t be queuing up to vote anytime the party leader blows the whistle,” Clement said. “I love how she keeps everyone guessing.”

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