The most unpredictable Senate race on the 2024 map is taking place in Arizona, where a top Democrat has set his sights on Democratic-turned-Independent Senator Kirsten Sinema, and Republicans are looking to exploit this tension in a state that is moving away from them.
“Grab your popcorn and watch,” said Republican Rep. Justin Wilmet, who described the race as “the wild, wild west.”
Cinema, who was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 2018, became independent in December, although she continues to caucus with her former party colleagues in the House. She has not yet said if she will run for a second term in 2024.
But her severed ties to Democratic voters and the groups that once supported her were on display Wednesday at a rally that was billed as “Cinema Sold Out” at Arizona’s Capitol in Phoenix.
Carrying a papier-mâché pig as a prop to describe what they called Sinema’s wooing of wealthy donors, members of progressive groups representing workers, immigrants and veterans called on the former Democrat to step down. Nearly every group organized and polled voters in hot Arizona to elect Blue in 2018. None of the members of the group that CNN spoke to said they would support her again.
“We will work to elect a new senator who represents Arizona much better,” said Alex Alvarez, chief executive of Progress Arizona. “It’s time for Kyrsten Sinema to step aside. It became clear that the people of Arizona did not want her to run again.”
The contours of the Arizona Senate race may take longer than other high-profile 2024 contests. The filing deadline in Arizona is April next year, while the state primary is not until August next year.
Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb last month became the first major Republican to enter the race. His campaign declined an interview request. But several other high-profile Republican contenders are weighing their bids.
Kari Lake, the losing 2022 Republican nominee for governor and a prominent election denier, teased a potential Senate nomination and this week announced the release of her memoir, a move that usually precedes a political campaign.
Abe Hamade, who lost the 2022 attorney general election, and Karrin Taylor Robson, who lost last year’s Lake gubernatorial primary, also met with National Republican Senatorial Committee officials, CNN reported. Also in the mix could be GOP businessman Jim Lamon, who lost the party’s nomination for another state Senate seat last year.
For now, however, Republicans in Arizona, who have lost the Senate race for the past three election cycles, say they are glad the drama is on the other side at the moment.
— I mean, I’m a politician, man. I’m a Republican,” said Wilmet, a state legislator. “And knowing that your opponent is having trouble getting to the line of scrimmage and doing their thing is good for me.”
Progressives have mostly rallied around U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego. The Phoenix congressman and five-term Iraq War veteran outsold Sinema by nearly $3.8 million to $2.1 million in the first quarter of 2023 ending March 31, FEC documents show. But Sinema still had a significant cash advantage, with about $10 million in the pot versus its opponent’s $2.7 million.
Gallego has been highly critical of the senator, calling her a supporter of lobbyists and business interests, and alleging that she lost touch with Arizona after a two-point win over Republican Martha McSally in 2018.
“She damaged the confidence of many Arizona residents. They don’t trust her values anymore and she doesn’t try to rebuild that relationship,” Gallego said in an interview.
Cinema’s office declined the interview request. “Kirsten is focused on finding real solutions, not a political campaign,” spokesman Pablo Sierra Carmona said in a statement.
However, Sinema’s re-election as an independent is far from the only potential event that could change the landscape ahead of Arizona’s 2024 election.
No Labels, a business-oriented centrist group, gained ballot access in several states. The organization has called its efforts an insurance policy in case national parties propose unacceptable presidential candidates, but Democrats in Arizona fear the group could team up with Sinema in the Senate race.
Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, acknowledged in March that the “Unlabeled Party” gained voting access in the state after meeting minimum requirements.
The Arizona Democratic Party said it filed a complaint with a Maricopa County court in late March seeking to overturn No Labels’ recognition as a political party. No Labels is registered as a non-profit organization and does not disclose its donors, which the State Party contends means that it does not meet political party requirements, including donor disclosure, FEC registration and contribution limits.
Meanwhile, a group of veteran politicians from Arizona launched the Save Arizona Democracy initiative, which advocates open primaries and high-ranked electoral voting, a process that supporters say will give candidates an incentive to appeal to moderate voters rather than the extremes of their parties. But as supporters work to get a ranked-choice initiative on the ballot next year, Republican state lawmakers are racing to push their own voting measure that would ban any experimentation with the voting method.
While Cinema advertised itself as the “independent voice” of the state about equally between Republicans, Democrats and independent voters, she could face the challenge of gaining independent support if she runs for re-election.
At this week’s monthly meeting in Mesa, a group of disillusioned independent voters gathered to begin the process of petitioning for a ranking vote. Some supported Sinema. But others, like Becky Wyatt, who retains her Democratic registration but still identifies as an independent voter, said she felt the senator was out of reach for Arizona voters.
“I gave her money. I gave money on behalf of my parents for their Christmas gifts in support of her,” Wyatt said. “And she died for me.”
Other members of the group said they believed Cinema had misled voters.
“Run from one party, and then, when you’re done, turn around and move on to an independent? It’s just not right. So she doesn’t have my backing,” said Brady Busby, an independent participant who attended the meeting.
Another independent, CJ Digel, said: “She just pisses off a lot of people who are responsible for her future in the election.”
Clint Smith, who received 6% of the vote last year running for a crimson seat in the US House of Representatives outside of Phoenix, said winning as an independent would be a tough task despite Sinema’s huge cash and name recognition advantages.
“I feel like people hide in their corners when it comes to fighting,” he said.