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Kyrsten Sinema and the changing politics of Arizona

By the time she was sworn in last week on a law book as the only religiously unaffiliated member of Congress, Senator Kyrsten Sinema had already accomplished a myriad of firsts. After beating out GOP Rep. Martha McSally in the Arizona Senate race in November, Sinema became the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona in 30 years, not to mention the first female Senator elected from her state. If that wasn’t enough, Sinema is also the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

Sinema, who spent part of her childhood homeless–at one point living in an abandoned gas station with no running water or electricity–wound up earning herself four graduate degrees before paving her now seasoned political career in her home state of Arizona. Her career, marked by astonishing social activism and shadowed by a measured middle-of-the-road platform, has proved to be a winning formula in a state long accepted as red.

So it stands to reason that her victory in November was a stand-out for Democrats, even amidst the rest of the national blue wave that helped the party take back the House of Representatives. While Sinema clearly has set herself apart as a record breaker, her notably centrist political stances and her win in a traditionally red state is both a reflection of changing attitudes within Arizona and a grim indicator of moderate America’s lukewarm response to the President’s party.

After President Trump won the state by less than 4 points–relatively unimpressive compared to the nearly 10-point victories that Romney, McCain, and Bush all easily managed–Democrats saw a glimmer of hope in Arizona; after all, while competitive states around the country went red, Arizona drifted closer to the middle. So when Sinema, an outspoken member of the LGBT community and former antiwar advocate defeated seasoned Air Force veteran McSally, it looked as if Arizona could be the Democrats’ next purple playground.

More interestingly, while Sinema’s social activist stances garnered national support from progressives, progressivism didn’t serve as her path to victory within her state, where she instead honed her campaign’s focus on her proven record of centrism–having been ranked the third most bipartisan member of the House.

Throughout her campaign, Sinema deflected attacks from McSally regarding videos of her protesting the troops while wearing a pink tutu, drew focus away from her address at the Human Rights Campaign’s gala in Los Angeles, and refused to denounce ICE, instead siding with many House Republicans. While her party was quick to condemn Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, then-candidate Sinema reserved judgment on the nomination until the end of the FBI investigation on Kavanaugh’s sexual conduct at the conclusion of the nomination process.

Dodging progressive-embraced talking points such as Medicare-for-all and support for heavy campaign finance reform, Sinema sidestepped the “lefty celebrity” status of other Democratic challengers- namely, Texas Senate candidate turned progressive star Beto O’Rourke- and instead tested the molds of statesmen John McCain and Jeff Flake.

Her decision to tack so moderately drew scrutiny from many Arizona Democrats who spoke out against her perceived failure to address more of these divisive talking points. Notably, Arizona’s progressive Democratic nominee for governor–who eventually lost to GOP governor Doug Ducey by 15 points–was reluctant to support Sinema’s campaign at all and the two continued to refuse to endorse each other’s campaigns.

Nonetheless, McSally tried and failed to blend steady-hand conservatism with a newfound allegiance to President Trump and his vision for the party. After campaigning with the president and swearing her support for some of his most polarizing agenda items, including the border wall–an issue close to home in Arizona–she found that it was Sinema’s politically unconventional ideological balance that took the race.

So, as Sinema made the unusual decision to be sworn in on a law book–ironically, alongside former opponent McSally, who was appointed by Governor Ducey to fill McCain’s open seat in December–she began a six-year term that is sure to be a spectacled tightrope walk as she continues to balance her extraordinary progressivism with her nearly unmatched centrist voting record.

Amidst the current government shutdown, now the longest in history, Sinema is one of the few senators who has neither explicitly endorsed or opposed President Trump’s request for $5.7 billion in border wall funding. Just weeks into the start of her term, such a divisive issue that hits home for the Tucson native could be critical to defining voters’ perception of her ideology as she begins to establish herself in the upper house of Congress.

At this point, it still seems to be unclear whether her silence on the issue–and potential for a similar lack of response to future divisions–will allow her to safely walk her ideological tightrope, or whether she’ll draw popular dissatisfaction from both sides of the aisle as a result of her perceived lack of action.  

Looking forward, with Arizona’s recent distaste of strong partisanship that has allowed Democrats to gain ground amidst a farther-right surge of the Republican Party, the once-red state may prove to be a contentious battleground come 2020. President Trump’s winning margin in 2016–narrower than in well-known swing state Ohio and Iowa, both of which went blue in 2012 and 2008 when Arizona went red–paired with the living proof that a Democrat can once again win statewide office in Arizona means that Republicans can no longer take the state for granted.

Make no mistake, Sinema’s victory was neither an easy one nor even a resounding one. After months of vitriol, even accusations of treason, the race was a close call. In fact, on election day, it looked like it would be McSally who took home the win and it wasn’t until days later that Sinema eventually came out with her narrow 2.4-point lead.

But in a country defined by the ultra-partisan split between the current administration and a Pelosi-lead Congress, it seems as if Arizona is following in the tradition of steady-handed leaders like McCain and Flake and putting, as some would say, country over party. It’s not yet clear whether Democrats will hold on to their luck in their new battleground after President Trump’s years in power come to an end, but at least for now, it seems as if a careful statesmanship as opposed to party affiliation alone is the key to victory in Arizona.

Learn more

AZ Central – Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally divided on Trump’s border wall

AZ Family – McSally appointment gets mixed reaction

Northeast Valley News – Arizona politics edging toward a purple state

Alex Wilson ’22 is a prospective political science and economics major and the VPR’s Communications Officer. He has interned for multiple Congressional campaigns and worked for Cincinnati non-profit ArtWorks

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