by Heather Caygle · July 2, 2018
Kyrsten Sinema’s opposition to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is just one example of how the three-term House member is carving out a center-left Senate campaign in deep-red Arizona. | John Shinkle/POLITICO
Arizona hopeful Kyrsten Sinema so far is pulling off a high-wire act in a state experiencing a three-decade Democratic drought.
All over the country, Republicans are attacking vulnerable Democratic senators as pawns of Chuck Schumer, the most polarizing Democratic leader second only to Nancy Pelosi.
Kyrsten Sinema, one of the party’s most-prized recruits and a keystone of Democrats’ long-shot hopes of capturing the Senate this fall, has a ready rejoinder.
“I am not going to vote for him,” she said matter of factly when pressed on her view of the Democratic leader.
Sinema’s stance, revealed for the first time in a recent interview with POLITICO, is more radical than any member of the Democratic caucus, even vulnerable senators facing reelection deep in Trump country. But Sinema is staking her surprisingly strong campaign for Arizona’s open Senate seat on her close relationships with Republicans, praise for moderate Democrats and a distaste for the Democratic leader.
Her opposition to Schumer is just one example of how the three-term House member is carving out a center-left Senate campaign in the Republican state, hoping it’s enough to inoculate herself from the national party’s baggage and land Democrats their first Arizona Senate seat in 30 years.
She is notably more deferential to Trump than most Democrats are. “He has challenges,” she responded when asked whether Trump is a good president. “Transitioning from a CEO position to a presidency is probably a difficult challenge.”
Facing a daunting map that heavily favors Republicans, Arizona is a must-win for Democrats’ hopes of capturing the Senate. For Sinema, the race is the culmination of years of careful calculations and transformations that began even before she was elected to the House in 2012.
Sinema worked for progressive activist Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign and once unsuccessfully ran for the Arizona state House under the Green Party banner. But she has walked a far more moderate path in Congress — sometimes to criticism from her liberal colleagues — joining the conservative Blue Dog Democrats and voting with President Donald Trump nearly 60 percent of the time.
Now the self-described workout addict and part-time university professor spends weekends and congressional recesses crisscrossing Arizona, running full throttle in a race blown open by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake’s impending retirement. Recent polls have shown Sinema with a sizable lead, and privately top Republicans are alarmed that the race might be getting out of reach.
While Sinema, 41, builds up her name recognition and a $6 million-plus war chest, Republicans are engaging in a slugfest of a primary that will go on deep into August. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) to emerge from a three-way primary against former state Sen. Kelli Ward and ex-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, but Democrats say McSally is being pushed too far to the right to beat Sinema.
With no real opponent — Schumer privately backed her for the seat even before she’d announced, helping clear the field — Sinema can press her advantage. She leads McSally by an average of 8 points, according to Real Clear Politics.
“I don’t really think about what’s happening on the other side. That’s their campaign, their primary,” Sinema said recently in a half-hour interview in Washington. “It’s not my problem.”
But national Republicans are getting ready for Sinema. One Republican official working on defeating her said that her 2009 book about her transformation from a self-described “bomb-thrower” to a more pragmatic progressive, will be among the issues Republicans dredge up to paint her as a liberal masquerading as a moderate.
And Republican senators say no matter what Sinema says now, she will be a Schumer ally once she gets to Washington.
“I don’t have much doubt about how she would vote as a member of the Democratic conference when she got here,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Schumer declined to comment on Sinema’s plan to vote against him. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), among the senators Sinema lists as a role model in the chamber, said he’s eager to have another moderate join the caucus’ half-dozen or so centrist members. But the Senate’s most conservative Democrat said she’s misreading Schumer.
“Basically, he gives his position, I give him my position, we go about our own votes and we go back and work on something different tomorrow. That’s the beauty of Chuck,” Manchin said.
But Sinema is continuing her campaign against national Democrats, which started with her opposing Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic leader.
“The Democratic leadership has failed Democrats across the country,” Sinema said. “I am unafraid to say what I believe about what I think our party needs to do and I think our party needs to grow and change.”
Sinema aligned herself early on with the centrist wing in the House Democratic Caucus, becoming a close ally of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Pelosi’s No. 2 and longtime rival. She also forged close relationships with conservatives such as Reps. Tom Graves of Georgia and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina over a shared love of fitness.
Sinema is a certified Ironman triathlon coach and trains a few of her colleagues on the side for free. Sinema also teaches a cycling class every Wednesday near Capitol Hill and coordinates weekly bipartisan sessions at Solidcore, a high-intensity Pilates chain with a studio near her apartment.
“When I win this Senate race,” Sinema said, knocking on the wood conference table in front of her, “I’m not moving. I want to stay on the House side so I can stay close to Solidcore.”
Sinema is a polarizing figure among House Democrats. Some members privately question whether her evolution from flame-throwing liberal to Blue Dog centrist is genuine or self-serving. And there’s no love lost between Sinema and Pelosi allies.
Other members in the caucus praise Sinema, saying her independent streak and the fact that she doesn’t fit neatly into a box — she’s the first openly bisexual member of Congress, a former Mormon who now claims no religion — gives her widespread appeal.
In an interview, Hoyer described Sinema as a “force of nature,” highlighting her colorful résumé — from a homeless kid who once lived in an abandoned gas station to a social worker and lawyer with multiple graduate degrees turned lawmaker — as an asset in the race.
“Kyrsten really is such an unusual talent,” Hoyer said. “It’s a year in which people are going to vote very much for the individual candidate and with a bias towards making sure there’s a check and balance on the president of the United States, even in Arizona.”
Sinema will have to do a lot more than just walk the ideological line to win in Arizona. Republican voters outnumber Democrats by about 170,000 in the state — though there’s a nearly equal swath of unaffiliated voters — and Republicans hold all statewide offices. Bill Clinton in 1996 was the last Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state; before that, the last Democrat to win Arizona was Harry Truman in 1948.
At times, Sinema sounds more like a Republican than a moderate Democrat, a sharp contrast from Rep. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, another Senate candidate carving a far more liberal path against GOP incumbent Sen. Dean Heller.
Sinema gushes praise for Trump when it comes to veterans issues. Both of Sinema’s brothers are veterans, and that’s been a primary focus of her congressional career.
“President Trump has signed every single piece of veterans legislation we’ve sent him, including some bills that we couldn’t get to President Obama,” she said.
And Sinema defends her voting record on immigration, including support of controversial Republican proposals that most other House Democrats opposed. She voted for Kate’s Law last year, for example, which increases penalties for undocumented immigrants who are deported and try to re-enter the country.
“My leadership in that area,” Sinema said, “is about holding bad guys accountable and making sure that we have good security on the border.”
Politico · by Heather Caygle · July 2, 2018