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‘Grab your popcorn and watch’: Arizona’s messy Senate race begins to take shape

The most unpredictable Senate race on the 2024 map is unfolding in Arizona, where a high-profile Democrat is targeting Democratic-turned-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Republicans are hoping to seize on those tensions in a state trending away from them.


“It’s grab your popcorn and watch,” said GOP state Rep. Justin Wilmeth, who described the race as “the Wild, Wild West.”


Sinema, who was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 2018, became an independent in December, though she continues to caucus with her former party colleagues in the chamber. She has not yet said whether she will seek a second term in 2024.


But her broken ties with Democratic voters and groups that once backed her was on display Wednesday at what was billed as a “Sinema Sold Out” rally at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix.

Carrying a papier-mâché pig as a prop to describe what they called Sinema’s courting of rich donors, members of progressive groups representing labor, immigrants and veterans called on the former Democrat to resign. Nearly all of the groups had organized and canvassed voters in the Arizona heat to elect Sinema in 2018. None of the group members CNN spoke with said they would support her again.


“We’re going to work to elect a new senator who does a far better job of representing Arizona,” said Alex Alvarez, executive director of Progress Arizona. “It’s time for Kyrsten Sinema to step aside. It’s become clear that Arizonans do not want her to run again."


In the early stages

The contours of Arizona’s Senate race could take longer than other high-profile 2024 contests to develop. Arizona’s filing deadline is next April, and the state’s primaries aren’t 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 GOP contenders are weighing bids.


Kari Lake, the losing Republican nominee for governor in 2022 and a prominent election denier, has teased a potential Senate bid and this week announced the release of her memoir, a move that typically precedes a political campaign.


Abe Hamadeh, who lost the 2022 attorney general’s race, and Karrin Taylor Robson, who lost last year’s gubernatorial primary to Lake, have also met with National Republican Senatorial Committee officials, CNN has reported. Also in the mix could be GOP businessman Jim Lamon, who lost the party nod for the state’s other Senate seat last year.


For now, though, Republicans in Arizona, after losing Senate races 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 Wilmeth, the state lawmaker. “And knowing that your opponent is having problems getting to the line of scrimmage and executing their plays is good for me.”

Progressives have largely rallied behind US Rep. Ruben Gallego. The five-term Phoenix-area congressman and Iraq War veteran outraised Sinema, nearly $3.8 million to $2.1 million, in 2023’s first quarter that ended March 31, Federal Election Commission filings show. But Sinema still held a significant cash advantage, with about $10 million in the bank to her opponent’s $2.7 million.

Gallego has been sharply critical of the senator, casting her as beholden to lobbyists and business interests and arguing she has lost touch with Arizona since her 2-point victory over Republican Martha McSally in 2018.


“She broke trust with a lot of the people of Arizona. They don’t trust her values anymore, and she’s not trying to repair that relationship,” Gallego said in an interview.


Sinema’s office declined an interview request. “Kyrsten is focused on delivering real solutions, not campaign politics,” press secretary Pablo Sierra-Carmona said in a statement.

Other factors

A Sinema reelection bid as an independent is far from the only potential landscape-altering development ahead of Arizona’s 2024 election, though.


No Labels, the business-aligned centrist group, has gained ballot access in several states. The organization has described its effort as an insurance policy if the national parties offer unacceptable presidential candidates, but Democrats in Arizona fear the group could align with Sinema in the Senate race.


Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, in March recognized the “No Labels Party” as having gained ballot access in the state after meeting the minimum requirements.

The Arizona Democratic Party said it filed a complaint in Maricopa County court in late March, seeking to reverse No Labels’ recognition as a political party. No Labels is registered as a nonprofit and does not disclose its donors – which the state party argued means it does not meet the requirements for a political party, including disclosing donors, registering with the FEC and following contribution limits.


Meanwhile, a group of Arizona political veterans have launched Save Democracy Arizona, which advocates open primaries and ranked choice voting – a process that proponents say would give candidates incentives to appeal to moderate voters, rather than their parties’ extremes. But as supporters work to place a ranked choice initiative on the ballot next year, Republican state lawmakers are looking to advance their own ballot measure that would prohibit any experiments with the voting method.

‘Independent voice’

While Sinema has touted herself as an “independent voice” for a state roughly evenly divided between Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters, she could face a challenge attracting independent support if she runs for reelection.

At a monthly meeting this week in Mesa, a group of frustrated independent voters gathered to begin organizing the petition process for ranked-choice voting. Some were supportive of Sinema. But others, like Becky Wyatt, who maintains her Democratic registration while identifying as an independent voter, said she felt the senator was inaccessible to Arizona voters. “I gave her money. I gave money on behalf of my parents for their Christmas presents in support of her,” Wyatt said. “And she is dead to me.”

Other members of the group said they felt Sinema had misled voters.

“Running for one party and then turning around right when you’re done and switching to independent? That’s just wrong. So she doesn’t have my support,” said Brady Busby, an independent who attended the meeting.

Another independent, C.J. Diegel, said: “She just makes a lot of people angry who are responsible for her electoral future.”

Clint Smith, who got 6% of the vote last year running for a deep-red US House seat outside Phoenix, said winning as an independent would be a daunting challenge despite Sinema’s huge advantages in cash on hand and name recognition.

“I feel like people retreat to their corners when push comes to shove,” he said.


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