How Kyrsten Sinema Won Her Senate Seat and Pulled Off a Historic Arizona Triumph
Posted November 13, 2018 8:22 p.m. EST
PHOENIX — Kyrsten Sinema’s first foray into politics ended in failure when she campaigned as an anti-war activist and finished dead last out of five candidates in a race for a seat in the Arizona Legislature.
Sixteen years later, Sinema has achieved a historic political triumph, becoming the first woman ever to represent Arizona in the Senate, and the first Democrat from the state to win a Senate seat since the 1980s.
How did Sinema do it? She transformed herself into a conservative Democrat who ran a disciplined campaign designed to attract Republican and independent voters who were frustrated with President Donald Trump. And she capitalized on a changing Arizona, where the grip Republicans have long had on the suburbs around Phoenix may be weakening.
“Sinema is the single best politician in Arizona today,” said Stan Barnes, a longtime Republican strategist in Phoenix. “She has a magnetism that can win people over.”
Beyond Sinema’s talent at working a room, Democrats and Republicans around the United States are now trying to decipher whether her defeat of her Republican opponent, Martha McSally, offers a kind of playbook that others with similar ambitions can study.
Sinema finished last in her first campaign in 2002 for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives as an independent affiliated with the Green Party.
But she switched to the Democratic Party in 2004 and won a seat in the state Legislature. Sinema began showing an independent streak, speaking openly about her sexuality — she will be the first openly bisexual member of Congress — and her belief in secular government. While Sinema was raised in a Mormon family, she now ascribes to no religion.
Sinema, 42, gained a reputation for working with ideological rivals in the Republican-controlled chamber while marking up wins like the defeat of a measure that would have banned the recognition of same-sex marriage and civil unions in Arizona.
She then won a seat in 2012 in the U.S. House of Representatives, campaigning against a Republican opponent who accused her of practicing “pagan rituals” during anti-war protests. Sinema took the temperature of her Phoenix district, which included many Republicans and independent voters, and moved further to the center once in Washington.
While describing herself as bipartisan, her pro-business votes won her a rare endorsement for a Democrat from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when she ran for re-election in 2014. She joined the Blue Dog Coalition, the group comprising relatively conservative Democrats, and drew criticism from the left for a voting record in which she often sided with Trump and other Republicans.
Meanwhile, other forces were reshaping Arizona’s political landscape. Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the state, but so do independents. Arizona, despite the bluster of some of its Republican activists, is the state that has been home to Republicans willing sometimes to criticize Trump, including John McCain, the iconic senator who died over the summer at the age of 81, and Jeff Flake, who is vacating the seat won by Sinema.
Still, momentum seems to be on the side of Democrats, a trend that accelerated in the closing weeks of the campaign. Since the primaries in August, for every two voters that registered as Republicans in the state, three registered as Democrats, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.
“I kind of smile when someone asks how Sinema pulled it off,” said Alejandra Gomez, executive director of the Arizona Center for Empowerment, a group that supports immigrant rights and public education.
“I mean, we pulled it off,” said Gomez, emphasizing how her group and other grassroots organizers registered about 190,000 people to vote in Arizona before this year’s election. “We knocked on the doors of over a million people of color. Think about that. There’s a lot of talk about signing up first-time voters but we went out and did it.”
Gomez said that doing so sometimes resulted in tense conversations among organizers. Some expressed concern about asking people to vote for Sinema, who steadfastly refused to endorse David Garcia, the liberal Democrat who ran for governor of Arizona and lost in a landslide to the Republican incumbent, Doug Ducey.
Then there was Sinema’s voting record on immigration issues. She was one of only two dozen Democrats in the House who voted in favor of Kate’s Law, a bill to expand maximum sentences for foreigners who re-enter the country after being deported.
Sinema also voted for legislation to intensify the screening of refugees, and co-sponsored legislation calling for regular analyses of terrorist threats on the border with Mexico. She has also explicitly voiced support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that some liberals have called to abolish.
“For some people it came down to comparing Sinema to an opponent who openly campaigned on the Trump fear tactics,” said Gomez, referring to McSally, the Republican defeated in the Senate race. McSally, who was viewed as a moderate before the election, closely aligned herself with Trump during the campaign.
“We helped Sinema win and now we need to be there to remind her about this pivotal source of support,” Gomez said. “But at least we know she’s better than the alternative.”
Sinema also adroitly handled the changing currents in Maricopa County, which encompasses Phoenix and ranks among the fastest-growing counties in the United States. With about 4.3 million people, Maricopa County accounts for about 60 percent of Arizona’s overall population of 7 million.
Outside of Arizona, Maricopa is still known as the home of Joe Arpaio, the sheriff whose harsh treatment of immigrants won him accolades from the right. Trump pardoned Arpaio after a criminal contempt conviction.
But Arpaio was clobbered by McSally in the Republican primary for the Senate seat that Sinema has now won. And it was her ability to win over moderate Republicans in Maricopa County that took her past the finish line, easily outperforming other Democrats in the county. “Sinema focused on issues that matter to suburban voters whether they’re Republican or Democrat: health care, veterans and education,” said Kris Mayes, a professor of practice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and a former Republican appointee to the Arizona Corporation Commission.
“She had six years to hone her skills in a very purple congressional district, and knew that she had to avoid entanglement in progressive causes,” said Mayes, who lives in the district Sinema represented in the House. “Essentially she’s a very disciplined centrist. That’s the formula for a Democrat to win in this state.”