Senate Democratic leaders face a thorny path in Arizona’s Senate race, where Democrat Ruben Gallego could potentially square off against not only a Republican, but also Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I), a former member Democrat.
Some Arizona Democrats expect Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will support Gallego, even if behind the scenes, noting the animosity many in the party feel toward Sinema, especially after she switched to an independent last year, and her electoral prospects.
But other members of the party believe that calculus is not as simple and say Senate Democrats will need to proceed cautiously, given she still caucuses with the party in the upper chamber, where Democrats have a narrow majority.
“I 100 percent think it’s not clear because she’s an incumbent,” said one senior Democratic strategist. “She caucuses with the Democrats. She might not be a Democrat anymore, but she does caucus with us. I mean, so in that way, there’s an incumbency there. And to the extent that she hasn’t given any indication that she would stop caucusing with us, I think it puts us in a bind.”
The strategist noted the 2006 Connecticut Senate Democratic primary, when Sen. Joe Lieberman, then running as a Democrat, lost the primary to fellow Democrat Ned Lamont. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) expressed their support for Lamont after his win, while Lieberman instead decided to run as an independent. Liberman later won against Lamont in the general election.
“He came back as an independent still caucusing with the Democrats but in a completely different, and I would probably say, in a spiteful and somewhat vindictive way,” the strategist said.
Sinema has remained mum about whether she plans to run for reelection next year. NBC News last month reported that her political team had been sharing a prospectus that outlined the shares of Republicans, Democrats and independents that could be formed to create a coalition.
The incumbent senator’s campaign reported that she had raised around $826,000 in the third quarter, close to half of which included transfers, according to a filing from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Sinema ended the quarter with about $10.8 million cash on hand, essentially the same amount of money she ended the second quarter of fundraising with.
Gallego’s campaign said earlier this month that he had raised over $3 million in the third quarter and ended the quarter with over $5 million in the bank.
Meanwhile, polling has portended warning signs for Sinema. A survey from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, commissioned by the Gallego campaign, showed Gallego placing first at 41 percent, Republican Kari Lake at 36 percent and Sinema at 15 percent.
Meanwhile, a survey from Republican firm National Research Inc. showed Lake coming in first at 37 percent support, Gallego at 33 percent and Sinema at 19 percent.
Democrats point to the fact she’ll also need to clear a signature threshold to qualify for the ballot.
“Between that and the fundraising situation that’s out there, and a perceived lack of a ground game here, I think she’s got some strong headwinds, and I think that Schumer and Democratic leadership are certainly taking all of that into consideration as they figure out their next steps,” explained Matt Grodsky, former communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party and vice president at Matters of State Strategies.
“If she does get in, they’re gonna have to make calculated decisions on how that’s going to impact any legislation or deals they’re gonna have to negotiate with,” he said. “But I think by and large, even if it’s not publicly, I would imagine that privately they’ll be throwing their support where they can in Democrat Ruben Gallego’s direction, because I just don’t think that their constituencies are gonna be supportive of them doing anything else.”
Democratic consultant Dawn Penich-Thacker said Arizona Democrats expect Senate leadership to line up behind Gallego if Sinema announces.
“There’s a realistic understanding of, you know, well, we don’t know if she’s in the race, so it’s fine. They need to focus and get work done,” Penich-Thacker said. “But if that were to change, if she jumps in, then yes, that there would be an expectation that the Democratic Party from the lowest ranks to the top are in support of the Democrat in the race.”
Sinema’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
John LaBombard, a former aide to Sinema, said there could be pressure from some parts of the Democratic Party for national members and groups to back Gallego, but noted the DSCC is an incumbent-protective group.
“The dynamics are such, frankly, that all [parties] may benefit on our side — our side just meaning not the Republicans — from everybody kind of keeping an arm’s length from each other,” LaBombard said.
But until Sinema makes an announcement, Democrats are in a holding pattern.
“The party is waiting on Sinema’s decision whether she will run or not while working aggressively to hold Kari Lake accountable,” a national Democratic aide working on Senate campaigns said in a statement.
Lake is running against Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb in the GOP primary, though she is considered the heavy favorite to win the nomination. It’s not clear yet what kind of role the Senate GOP campaign arm will play with Lake, though a source familiar with the Republican groups’ strategy confirmed to The Hill they hadn’t ruled out backing the former GOP gubernatorial in the race, which Politico first reported.
Lake, in her campaign launch speech in Scottsdale, Ariz., sought to appeal to the swing voters she lost last cycle, arguing “honest elections” were not a partisan issue, while at the same time criticizing the media and “the disaster of Election Day in Arizona.”
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), described Lake in a statement as a “talented campaigner with an impressive ability to fire up the grassroots” and said they had “productive conversations with Kari Lake and her team.”
“Arizona is, you know, if you look at it, I think it’s a better pickup opportunity than Pennsylvania, for example. I think that this is one where Senate Republicans should want to invest resources,” said a Republican strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
The GOP strategist said that she held meetings with Senate Republican leadership and members of the conference, including Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). She’s also met with the super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Leadership Fund, and top advisers to McConnell, the strategist noted — meetings first reported by Politico.
“I think Lake has shown … she’s willing to work with Senate Republicans. She’s willing to engage with leadership to have a strong relationship there,” the person said.
But Democrats are skeptical so far that voters will buy a Lake rebrand.
“I think barring some crazy thing that happens in the cycle ahead, she’s not gonna gain any new voters. I don’t think she’s gonna convince enough people in the middle that she’s miraculously the right fit this time around and has learned her lesson from 2022,” said Grodsky, the former Arizona Democratic Party communications director.