Is Kyrsten Sinema the New Joe Lieberman?

The Arizona Democrat angers her own party at her peril

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema has a bad habit of lighting the Internet on fire. Earlier this year, Sinema stoked outrage with the Democratic base when she very theatrically voted no on a $15 minimum wage. It happened again yesterday when More Perfect Union, a progressive media and content outfit, tweeted out a clip of the Democratic Senator offering a passionate defense of the filibuster.

In one sense, Sinema’s remarks were nothing new. She has repeatedly reiterated her support for the filibuster. She has been more adamant than even Joe Manchin in defending the Jim Crow relic that stands in the way of much of what she supports. However, this instance felt different. The online reaction was more intense. The offense against her own supporters felt more personal. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Sinema’s views, but that doesn't make them less problematic for the larger progressive project. There has been so much discussion about what Democrats can (or can’t) do about our Manchin problem, but the Sinema situation is worth unpacking.

Why People Got So Mad

In full disclosure, I am one of the people that got very mad online about Sinema’s remarks. I fired off a tweet in a blind rage (perhaps violating my own rule).

Sinema’s message was not new, but the circumstances were. First, she was speaking in Texas at the exact moment that Democratic legislators had to go into hiding to prevent the passage of a package of voter suppression laws. These courageous Texas lawmakers are literally begging Democrats like Sinema to take action to help protect the right to vote. Second, Sinema touted the merits of the filibuster while standing next to Senator John Cornyn, one of the biggest purveyors of the big lie being used to justify new voter suppression laws like the one in Texas. Finally — and this is really important — Sinema’s explanation of the origin of the filibuster is patently false. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote a great piece correcting the record and explaining how the true story of the filibuster bears no resemblance to what Sinema claims. The whole thing is worth a read, but here is Chait’s summary of the argument:

In sum, the Founders did not create the filibuster. It emerged accidentally, was changed repeatedly, and was not “designed” for any purpose, and most certainly not to give the minority party a veto. It’s no more true than George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. It’s a story people made up to rationalize a system that nobody invented because nobody ever would create a system like this on purpose.

As much as I disagree with them, there are good-faith arguments to make in support of the filibuster. Unfortunately, Sinema refuses to make those arguments. Making a bad faith argument in Texas at this moment is not only to be willfully naive about what is happening in America and in the Senate. It is essentially sticking a thumb in the eye of the Democratic base that elected her in 2018.

Arizona is Not West Virginia

While there are undoubtedly others, Manchin and Sinema are the most public Democratic Senators opposing filibuster reform. They are intrinsically linked in the conversation about why more of the Biden agenda can’t get through the Senate. Earlier this week, Biden responded in the third person to critics of his failure to yet pass the For the People Act.

Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House, and a tie in the Senate — with two members of the Senate who voted more with my Republican friends.

Manchin and Sinema’s political situation could not be more different. Donald Trump won Manchin’s home state by 39 points. Manchin has not yet said whether he will run for reelection in 2024, but he would be a massive underdog if he did. Manchin barely won in 2018 against a very bad opponent in a very good Democratic year, with a third-party candidate taking four percent of the vote. Those circumstances are unlikely to replicate themselves.

Arizona is not West Virginia. Sinema is the first Democrat to win a Senate seat from Arizona in thirty years. The state has been reliably Republican since the mid-nineties. The first time someone wins a tough state, the analysis tends to attribute the victory to some magic message or strategy that is unique to the victor.

When Mark Warner won the Virginia governorship in 2001, he became an immediate Democratic superstar for his rural outreach, gun-friendly rhetoric, and his courting of NASCAR fans. Everyone in the party wanted to emulate his approach. Four years later, Tim Kaine, the liberal former mayor of Richmond and Warner’s Lieutenant Governor, won by a similar margin. A few years after that, Barack Hussein Obama won Virginia. In hindsight, Warner’s shocking win seems much less shocking. His victory was the product of a profound demographic shift happening beneath our eyes.

In the moment, Sinema’s unlikely triumph was attributed to her moderate message and bipartisan credentials. But the fact that Mark Kelly and Joe Biden won the state only two years later suggests that her victory was as much about a radically changing state. The point here is not to demean Sinema’s victory in 2018. She ran a good campaign, but we shouldn’t pretend that political circumstances compel her to distance herself from Democratic priorities. Arizona is a purple state that is trending blue.

Sinema’s Political Peril

Numerous profiles of Sinema suggest that she is modeling herself after Arizona’s tradition of political mavericks like John McCain — carving out an independent identity by being willing to anger both parties. While this strategy seems intriguing on paper, it actually makes zero sense and is a recipe for defeat in 2024. In highly polarized times, politicians need near-unanimous support from their own party to win. The pool of true swing voters has shrunk and split ticket voting is now incredibly rare. There is no credible math where Sinema can attract enough Republicans and Independents to make up for diminished Democratic enthusiasm.

Several recent polls show that Sinema is losing support among Democrats without gaining any from Independents and Republicans. A March poll from Civiqs shows that Sinema’s net favorable rating among Democrats is down 30 points from December. Among Independents, it’s down 14 points. Sinema isn’t up for reelection until 2024, so time is on her side. However, if Sinema stays on this trajectory, she is in profound trouble in either a primary or the general election.

Ultimately, this is what is so frustrating about Sinema’s approach to the filibuster. Her substantive arguments are inaccurate, and her political strategy makes no sense. She is more Joe Lieberman than John McCain. Like Lieberman, the former Democratic VP nominee turned Iraq War and McCain supporter, Sinema seems to enjoy being a spoiler in the eyes of their own party. In 2006, Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, but won the general election as an independent. The path will not be available to Sinema. Arizona is not Connecticut. 2024 is not 2006. And she does not have Lieberman’s long ties to her state.

For the time being, we are stuck with Sinema. Arizona has a recall law, but that would be an excellent way to end up with a Republican in that seat and Sinema is much better than a Republican. However, I will be the first person to contribute to the first Democrat that lines up to run against her. Politicians should not be captive to their bases, but they also shouldn’t go out of their way to stick a thumb in their eye either.