AZ Central: Sinema says Trump 'not a thing' in Arizona, says she can reverse GOP tide in statewide races
By Eliza Collins
U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema hopes to be the first Arizona Democrat to win a high-profile statewide race in more than a decade. But unlike many of her Democratic colleagues on the ballot in 2018, Sinema doesn't plan to use President Donald Trump’s controversial tenure to help her win.
Sinema — who represents Tempe and parts of Phoenix, Chandler and Mesa in the House — is the Democratic front-runner for Arizona’s open Senate seat. But she is running less as a Democrat than a problem solver willing to work with anyone, regardless of party.
Trump is “not a thing,” Sinema said when The Arizona Republic asked about her pitch to voters. Sinema added that the controversial president is “not a part of what I think my constituents are worried about or think about.”
If she wins the seat, which is being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake, it would be the first time Arizona has been represented in the Senate by a Democrat since Sen. Dennis DeConcini retired in the early 1990s. No Democrat has won any other high-profile statewide office since former Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2006.
Trump won Arizona by just 3.5 points in 2016. But his supporters in the state remain fiercely loyal, not to mention Republicans' voter-registration edge and long-running dominance at the polls.
That's why some see Sinema's strategy of not making the race a referendum on Trump as savvy.
"It’s smart for a candidate not to focus their sole energy on Trump right now, especially when you’re trying to win, you know, a purple state like Arizona,” said D.J. Quinlan, the former executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party and a partner at a political consulting firm.
Sinema will instead pitch herself as someone willing to work with the president on certain issues.
During an interview with The Republic, she brought up a meeting with Trump she attended earlier this fall. At the time, she and other members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, of which she is a member, pitched a compromise health-care plan they had drafted.
“It’s not about a party; it never is about party. It’s about putting people ahead of party. I don’t think party matters much to people,” Sinema said.
Sinema and her congressional office invited The Republic to tag along last week as the group spread gravel to spruce up the home of a Vietnam veteran in Tempe. It was a Thanksgiving service project with Habitat for Humanity.
The veteran, Ed Mezes, told The Republic he appreciated that Sinema was out doing work for her constituents. But no matter how much he liked his new landscaping, he wouldn’t commit to voting for her until he knows the final matchup, which won't be determined until Arizona's August primaries.
He said he has not voted in previous elections because of issues at his polling place.
If Sinema is to win, she will have to convince people like Mezes that she’s the right choice — and that she’s worth showing up for.
Her voting record could appeal to Republicans and independents, though it risks alienating the more progressive wing of her party. Sinema has voted with Trump 50 percent of the time, according to the political tracking website FiveThirtyEight.
Quinlan said he is more progressive than Sinema. He ran the campaign of one of her primary challengers in 2012. But he believes her voting record will convince independents and college-educated Republican voters that she can effectively represent them.
He also sees little risk that Sinema will lose the votes of progressives who think she isn't far-enough to the left. Such voters, he said, will conclude it’s better to have a Democrat you agree with 80 percent of the time representing you than a Republican.
“The key here, particularly in Arizona, are going to be those independents, and we’re seeing independents trending away from the chaos of the current Republican Party,” Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, an organization focused on electing progressive women, told The Republic. EMILY’s List has endorsed Sinema and is working closely with her campaign.
But Sinema hasn’t always been a moderate. She used to be a Green Party activist and a liberal state lawmaker.
Republicans sought to revive this image of Sinema in their first attack following her entry in the Senate race. “Kyrsten Sinema is a big government progressive, or 'prada socialist' as she calls it, and we're not going to let her run from her record," Arizona Republican Party spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said in a September statement.
Sinema has portrayed herself as someone who has benefited from the American dream.
When she was growing up, her family fell from middle class to homelessness. And she has cited the assistance of family and church as key during those tough times.
She went to college at Brigham Young University and earned master’s, law and doctorate degrees from Arizona State University. Sinema is the only openly bisexual member of Congress and, while she grew up Mormon, she now does not claim a religion.
She acknowledged she has shifted toward the political middle during her career, but says that’s just the result of her education and the “opportunity throughout my life to learn and grow.”
“I think that’s a sign of a mature human — is someone who is open to new information and then on occasion changes his or her opinion based on that new information,” Sinema said.
Brian Anderson, a former aide to Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and the current founder of a GOP research firm in Arizona, said that, as Republicans highlight Sinema’s history as a progressive, it will make it “very easy for Republicans to box her into a corner.”
Anderson also said the 2018 ballot — on which the Republican governor, secretary of state and attorney general are all up for re-election — will draw GOP voters to the polls, and he believes they’ll also vote for the GOP Senate nominee.
If voter-registration figures are any indication of how 2018 will go, Republicans have the edge. The state’s registration records show that 34.6 percent of Arizona voters were registered as Republicans in October, an increase of 0.1 percent since November of last year. Meanwhile, 30.2 percent of Arizona voters were Democrats, a 0.2 percent decline.
In the Democratic primary, Sinema is running against attorney and community activist Deedra Abboud, Bob Bishop, Chris Russell and Richard Sherzan, who are all political unknowns.
Overall, the 2018 Senate map looks favorable for Republicans. There are 25 Democrats — and independents who caucus with them — up for re-election in 2018, and 10 of them are in states that Trump won. Arizona and Nevada are considered to be Democrats’ best chances to pick up seats.
Flake, a Republican, announced he would retire at the end of his term because he no longer saw a place for himself in the party. Flake has been a frequent critic of the president and considers himself a pro-immigration Republican, but polling showed he faced a tough road.
Kelli Ward, a pro-Trump former state senator who ran against Sen. John McCain in 2016, is running for the Republican nomination and has been endorsed by former Trump political strategist Steve Bannon.
U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, who represents part of Tucson and southern Arizona, has told her Republican colleagues she intends to jump in the race for the Republican nomination but has not made an official announcement.
McSally, like Sinema, has made her mark in the House as a moderate and is also a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus.