PHOENIX—When Barack Obama came to Phoenix on Wednesday in the final days of the 2022 election, seemingly every Arizona Democrat of note was in the room, from Sen. Mark Kelly and governor candidate Katie Hobbs to prominent party messengers like Rep. Ruben Gallego.
There was just one glaring absence: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
For months, Democrats in Arizona have been clawing against a difficult political environment in hopes of reelecting Kelly, boosting Hobbs to the governorship over the MAGA champion Kari Lake, and helping Adrian Fontes defeat the far-right election denier Mark Finchem in the Secretary of State race.
The senior U.S. Senator from Arizona is not on the ballot herself until 2024. But while other Democratic senators in similar situations have played active roles boosting fellow Democrats in their home states, there’s been a Sinema-sized hole in the Democratic campaign effort in Arizona.
During the 2022 election season, Sinema has not campaigned publicly with her colleague Kelly, or with Hobbs, Fontes, or any other Democrat on the ballot in the state. It was not until two weeks before Election Day, with early voting underway, that Sinema even publicly confirmed she was supporting Hobbs.
Typically a solid fundraiser, Sinema has donated the maximum of $10,000 to Kelly through her campaign and personal PAC, as well as $60,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has heavily supported Kelly. But according to federal and state campaign finance records, Sinema has not contributed to the campaigns of Hobbs or Fontes.
When Sinema comes up on the campaign trail, awkwardness usually follows. When asked by The Daily Beast at a recent campaign stop if Sinema would campaign with him, Kelly responded that they “work together very closely on a lot of different things, and I’ve been in constant contact with her about the election.”
But pressed on whether he’d asked her to campaign for him, Kelly avoided the question.
“Well, you know what, I spend a lot of time flying around the state on a little airplane,” he said. “I’ve been in Prescott, Show Low, Flagstaff, Tuba City, Yuma in the last five days. So I hop in a little airplane and fly up there and meet with people and I do that over and over again.”
Speaking to the press last week in Phoenix, Hobbs was asked a similar question. “Sen. Sinema said she did vote for me,” Hobbs said. “We’re welcoming any support, and I’m glad to have Sen. Sinema’s.”
Naturally, Sinema’s absence from the campaign trail has sparked a familiar pattern of backlash for a figure who, over the last two years, seemingly has not missed an opportunity to get crosswise with members of her own party.
The senator’s moves to stymie the party's agenda in a 50-50 Senate and reshape key bills in her vision has poisoned her relationships with many Democrats—including with the state party itself, which voted in January to formally censure Sinema after she opposed ending the Senate’s filibuster rule.
But, as is often the case with Sinema, it’s not just what she does, but how she does it. For instance, some of her critics have seethed that she appeared more in public with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell in this campaign season than with Arizona Democratic candidates. In September, she gave a speech at McConnell’s foundation in Kentucky, which was filled with mutual praise between the two.
If the likes of Kari Lake and Blake Masters are victorious on Election Day, those kinds of optics could deal yet another blow to Sinema’s standing among Arizona Democrats—right before she is expected to launch a reelection campaign in 2024.
“The MAGA extremist slate could do well in Arizona on Nov. 8,” said Chris Herstam, a state lawmaker and former Supporter of Sinema’s who has since become a vocal critic. “But Kyrsten Sinema could care less.”
In response to questions for this story, a spokesperson for Sinema said the senator has fundraised for Kelly through events, calls, and emails. They referred The Daily Beast to a statement Sinema gave to the Arizona Republic, in which she called Kelly a “great partner in our work securing the border, strengthening Arizona’s water future, and lowering prices for everyday Arizona families
“I was proud to support his campaign in 2020,” Sinema said, “and I’m laser focused on keeping him in the Senate.”
Regarding Hobbs, Sinema told HuffPost that “Arizonans vote for the candidate they believe best represents Arizona values, and that’s why I voted for Katie Hobbs for Governor.”
There is nothing to indicate Sinema is refusing requests from Democrats to campaign for them, but there’s also no indication she is being pressured to take on a more visible role.
Still, neither Kelly nor Hobbs are strangers. Kelly is her Senate colleague and has been a figure in Arizona politics for years because of his wife, the former congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Like Sinema, Hobbs is a former social worker. He took over her State House district in 2011 when Sinema went to the State Senate. In the 2018 election, both scored upset statewide victories.
It may seem ironic for Democrats who recoil at Sinema’s every move to criticize her for not appearing more on the campaign trail. But in an election that could be decided by a few thousand votes, many feel their candidates need all the help they can get.
Political experts in Arizona strongly believe Sinema could provide meaningful help. Chuck Coughlin, a GOP pollster in Phoenix, had a quick answer for whether Democratic candidates should welcome her help: “fuck yeah, absolutely.”
Noting that Sinema has a higher approval rating among Republicans than among Democrats, he said she could help strengthen Kelly and Hobbs’ appeals to pivotal independent and right-leaning voters.
While her recent political moves have puzzled operatives from Phoenix to Washington, Sinema is arguably the most electorally successful Arizona Democrat of the last two decades. In 2012, Sinema won the first of three highly competitive elections for Arizona’s swingiest U.S. House seat. In 2018, she defeated Republican Martha McSally by roughly 2.5 points, becoming the first Democrat to win statewide since 2006.
Running what The Atlantic called an “aggressively centrist” campaign, Sinema in 2018 demonstrated an early reluctance to go to bat for fellow Arizona Democrats. She was the only major Democratic candidate not to endorse the party’s nominee for governor, David Garcia, prompting hackles from liberal commentators before he suffered a blowout loss to Gov. Doug Ducey. (Garcia, for what it’s worth, didn’t endorse Sinema.)
Because of her opposition to a number of Democratic priorities in the last two years, Sinema has seen her support among Democratic voters erode—but seen her appeal among Republicans rise.
Brian, a middle-aged man who works in scientific sales and declined to give his last name, showed up to a Scottsdale polling place to cast his ballot for Masters, Kelly’s opponent, last week. But he told The Daily Beast he would likely vote for Sinema in 2024.
Not even Masters has been immune to the GOP admiration for Sinema, as his opponent campaigns without her. On Wednesday, he told the Daily Mail that Sinema is a “very talented politician. She’s good. She’s active. She’s really actively engaged.”
To be sure, Arizona’s dynamics are different than that of other battleground states, but the active campaign schedules of Sinema’s fellow Senate Democrats makes her absence all the more notable.
In Pennsylvania, arguably the most contested state of the 2022 election, Sen. Bob Casey has been a key surrogate for Senate nominee John Fetterman. In closely divided Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin spoke at Obama’s rally for Democratic candidates in Milwaukee and has campaigned with Senate nominee Mandela Barnes.
In Georgia, Sen. Jon Ossoff has reprised his 2020 co-campaigning with Sen. Raphael Warnock, and in New Hampshire, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is spending the final days of the campaign alongside Sen. Maggie Hassan.
One particularly revealing data point: Casey has provided more support to the Arizona Democratic Party this year than Sinema, cutting a $10,000 check to the organization. Sinema has not donated at all to the party that censured her in January.
With just a few days to go until Election Day, and with early voting underway, it’s unlikely that Sinema’s course will change now, especially after she skipped the Wednesday event with Obama.
But observers say it might not have just boosted Democrats for Sinema to get involved—it could have helped herself, too. One of the speakers at the Obama rally, Gallego, is a potential 2024 primary challenger to Sinema, and he has already castigated her publicly for her lack of public involvement in the campaign.
Coughlin, the GOP pollster, said it’d be a “win-win” for Sinema to campaign with fellow Democrats because it would “ameliorate her toxicity with the Democrats.”
Paraphrasing her potential thinking, he said, “if I can show we can win with this kind of ticket, then they are less inclined to be antagonistic towards me.”