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Why Arizona’s U.S. Senate race could split Democrats

Democrats could have to choose between backing their party’s candidate or backing independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who left the party last year

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Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema arrives for a meeting of the Senate Homeland Security Committee at the Capitol.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., arrives for a meeting of the Senate Homeland Security Committee at the Capitol in Washington, Aug. 3, 2022. The decision by Sinema to leave the Democratic Party raised the prospect of a tumultuous three-way race in one of the most politically competitive states in the U.S. It set off a scramble among potential Democratic and Republican candidates to assess whether they could win their party’s nomination.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The potential for a three-way U.S. Senate race in Arizona could split Democrats forced to choose between backing their party’s candidate or picking former-Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., announced his candidacy last week, but Senate Democrats have yet to show their support. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told Politico she suspects she’d support her colleague Sinema, while Democrats including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have yet to weigh in on the race, the Arizona Republic found.

“I’m not following every single thing my colleagues may or may not say about the Arizona Senate race,” Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., told the Republic, calling 2024 a long ways off. “To a large extent, their approach is the same as mine. We just had an election and we’re thinking about challenges our country is facing and how we solve those.”

Senators still have about two years at least to continue working with Sinema, making an early endorsement a potentially awkward workplace situation. Kelly’s resistance to weigh in also isn’t necessarily shocking; after all, Sen. Mitt Romney declined to pick a side in last year’s U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Mike Lee and independent Evan McMullin.

Still, it speaks to a challenge Gallego and other Democratic candidates could face. While Sinema has angered progressives since taking office, she’s been a key player in a number of bipartisan bills that have passed under President Joe Biden. Her 2018 win was the first time a Democrat had won a U.S. Senate seat in the state since 1988 and showed a moderate Democrat could win in the state. She has yet to announce whether she’ll seek reelection next year.


Democrat Ruben Gallego greets supporters at one of the first events of his 2024 Senate campaign in Phoenix on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023. Gallego is running for independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat in what could be a three-way race for one of the top Senate races of 2024.

Jonathan J. Cooper, Associated Press

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee typically works to elect Democrats to the Senate, but it’s supported independents before, including Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, in 2012, according to Politico. The committee hasn’t yet indicated, however, how it will handle the Arizona race.

Gallego is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and running to Sinema’s left. Former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, a potential Republican candidate in next year’s race, called Gallego, “the AOC of Arizona” at an event Sunday. He responded on Twitter, writing in part “We call Kari Lake the Kari Lake of Arizona.”

Arizona is closely split between Democrats, Republicans and independents, meaning a potential three-way race could be competitive. As of January 2023, there was about 1.4 million registered Republicans, 1.2 million registered Democrats, and 1.4 million registered as other, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office.