Sinema’s Blue Dog Moment, or How Sinema’s being “Liebermaned”

There was a report this week by The Hill on a poll where 72% of Arizona Dems prefer a Democrat other than Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in the 2024 Arizona Senate election. Plus, Arizona Dems prefer AZ Democrats Ruben Gallego, Greg Stanton, and Kathy Hoffman over Sinema by 20 points or more in test polls. I haven’t been to Arizona since 1979 but I’m not sure Sinema would even beat me in a poll of Arizona Dems.

Kyrsten Sinema is at the center of the political whirlwind. Senate Republicans show her a lot of love, pray for her , and try to recruit her to the Republican Party. But at best she’s “warily tolerated” by the White House and Senate Democrats, subject to hostile examination from the Democratic-oriented media, and mostly reviled by Democratic voters. Sinema’s quirky fashion presentation also received a detailed and not at all sympathetic examination by Tressie Cottom in the New York Trimes. Given that Biden absolutely needs Sinema’s “yes” vote to pass anything in a 50-50 Senate, the Arizona senator used to have all the leverage. But the anger and disgust of Arizona Democratic voters has created a situation in which Sinema needs Biden and Senate Democratic support if she wants to be re-elected and that takes away her advantage.

But Sen. Sinema is not just a major player in Biden administration theater. She’s also has a role in the decline of the “center” in American politics. It’s such a familiar story that it’s now part of U.S. political mythology. There used to be moderates like Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman who could cross party lines to vote, negotiate, work out, and maybe go out for a few drinks later. But that’s almost entirely gone now. There were 59 conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House of Representatives in 2009 but only 14 in the current caucus. Blue Dog Democrats were easy targets for Republican attacks during the Tea Party wave of 2010 and have generally proved ineffective against prominent conservatives outside the Democratic wave of 2018.

At the same time, conservative leaning Democrats have also been subject to being cancelled by the Democratic base with the most famous case being Joe Lieberman, the Democratic Senator from Connecticut and 2000 vice-presidential candidate whose steadfast support for the failed war in Iraq. invasion led to his being defeated in the 2006 Democratic Senate primary. Lieberman won re-election as an independent but has been in bitter exile from the Democratic mainstream ever since and sought to undermine both President Obama’s and President Biden’s domestic agenda.

Kyrsten Sinema was first elected as a Blue Dog Democrat to the House in 2012 and climbed up to the Senate stressing her independence from national Democrats and pledging to vote against Chuck Schumer for Democratic leader in 2018. As a senator, Sinema quickly became friendly with the Republicans who were most noxious to Democrats like Ted Cruz. To the contrary, Sinema has been hostile to Senate Democratic leadership and condescending to Arizona’s Democratic voters. She’s also been a thorn in the side of the Biden administration and Democratic Congressional leaders, peremptorily refusing to support the original 3.5 trillion Build Back Better proposal, making calls to submarine Build Back Better in the House, and becoming a vehicle for lobbyist demands as negotiations continued. Sinema’s refusal to support eliminating the filibuster has been so important to Senate Republicans that they even delayed triggering a debt payment crisis for her sake.

But what Kyrsten Sinema doesn’t seem to understand is that Democratic voters have become more partisan over the last 15 years and resent her ostentatious affinity for Republicans just as much as Connecticut Democrats resented Joe Lieberman in 2006. If current trends continue, Sinema will be “Liebermaned” by Democratic primary voters and out of the U.S. Senate in 2024.

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