Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) has spent the past few months at the Capitol hashing out a politically tricky bipartisan deal with a small group of lawmakers to address the migrant crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border.
It’s the type of intricate legislative dealmaking the former Democrat has built her unusual political brand on. But in the next few weeks, Sinema must decide whether voters in her purple state care enough about her brand of politics in a polarized era to reelect her as an independent, as the window for her to gather enough signatures to land on the November ballot quickly closes.
A Republican consultant familiar with the recent internal deliberations within Sinema’s tight-knit circle said that the team’s debate involves one central question: In today’s hyperpartisan environment, do voters value elected officials who bring both sides together to deliver legislation?
“If she is able to get a border security deal across, do you know she will have accomplished something that hasn’t been done in 30 years as a first-term senator,” the Republican asked. “But do voters even care?”
As Sinema and her campaign team ponder this question, the senator has blown past some of the deadlines the team set for themselves last year, including to have hired campaign staff by the end of last year. Her fundraising has been lackluster. And a key signature-gathering deadline to get on the ballot is approaching, which experts say would likely require action in the next few weeks to comfortably meet.
In Arizona and D.C., there is also skepticism among political consultants about whether Sinema could pull off winning as an independent in a statewide three-way race — a feat that’s not been accomplished in recent memory — even given her considerable political talents. A leaked Sinema campaign memo first reported by NBC News predicted she could win up to 20 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 35 percent of Republicans as her path to victory. But polls suggest she would be the underdog in the race, trailing both Democrat Ruben Gallego and Republican Kari Lake, who are expected to win their parties’ nominations.
Still, there are signs that her team is at least gathering information about a potential run. A Sinema representative has been in conversation with at least one firm this month about the price tag and amount of time it could take to gather signatures from tens of thousands of voters to file in early April, a requirement of qualifying for the general election ballot, a person familiar with the outreach said.
Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have not said whether they would back Sinema over Gallego if she does run again, only insisting they will ensure the seat does not flip to red. There is a long-standing tradition of the DSCC backing incumbents, but after Sinema left the party in 2022 and has said she does not caucus with Democrats, it became less clear how the group would handle her reelection. (Although Sinema maintains she does not caucus with them, her voting record is largely Democratic, and she receives her Senate committee assignments through the Democrats.)
“We have open lines of communications with both teams,” said an aide at the DSCC who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail internal discussions, referring to Gallego’s and Sinema’s teams. “We will not allow Kari Lake to win this seat.”
DSCC Chair Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who called Sinema a friend, said the group is already making investments in Arizona, referencing the group’s hiring of staffers there and in other battleground states.
“She’ll make her decision when she makes her decision,” he said. “We are confident that a Republican will not win in Arizona.”
Even some of Sinema’s closest allies say they do not know what she will decide, and Democrats — who use words like “enigma” to describe the first-term senator — are impatient for her to make the call.
Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist who formerly worked for the late Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said the indecision has frozen the race.
“What Democrats lack right now is clarity, and not having clarity makes it hard to strategize, makes it hard to figure out how to spend dollars,” he said.
One Arizona consultant spelled out Sinema’s treacherous political path during a conversation with a Sinema representative last year, a person familiar with the meeting recalled.
The conversation centered on the complications involving the mechanics of running a third-party campaign without the help of party infrastructure, from challenges with recruiting campaign staff to accessing voter-contact lists, the person said. (Other consultants have downplayed the infrastructure challenges Sinema would face as a third-party candidate, however.)
“There was a sense of righteousness,” the person said. “That she’s doing the right thing.”
The marathoner and triathlete is known for her fierce competitive streak, and allies have speculated she would not run in a race where she did not see a clear path to victory. Sinema, the first openly bisexual person to serve in the Senate, started out in politics affiliated with the Green Party before becoming a Democrat and later assembling a winning coalition in 2018 that included “McCain Republicans” — conservative fans of the late Arizona senator’s maverick streak. But she alienated many Democrats back home by pushing back against a plan to eliminate the Senate filibuster to allow legislation to pass the chamber with a bare majority, as well as with a vote against attaching a minimum wage hike to a covid relief bill. Many of her closest relationships in the Senate are with Republicans.
Sinema’s team says she has been too consumed with her work at the Capitol to decide on another run. The senator worked through the holidays on the border deal. “Arizonans expect their elected leaders to solve problems. That’s why Kyrsten is laser-focused on delivering real solutions to secure Arizona’s border — not campaign politics,” said Sinema spokesman Pablo A. Sierra-Carmona.
To get on the ballot in November, Sinema would have to gather more than 40,000 signatures of registered voters, via paper forms or electronically. Arizona signature-gathering experts estimated that it would cost about $1 million to obtain signatures by paper, plus additional signatures to ensure a cushion if some are disqualified by election officials.
That process would need to begin in the next few weeks to avoid unnecessary expense, those experts said.
“Everything she’s doing is making her path more expensive and more difficult for what is a foundational part of her campaign,” said Jon Sutton, who runs a Democratic firm in Arizona that gathers signatures. “She would save herself money if she had started this last year.”
Meanwhile, Sinema’s team and some of the state’s major political donors from both sides of the aisle are working to reschedule a fundraiser in the state that had been scrapped last fall amid the threat of a federal government shutdown. Sharon Harper, a real estate developer and longtime friend of the McCain family, said she spoke last week to a Sinema representative who told her that rescheduling the fundraiser was “a top priority.”
“People want to talk to her and see her,” said Harper. “I’m hoping she’s going to run. She’s got the time to do it. … There is a timing issue here, and I’m hopeful that we’re going to hear from her,” about her future political plans, Harper said.
Sinema’s fundraising has lagged far behind her potential rivals in recent months. Her leadership PAC raised only about $220,000 last quarter, though the candidate had more than $10 million cash on hand total as of a few months ago.
Gallego announced his run more than a year ago and has outraised Sinema several quarters in a row while holding campaign events across the state. His allies believe he is consolidating support and sharpening his campaign skills while Sinema sits on the fence. He’s picked up endorsements from Democratic groups, including the abortion rights group Reproductive Freedom for All and the anti-money in politics group End Citizens United.
But Sinema would have an impressive legislative record to run on should she decide to enter the race after a border deal is struck. She was a lead negotiator on gun safety legislation that passed in 2022, a sweeping infrastructure package that many lawmakers are running on, as well as legislation that protects the right to same-sex marriage and negotiations that resulted in Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) lifting his hold blocking military promotions late last year.
If the Senate were to pass the sweeping border security deal she’s hammered out with both parties’ Senate leaders, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn), and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), that would also make a powerful argument to her home state where the border crisis is particularly relevant. The deal faces a treacherous path to become law, however, given former president Trump and many of his allies are opposed.
“We have never had a package of this significance under consideration by the United States Congress,” Sinema said last week, saying the border has been an “unmitigated crisis” her entire life. “And this is a unique moment. I think we should take it.”
Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.