Democrats sidestep on Kyrsten Sinema challenger as Republicans wish she’d join the GOP ranks

Democratic disconfort was on display as senators kept mum on Representative Ruben Gallego’s decision to run against Independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, despite her defection from the party last month.

On the other side of the aisle, while Ms Sinema has refused to join the Republican Party, many of her GOP colleagues wish she would change her mind, given her friendliness with many of the members.

Senator Mitt Romney worked closely with Ms Sinema throughout the first two years of the Biden administration. The two were lead negotiators on the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Utah Republican was part of a larger group of senators that negotiated the bipartisan gun safety bill that Ms Sinema negotiated with three other senators.

That friendship means that even though Ms Sinema is part of his party, Mr Romney told The Independent that he will not support a Republican against her.

“I think Senator Sinema is terrific. And I would I would not be campaigning against her,” he said.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, a longtime friend, wishes that she would join the GOP ranks.

“Well, I mean, I would prefer she come and join us. But the absent that, you know, obviously, it's about the majority,” he told The Independent.

His predecessor as whip, John Cornyn of Texas, who was part of the group that negotiated the gun bill with her, said Mr Gallego’s decision to jump in was a testament to the direction of the party.

“I think they’ve love their minds. They are pretty radical,” he told The Independent. “Senator Sinema has been a good partner to work with and doing a lot of very consructive work.”

At the same time, he still said he’d support the GOP if a candidate ran against her.

“I’ll always support my party.”

Conversely, Democrats were mostly silent about whether to support Mr Gallego, who announced on Monday that he would challenge Ms Sinema. Arizona’s senior senator announced last month that she would leave the Democratic Party and serve as an independent.

“He’s a fine man. He has to make a decision about his own future,” Senate Majoirty Whip Dick Durbin told The Independent. But Mr Durbin, who is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he did not want to speculate about races.

Ms Sinema’s office did not comment to The Independent. But on Friday, she did tacitly address her new challenger.

“I’m not really thinking or talking about the election right now — although others are — I’m staying focused on the work,” she said.

Ms Sinema frequently frustrated many Democrats when they had control of the House of Representatives and a 50-50 majority in the US Senate. She had many reservations about Build Back Better, the social spending bill Democrats hoped to pass before Senator Joe Manchin killed it.

In addition, she opposes getting rid of the filibuster, the 60-vote threshold in the upper chamber, even as many Democrats hoped to get rid of it to pass a new version of the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court weakened the law in 2013.

The Cook Political Report this week rated Arizona’s Senate race as a “toss-up.”

But Ms Sinema has not announced whether she will seek re-election and she will continue to caucus with Senate Democrats, similar to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who both serve as independents.

Meanwhile, Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, Ms Sinema’s Democratic colleague, was non-commital on her potential reelection race, having just won his own campaign in November. Ms Sinema contributed $10,000 to Mr Kelly’s re-election campaign.

“My thoughts are, we’ve had a lot of Senate elections in Arizona,” Mr Kelly told The Independent. Arizona has had a Senate race for every election since 2016, when John McCain won his final term.

In 2018, Ms Sinema ran for an open seat as a Democrat and won, becoming the first Democrat to win a seat from the state in 30 years. In 2020, Mr Kelly won a special election to finish the end of the late Mr McCain’s term. In 2022, Mr Kelly beat Republican Blake Masters to win a full Senate term.

“And this one's more than a year and a half away,” Mr Kelly said. “You know, I've worked with the congressman, you know, on a number of things. But I’m focused on the job and not another Senate race.”

Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota – who is a vice chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic caucus’s campaign arm – was also non-committal.

“I think we are in a good place,” she told The Independent, but added there were lots of unknowns given that Ms Sinema hasn’t announced whether she’ll seek re-election. “So it's premature to know what happens next.”

When asked about Mr Gallego, she said, “I watched his video this morning. And I thought it was strong.”