Kyrsten Sinema goes full McCain, tests her Democratic Party’s patience on Capitol Hill

First came Barry Goldwater, then John McCain, and now Kyrsten Sinema.

The independent streak of Arizona’s senators that made Washington bristle for decades is back in the spotlight in high-stakes spending talks. Ms. Sinema, the wig-wearing, bisexual triathlete serving in the Senate, has refused to fall in line with President Biden‘s ambitious “Build Back Better” agenda.

Goldwater stoked a conservative revolution within the Republican Party, and McCain tweaked the Republican establishment at every turn. Now, Ms. Sinema is putting Democratic leaders through their paces.

“You cannot help but make the comparison of Kyrsten Sinema to John McCain and to Barry Goldwater because it was Goldwater that personified the Arizona political DNA,” said Stan Barnes, an Arizona-based Republican Party consultant. “McCain‘s mentor hero was Goldwater, and he had a successful career of reflecting that, and now Kyrsten is doing something very similar, and I think she will be rewarded for it.”

Ms. Sinema has made it clear that the price tag on Mr. Biden‘s $3.5 trillion social spending plan is too high, but she has shied away from specifics and appears to be waiting for the House to pass a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill before she spells out what it will take for her to get on board with the more extensive liberal spending package.

Far-left Democrats, meanwhile, do not want the bill watered down and are becoming more incensed with Ms. Sinema‘s approach.

“Literally one senator, one senator, Kyrsten Sinema, is holding up the will of the entire Democratic Party,” Rep. Ro Khanna of California said on CNN. “The president keeps begging her, ‘Tell us what you want. Put a proposal forward.’”

Ms. Sinema has shown a knack for falling out of favor with the far-left flank of the Democratic Party in much the same way McCain often found himself at odds with the far right of the Republican Party.

Arizonans rewarded McCain by electing him to six terms in the Senate before his death in 2018.

Ms. Sinema’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In 2019, Ms. Sinema became the first woman elected to represent Arizona in the Senate— former Sen. Martha McSally was appointed by Arizona’s governor to fill McCain’s term — and the first Democrat to represent the state in the chamber since 1995.

She started as an anti-war activist in the early 2000s and served in the Arizona Legislature from 2005 to 2012. She served in the U.S. House from 2013 to 2019 before making the jump to the Senate.

Along the way, she shed her liberal activism in favor of a more bipartisan approach that made her an anomaly in today’s hyperpartisan political environment.

Indeed, the 45-year-old has been more willing than most of her colleagues to work across partisan lines.

The Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University ranked Ms. Sinema as the fifth most bipartisan member of the Senate during the 116th session of Congress and the most bipartisan member of the Democratic caucus.

While national Democrats are lurching to the left and national Republicans are lurching to the right, Ms. Sinema has carved out a unique space and developed a coalition of support that includes voters who are wary of far-left politics.

That has put a target on her back.

Far-left activists and liberal talking heads are buzzing about giving Ms. Sinema the boot in the 2024 primary election cycle.

“Sen. Sinema, like Sen. McCain, believes in bipartisan negotiation to solve problems,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black, who advised McCain‘s presidential campaign.

Her work on the bipartisan infrastructure bill has been admirable,” he said in an email. “I hope she will stand her ground against her party leadership on the reconciliation boondoggle.”

Now the political class in Washington is tracking Ms. Sinema‘s every move, trying to glean some hint of where the tight-lipped lawmaker will land in the high-stakes debate over transportation and spending, which will define the contours of the 2022 midterm elections.

Ms. Sinema has balked at the price tag and informed her colleagues she has a tough time accepting the higher corporate and individual tax rates that Mr. Biden is relying on to pay for an expansion of the welfare state.

She angered many Democrats when she voted against including a $15-per-hour minimum wage hike in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that passed in March and when she rejected calls to eliminate the legislative filibuster, the 60-votes hurdle that has thwarted her party’s agenda in the Senate.

Defending her stance, Ms. Sinema warned that the nation had more to lose than to gain from abolishing the rule that empowers the minority in the upper chamber and forces compromises on legislation.

“Arizonans expect me to do what I promised when I ran for the House and the Senate: to be independent — like Arizona — and to work with anyone to achieve lasting results,” Ms. Sinema said in a Washington Post op-ed in June.

The intraparty frustration is reaching new heights.

The Arizona Democratic Party passed a resolution over the weekend threatening a “no confidence” vote if Ms. Sinema continues to oppose ending the filibuster and gums up the works of Mr. Biden‘s agenda.

Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota said this week that Ms. Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the other wayward Democrat in the chamber, are suiting up for the wrong party.

“We obviously didn’t envision having Republicans as part of our party,” Ms. Omar said on CNN.

Ms. Sinema has been savaged on social media. Activists have accused her of being in bed with Big Pharma and cast her as corrupt and a puppet of big donors.

The New York Times provided more ammunition for her critics by reporting Tuesday that Ms. Sinema was scheduled to hold a big-ticket fundraiser with business lobbying groups that oppose key parts of the Democrats’ plans.

“I can’t imagine how it must feel to be her with the entirety of the progressive wing of the nation weighing down on you and shooting a thousand arrows into you every day on social media and spending millions of dollars to try to convince you to do something you don’t want to do and threatening your future if you don’t play ball,” Mr. Barnes said. “All of those things are happening to her, and in the face of that headwind, she is holding her ground.”

Goldwater, a five-term senator and the Republican nominee for president in 1964, ushered in the modern conservative movement, which is cemented in small government and individual freedoms. His bold and blunt style rattled more moderate Republicans, many from the Northeast, who helped cast him as too radical.

McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, managed by 2014 to put himself in a similar position as Ms. Sinema is now. The Arizona Republican Party passed a resolution in 2014 censuring McCain for what they saw as his liberal voting record.

McCain plowed ahead. He cemented his “maverick” legacy in 2017 when he bucked party leaders to cast the deciding vote against President Trump’s “skinny repeal” of Obamacare.

It earned him respect from Democrats and left Republicans aghast.

Ms. Sinema‘s independent streak has helped her cobble together a McCain-esque coalition of supporters.

Her numbers look very similar to John McCain‘s,” said Mike Noble, of OH Predictive Insights. “She has a diverse coalition. She doesn’t have united party support, but she has crossover support and support among the all-important independents.”

Mr. Noble’s latest poll showed 46% of Arizona voters had a favorable opinion of Ms. Sinema and 39% held an unfavorable opinion.

Sen. Mark Kelly, the state’s other Democratic Senator, had a 47% to 43% favorability rating.

Mr. Kelly pulled his support from a more traditional Democratic coalition. He outperformed Ms. Sinema among women, 18- to 54-year-olds, Hispanics and Democrats.

Ms. Sinema bested Mr. Kelly among men, older voters, rural voters, independents and Republicans.  

A June poll of registered voters from Politico had similar findings.

Ms. Sinema and Mr. Kelly had nearly identical approval ratings: 50% to 36% and 51% to 35%, respectively.

Their base of support, however, was starkly different.

Whereas 87% of Democrats and 17% of Republicans approved of Mr. Kelly, Ms. Sinema‘s approval rating was driven by 47% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans.

Ms. Sinema has remained in the good graces of Republicans because they do not see her as too far left, Mr. Noble said.

That dynamic could change, however, if she supports Mr. Biden‘s spending plans.

“Right now, she hasn’t given them a reason to write her off, and that is why this vote is so crucial because the left is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at her,” Mr. Noble said. “If she does vote for this, I think it will very much retract that support she has and it will be very tough to gain them back.”

“It is shaping up to be a defining movement on whether she sticks with that maverick route or bows to pressure from the party,” he said.

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