Dem Flips Arizona Senate Seat 11/13 06:10
(AP) -- In a year of liberal challenges to President Donald Trump, an avowed
centrist scored the Democratic Party's biggest coup -- flipping a red state's
U.S. Senate seat.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona Senate seat being vacated by Republican
Jeff Flake to become the first woman to win a U.S. Senate seat in the state.
The race against Republican Rep. Martha McSally was tight enough that a winner
wasn't decided until Monday, after a slow count of mail-in ballots gave her an
Sinema's win achieves a longtime Democratic goal of making Arizona, with its
growing Latino population, a competitive state. And she did it by pointedly not
running against the president, or even critiquing his hardline immigration
"She didn't put the progressive bit in her mouth and run with it," said
Chuck Coughlin, a GOP strategist in Phoenix. "She spit it out and did something
Sinema targeted moderate Republican and independent women by painting
herself as a nonpartisan problem-solver who voted to support Trump's agenda 60
percent of the time. Her nearly single-issue campaign talked about the
importance of health care and protections for people with pre-existing
She knew McSally was vulnerable there because she backed the Republicans'
failed attempt to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law.
Sinema tailored her campaign for conservative-leaning Arizona rather than
the national environment, but it may be a guide for Democrats who hope to
expand the electoral map in 2020. While some liberals won important races in
California, Colorado and Kansas, the left's highest-profile champions
disappointed on Election Day.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke fell short in his challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas.
Stacey Abrams trails her Republican opponent in the still undecided bitter
Georgia gubernatorial race, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who once led
in the polls in the race for Florida governor, is now awaiting the results of a
Sinema prevailed while the Democratic candidate for governor, David Garcia,
ran as an avowed progressive and got trounced by Republican incumbent Doug
"Kyrsten was the perfect candidate for this race," said Democratic
strategist Chad Campbell, who previously served with Sinema in Arizona's state
legislature. "We saw that with Garcia."
Sinema first came to prominence as an openly bisexual Green Party activist
in Phoenix, and McSally raked the Democrat over her protests against the Iraq
and Afghanistan wars. Sinema was elected as a Democrat to the state legislature
in 2004 and carved out a reputation as a liberal who could work with her
By the time she was elected to Congress representing a suburban Phoenix
swing district in 2012, Sinema had completely remade herself into a centrist.
She voted against Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader, supported relaxed
regulations on banks and a law to increase penalties on people illegally
re-entering the country. She supported a bill making it easier to deport
immigrants identified by police as gang members.
During the Senate campaign, Sinema stuck to her centrist message, almost
robotically at times. She faced only a nominal primary challenge from her left
and was free to burnish her nonpartisan credentials, unlike McSally, who faced
two primary challengers from the right and tied herself to Trump.
On Election Day, Sinema swung by Arizona State University's downtown Phoenix
campus to hand out doughnuts and gleefully posed for photos. She has four
degrees from the school and teaches two classes there.
"What are you going to do for people who are a little more on the left?"
voter Petra Morrison asked. The candidate said she wasn't focused on party
labels or ideology. Morrison later told a reporter she was going to vote for
Sinema, even though "she seems to come across as a Democrat in sheep's
Though Sinema wooed moderates, she needed liberals like Morrison in her
corner for her win. She benefited from a longtime organizing push by activists
who especially targeted the state's young, growing and Democratic-leaning
Latino electorate. "It's been 10 years and even more, this mobilization and
galvanizing," said Lisa Magana, a professor in ASU's School of Transborder
And though Trump's rhetoric on immigration seemed pitched to Arizona voters'
anxieties about the border, both Democratic and Republican polls throughout the
race showed the president had more people disapproving of him.
Trump visited only once on McSally's behalf in mid-October. The following
week, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego said there was a notable spike in Latinos
returning their early ballots; most Arizona residents vote by mail.
"It was like they spent the weekend at the kitchen table" filling out the
ballots in anger, Gallego said.
Annette Villelas was one of those angry voters. She registered for the first
time so she could vote for Democrats and against Trump. It wasn't just the way
the president deals with immigrants, she said after shaking Sinema's hand at a
Phoenix taco shop.
"The way he talks just to the public, it's not right," Villelas said. "I
want to vote and get him out and get someone in for the people."
Ron Horsford, a 50-year-old Republican, was at the same event and said he
was excited to vote for Sinema. He liked her message of "I'm going to work with
the other side."
The question for Democrats in Arizona is whether they can attract voters
like Horsford and Villelas in 2020. Not only does the party hope it can put the
state in play in the presidential race, voters will get to choose the John
McCain's permanent successor. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, who was appointed after
McCain's death, has pledged not to run.
Despite its image as a staunch Republican bastion, Arizona is attracting
younger, educated voters from elsewhere in the United States. In this election,
Democrats expanded their share in the state Legislature, though they're still
the minority. They took a 5-4 majority in the state's congressional seats and
remain competitive in two down-ballot and uncalled statewide races.