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KJZZ's Friday NewsCap: Will Democrats regret the 'bad breakup' with Kyrsten Sinema?

KJZZ’s Friday NewsCap revisits some of the biggest stories of the week from Arizona and beyond.

Lorna Romero Ferguson of Elevate Strategies and Gaelle Esposito of Creosote Partners joined The Show to talk about Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s reelection decision, Gov. Katie Hobbs’ veto of an immigration-related bill and more.

Conversation highlights

On U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s announcement that she will not seek reelection

MARK BRODIE: So I think each of you has been on The Show enough where I’ve had to ask you, yes or no, is Sen. Sinema going to run for reelection this week?

We got the answer, which is, of course, no. Gaelle, there’s been some commentary since her announcement that it basically came down to, “I did the right things. It’s your fault, voters, that I can’t operate in this environment.” Is that too harsh of an assessment?

GAELLE ESPOSITO: No, I think that’s really accurate. One of my friends likened it to a bad breakup. You’ve moved out of the house and months later you get an email that says it’s over. Sen. Sinema has nobody to blame but herself. Her polling numbers are a result of her own actions. If she had been out listening to voters, if she had been engaging with community instead of being dismissive of them, instead of going on junkets to wineries, maybe she would be in a different position today.

BRODIE: Lorna, one of the interesting things — and she talked about this in her video — is that she could have legitimately campaigned on a lot of really big issues. She talked about the CHIPS Act and the infrastructure bill, the gun law — all these things that are reasonably popular or more than that with voters. And yet she still did not see a path forward. The polling suggested she did not have a path forward.

LORNA ROMERO FERGUSON: Yeah, it was going to be a difficult decision either way, right? When she chose to leave the Democratic Party and become an independent, everyone knew if she was going to run for reelection, it was going to be very expensive, very difficult and require a lot of work on her team’s part, right? Not necessarily impossible, but the amount of money that you would have to spend to be able to thwart the attacks from the left and the right would be unprecedented at this point.

Yes, she had quite a record of accomplishment for the state of Arizona. And I think it’s unfair to say the assessment or the takeaway from her video is, “I did everything right. Voters here are the ones that are wrong.” I think it’s a bigger commentary about just the general tone and tenor of politics these days.

You have the far left and the far right that don’t really want candidates that want compromise or to be able to reach across the aisle and work together on major issues. They’re more leaning towards the extreme candidates on both sides, which makes it difficult for somebody like Kyrsten Sinema to be successful.

And then you also have, mind you there’s still a number of folks in the middle in Arizona, whether they slightly lean left or right or they’ve left both parties to become independents because they just don’t feel like the parties really represent them anymore. But they feel outcast at this point. And it’s hard to get them motivated in an election like this.

And so, I think it was a difficult decision for her. At the end of the day, I think Democrats are going to really regret what they did with Kyrsten Sinema. Basically trying to force her out of the party, because if Kari Lake ends up winning and they lose that seat, I think they’re really going to question their strategy. Because Kyrsten Sinema paved the way for Democrats to be successful statewide in Arizona. It was a path that Mark Kelly followed, the path that Katie Hobbs followed to a certain extent. And I think they’re really going to kick themselves in the future about it.

BRODIE: Gaelle, I wanted to ask you about that, because it’s an interesting point Lorna makes about how Sinema was the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in decades. And a lot of folks talked about how Mark Kelly followed that playbook. Katie Hobbs, to some extent other Democratic candidates. Is her decision now, does that say anything or is that maybe a harbinger or a warning for any of those other candidates who followed that similar playbook?

ESPOSITO: No, I don’t think it is. I think we even saw it play out in the polling for this race where Ruben Gallego was far ahead of both Kyrsten Sinema and Kari Lake. He is one of the most favorably viewed politicians in the state.

I don’t think this is a thing where voters disliked this compromise, where the far left and the far right were driving things. We’ve seen people want politicians to work together, but they want it done on a values basis, right? They want people to passionately and passionately believe in what they’re doing and not just compromise for its own sake.

And we’ve seen that happen at the Legislature on certain issues like housing that I know we might talk about today. But I think the difference with Kyrsten Sinema’s approach is that it was always about getting the deal and not about what was grounding the policy there.

ROMERO FERGUSON: But at the end of the day, I think we can all agree not much gets done in Washington, D.C. these days, right? You have hundreds of people just kind of sitting there and getting a paycheck at this point. And so you have to compromise. You have to strike the deal if you want to get anything done there.

We saw this a few weeks ago. She was trying to work on a bipartisan immigration and border security compromise. And that got thwarted by the left and the right, Trump got involved, etc. And it’s like now we’re just dealing with the status quo. Is that OK?

I think having a principled approach is important, but you need to be practical about getting something done to move the needle. And that was something she was successful at.

BRODIE: Lorna, where do Sinema’s voters go?

ROMERO FERGUSON: That’s the big question. Ruben and Kari Lake are in charge of their own destiny at this point. They know they need those voters to win. And obviously with Kyrsten out of the equation, that the calculus is different of how they’re successful in November.

And you saw Kari Lake thank Kyrsten Sinema for her service and want to welcome those folks to her side. You saw Ruben slightly thank her. And then he’s been in fundraising mode ever since. And so it’s really going to depend on the appeal and what these candidates talk about.

And I think for Ruben, he has an opportunity if he moderates himself a little bit. But if he continues to be typecast as a far-left progressive in this environment, who’s just a lackey for Joe Biden, I don’t know if that’s going to be helpful in this environment for him.

But then you also have Kari Lake. If she continues to talk about Trump in the 2020 election, and her election, lawsuits and defamation, etc.. That’s not going to court these voters. And so my bigger fear is like, what if they just abstain? They don’t like either candidate. What’s it going to come down to? So they have to make that appeal, both candidates.

BRODIE: Gaelle, when you look at what’s going to determine the outcome of the Senate race, what role will that percentage — and it’s obviously not a plurality, but it’s not an insignificant percentage, at least in the polling that supported Sen. Sinema. How important will it be to the outcome where those voters decide to land?

ESPOSITO: Yeah, I think it will be very important.The playbook of typecasting Ruben as a far-left extremist is one that they did play against Sen. Sinema and against Katie Hobbs and against every Democrat that’s been successful statewide. And I think voters see through that.

And I think Ruben, in the polling once again, is one of the most favorably viewed politicians in the state already. And I think that’s because, you know, he’s seen as an honest truth talker who’s a straight shooter. And I don’t think he’s viewed as particularly extreme on the issues.

BRODIE: Lorna, we saw this week that the state Supreme Court is going to allow Stephen Richer, the Maricopa County recorder’s defamation lawsuit against Kari Lake to continue. There are obviously a lot of parallels between Kari Lake and former President Trump. Is this another one in your mind that she’s going to be dealing with a trial in the middle of a campaign?

ROMERO FERGUSON: I mean, if she were smart, let’s just settle and move on.

BRODIE: But she’s got to apologize.

ROMERO FERGUSON: Yes. And that is incredibly important. I think this is one of the things that, Kari has made it very clear in the past few months and even her team that she is trying to appeal to a broader audience. And this would be one of the ways to be able to do this, to apologize to Stephen Richer, settle this lawsuit and move forward. To continue to have this hanging over her head is not going to be helpful to her.

I don’t know internally how she feels about the merits of the lawsuit. But there are bigger issues that she needs to deal with. She has an opportunity now to be successful with Kyrsten out of the race. Just just get rid of this and move on.

BRODIE: Gaelle, another Kari Lake related lawsuit decided this week, where she is dropping her appeal of the lawsuit where she was trying to get access to early ballot envelopes. Another group is continuing this, but it seems significant that she’s like, “OK, I give up here.”

ESPOSITO: Yeah, I think it’s a purely political move. I think she is just trying to distance herself, as we’ve heard, from her actually extremist actions of the last several years. And I don’t think anybody is buying it. She is still who she is.

And she demonstrates that in so many other ways. And I think she’s going to have a very difficult time apologizing in a way that’s actually earnest and that people believe.

BRODIE: Lorna, at the same time, a number of “establishment Republicans” in the U.S. Senate leadership on the Republican side have come out in support, endorsing Kari Lake. We saw just this week with Sens. (John) Cornyn (Texas), Mike Lee of Utah, Joni Ernst of Iowa. Is this a sign?

There is another candidate in the race, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, and he became a little more active, at least in emailing this week after Sen. Sinema announced that he would not seek reelection. But is this a sign that the Republicans are really trying to coalesce around Kari Lake and they see the importance of this seat?

ROMERO FERGUSON: Oh, 100%. This is a seat that Republicans need to win back. They’ve all seen the opportunity. With Kyrsten deciding she was going to become an independent, Ruben being the Democrat to jump in the race, presented a great opportunity for Republicans.

And Kari is going to win the primary, period. And so rather than waiting for a few months from now to rally around her and spend the money and the time and energy, they’re doing it earlier on just to show how important this race is. It does not surprise me. Republicans want that seat back, period.

And so I think the bigger thing is, they’re rallying around her probably in hopes that she is going to run a campaign and stick to a message that is going to appeal to those Sinema voters, the Ducey supporters and those folks that did not necessarily support her in 2022.

BRODIE: Do you think that these endorsements — I’m not saying they come with strings attached, but is there sort of an expectation that, “OK, Kari Lake, we’re going to endorse you, but you also have to do these things and maybe stop talking about the last election, stop ticking people off as much as you as some you sometimes do”?

ROMERO FERGUSON: I think there was probably a conversation overall about strategy and what the winning approach would be. No one’s going to dump their time, money and resources into a state or a behind a candidate that they don’t see a path for victory. And the path to victory in Arizona is getting those moderate Republicans and independents that lean right.

And so I think with these outside groups, we pretty much know who they’re going to be targeting. It’s going to be those voters with the hopes that Kari’s going to do the groundwork that she needs to do to curry their favor as well.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.