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A super PAC targeted Sen. Kyrsten Sinema until she quit. This observer says she made their job easy

Kyrsten Sinema
Kyrsten Sinema in July 2023.

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced earlier this month that she would not run for a second term this year. And, as Michael Schaffer writes, while Sinema decided against another campaign, it was a different kind of campaign that helped lead to that outcome.

Schaffer writes the Capital City column in Politico Magazine. He recently reported on the super PAC — a political action committee — that was formed to oppose Sinema, and how it could be a sign of things to come politically.

Full interview

MICHAEL SCHAFFER: So in 2021, a group that was called Primary Sinema was founded. It was a super PAC. And what was unique about this organization was there aren’t a lot of sort of single target political committees out there.

There’s, you know, an environmental committee that might say, “Let’s go beat up on some people who are on the other side of that issue.” Or a pro-choice committee that might do that. But as far as a group that sort of raises money to just mess with one senator, that is kind of unusual.

Which is not to say that people in the Senate don’t have people out there taking shots at them. They do all the time. But usually this kind of professional effort only happens once they acquire an actual opponent in an actual campaign, i.e. in the last year or two of their 6-year term. With Sen. Sinema, this was like half of her term and it could have been longer.

MARK BRODIE: Well, and it seems as though and as you report, it was basically because these individuals just didn’t like the way she was voting, didn’t like maybe in some cases the way she was acting and felt like they wanted, for lack of a better word, a more traditional Democrat in that seat than than who they had.

SCHAFFER: Right. This is a progressive group. They were mighty mad about her votes against raising the minimum wage, her votes against various Biden infrastructure measures, her votes to maintain the filibuster in the Senate — which the Republican minority had used to thwart various voting and other initiatives.

So they were irked. They were pissed. They wanted for her to behave more like a progressive Democrat, even though she had run as a moderate, they were kind of shocked at just how kind of gleeful she was at sticking it to the conventional Democratic positions.

Although the folks involved — the folks who sort of were the footsoldiers of this and the folks who kicked in the money — were largely from a progressive point of view, they were rather smart politically because the messaging — and this is what sort of separates it from average grumbling constituents are even creatively grumbling constituents — the messaging actually focused on things like her personal spending with campaign donations. She went on fancy trips. She stayed at the Ritz-Carlton when she flew someplace to run a marathon. That kind of stuff, which is to say things that don’t have nearly so much partisan valence.

BRODIE: Sure. Is it possible to gauge how much this group had to do with, for example, Congressman Ruben Gallego getting into the race and then ultimately Senator Sinema deciding not to run for reelection?

SCHAFFER: Well, I think this is where people kind of in my line of work — that is professional chroniclers of the politics industry — tend to overestimate tacticians. This seems to me to be a remarkably effective political messaging effort, particularly in what’s called opposition research, which is to say digging up bad stuff on the person.

But folks I spoke to — I’m in Washington. I’ve never reported on Arizona politics. The folks I spoke to in Arizona would tell me the greatest ally that Sinema opponents had was Sinema. So that is to say this is a person who did not do the sort of basics of maintaining your coalition and reaching out and explaining yourself to people when you took a vote that they didn’t like.

So how much you can attribute to that versus how much you can attribute to the kind of politics work, the finding unflattering things, getting them in the press, helping reporters find those things. It’s kind of hard to tease those two things apart. But I know that when she opted to not run again, it was pretty clear to pollsters of various opinions that she didn’t really have any clear path to victory.

BRODIE: So did folks with whom you spoke seem to think that this might be a template for other groups to do this to other elected officeholders going forward?

SCHAFFER: Yes, absolutely. And in the grand scheme of things — I mean, when we’re talking about very, very rich people with money — it’s pretty cheap. You know, they spent $1.3 million or so in about three years.

There’s only a couple people working there. And they were able to get, legally, some very unflattering information. They were able to help steer it in front of reporters. Other reporters sort of saw this and began digging on their own.

A cycle ensued where a bunch of bad news that can’t have helped the senator’s standing got in front of people, and it happened to be happening even as she kind of didn’t take the opportunities to do the things that incumbent can do to stand up for themselves and speak for themselves and remind people why they liked them in the first place.

BRODIE: Right. And as you write, this seems like assuming that more and more groups do this going forward, it just kind of adds to the sense of permanently being in campaign season, right? Candidates are always running for reelection, and there are groups that are always either supporting or opposing them, trying to get that information out to potential voters.

SCHAFFER: That’s right. And look, there’s two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, being a senator or being a member of Congress, that’s a very powerful position. And maybe you don’t have the same right to goof around between job interviews as somebody else does.

And if somebody wants to spend some money, having someone follow you to every public event and record you and and wait until you say something that you regret, or dig through your campaign finance reports and so on, maybe that’s good for the Republic. But it is unconventional in the sense that it’s never ending. And that is a new thing.

BRODIE: Yeah. So we talked a little bit about how it’s kind of hard to tease out how much impact this group had in Sen. Sinema’s decision not to run. What did the folks associated with it say to you? Did they take credit for the fact that she’s not running again?

SCHAFFER: They were eager to share credit. There’s a lot of progressive groups in Arizona that also were involved in protesting the votes she’d taken and kind of doing a backlash against votes she’d taken.

My own read as someone who watches this from a distance is there’s a standard template when like progressive Democrats are mad at somebody for selling out. And what was novel to me about the anti-Sinema efforts was that it went beyond that template, that in this case there was much more ability to find and emphasize these kind of not ideological issues.

And the other thing that is maybe not replicable is Sinema’s own role as as somebody who had alienated pretty significant chunks of the coalition that elected her and whose own sort of personal style and behavior was so grating to people, including a lot of her former staffers who went on to work with groups like this. And I wrote this that it’s one thing to have people who get paid to dig up dirt on you. It’s another thing when those people know exactly where to look because they used to work for you.

And I think what’s scary here is that some other deep-pocketed person or group of people could endow someone to go after any senator. What I think is not going to be replicated as much because most people who are elected to public office are fairly good at working human beings, is having so many alienated former insiders who are willing to help the effort.

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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.