Sinema’s long-expected challenge to Flake shakes up Senate race

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, at a rally of the Problem Solvers Caucus this spring in Washington. Sinema, who announced a bid for Senate, has tried to position herself as someone willing to work across party lines. (Photo by Andres Guerra Luz/Cronkite News)

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, has tangled often with President Donald Trump, which might cause conservatives shun him in the Republican primary next year. But analysts say they’re not sure how many independent voters he can pick up. (Photo by Ben Moffat/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – One day after Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s long-anticipated announcement of a 2018 challenge to Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a liberal group was pledging to raise money for her and two political consultants changed their outlook on the race to “toss up.”

The Phoenix Democrat has positioned herself as a moderate and is considered a strong fundraiser, two elements that should help in a race against Flake, who was seen as one of the most vulnerable senators seeking re-election next year.

“Sinema is a serious candidate who will give Flake a very competitive race, and that assumes he survives the primary,” said Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for the Cook Political Report.

The Cook Political Report changed its rating of the Arizona Senate race from “leans Republican” to “toss up” after Sinema’s announcement, as did Inside Elections

Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, said Flake, who has sparred frequently with then-candidate and now President Donald Trump, is in a challenging position.

“Flake has put himself in a vise,” Gonzales said. The senator has angered Republican voters who are “loyal to the president first,” but he may have lost the support of independents by voting, for example, in favor of the recent health care repeal bills.

Sinema, on the other hand, “is a strong candidate at a time when the president isn’t popular and complicates midterm strategies for Republican candidates,” Gonzales said.

Still, she is running in a state that has not sent a Democrat to the Senate in more than 20 years.

In her last filing with the Federal Election Commission, Sinema reported raising more than $1.3 million in the first half of this year and having more than $3.2 million in the bank as of June 30.

Flake, meanwhile, reported raising more than $4.4 million since he was elected to the Senate in 2012, and having just under $3 million in cash on hand as of June 30.

In a video announcing her bid, Sinema describes a personal history that included time as a child when her family was homeless and struggling. That “rags to political riches story,” as Arizona political consultant Jason Rose described it, makes her stand out as a candidate.

Rose said Flake will likely attack Sinema for being “too liberal,” though he said such a challenge will be “belied by recent political history” that includes a voting record more moderate than her critics will suggest.

But partisan rating organizations show some differences between the two. The American Conservative Union gave Flake a lifetime voting score of 93 to Sinema’s 15, for example, and the National Taxpayers Union last year gave him a grade of A to her D.

Sinema got a score of 64 from the American Civil Liberties Union in the last Congress to Flake’s 35, while Planned Parenthood this year gave her a 100 to his zero.

The two were close on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ratings, which gave Sinema a 76 for the last Congress and Flake a 73.

But Flake’s campaign was already painting “Socialist Sinema” as too liberal for Arizona voters Friday. A website called was paid for by Flake’s campaign, and a spokesman for the senator’s campaign called Sinema “radical progressive” who has “spent the last few years trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Arizonans.”

“From her time working on Ralph Nader’s campaign to the state legislature to Congress, Kyrsten Sinema has always been out-of-touch with Arizona and she’ll do anything to hide her progressive record,” William Allison, a spokesman for Flake’s campaign, said in a statement.

Both Sinema and Flake face primary challengers who will likely run to the left or the right. Deedra Abboud, an activist and attorney, got into the Democratic race in April, while former state Sen. Kelli Ward announced her Republican primary challenge last October – not long after she lost a bid to unseat Sen. John McCain in the GOP primary.

Ward said in a statement Friday that Sinema’s claim to “change Washington and ‘make it work again’ rings hollow considering she’s had five years in Congress to do so and failed.”

Ward has been praised by Trump, whose feuding with Flake reportedly looking for a Republican challenger. But Duffy said that whatever challenges Flake may face, “If Ward is the nominee, this race gets much more difficult for Republicans.”

Enrique Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party, said Sinema’s entry into the race is proof that the party is “getting energized” and the state is “trending blue.”

“Kyrsten Sinema has great credentials,” he said, “and connects with everyday Americans.”

The LGBT-rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, meanwhile, said Friday that it plans to raise money for Sinema’s bid. The organization gave Sinema a score of 100 in the last session of Congress, to Flake’s 32.

“This is a very important race for the Human Rights Campaign,” said senior vice president JoDee Winterhof, who said Sinema would be a “tremendous leader in the Senate.”