Alone among Democrats, Sinema stays silent on GOP Supreme Court push

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, in a photo from 2018, is the rare Senate Democrat who has not gone on record against a GOP plan to move quickly on a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Political analysts see it as part of Sinema’s effort to portray herself as a nonpartisan, but one Arizona Democrat calls it “unacceptable.” (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

Candles outside the Supreme Court honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose admirers often referred to her by the shorthand “RBG.” Ginsburg reportedly said on her deathbed her “most fervent wish” was that she not be replaced until after the election. (File photo by Olivia Munson/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Almost every Senate Democrat has come out against President Donald Trump’s plan to rush through a replacement for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, saying the nomination should wait until after the looming elections.

Every Senate Democrat but one – Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.

While other Democrats were using language like “shameful,” “brazen hypocrisy,” “horrible precedent” and “theft” of a Supreme Court seat in what they called a power grab, Sinema has only commented on Ginsburg’s legacy after the justice’s death last Friday.

Political analysts said Sinema’s silence is not surprising given her carefully cultivated image as bipartisan and moderate.

“If you’re going to be a Democrat that wins in a traditionally red state, you’re not going to be a super-progressive liberal democrat, you’re probably going to be more moderate,” said Frank Gonzalez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.

He said Sinema is a politician who wants to be viewed as an “independent thinker,” a posture echoed by Garrett Bess, vice president of government relations at Heritage Action for America.

“I think it tracks with sort of her … quasi maverick-type record,” Bess said.

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But it did not sit well with some progressive Democrats in Arizona.

“This is going to affect the country for another 30, 40 years,” said Signa Oliver, co-lead for Desert Progressives Indivisible. “Open your mouth.

“Those of us that knocked on doors for her to get her elected, have been very disappointed several times with her inability to, you know, step forward and represent the Democratic Party principles that we elected her to do,” Oliver said.

Sinema’s office did not respond to requests for comment on her position – or lack thereof – leaving her weekend tweet expressing “gratitude and service to our country” as her only comments on Ginsburg and the court vacancy she left behind.

Within hours of Ginsburg’s death last Friday, by contrast, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement promising a Senate vote on Ginsburg’s replacement.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Garrett Bess’ affiliation, in the sixth graf and accompanying video. Bess is an official at Heritage Action for America. The story and video have been updated, but clients who used previous versions are asked to run the correction found here.

“We pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary,” McConnell’s statement said. “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

Trump is scheduled to announce his pick Saturday and most Republicans, including Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, rushed to agree with McConnell. But Democrats were livid.

They have repeatedly brought up McConnell’s refusal in 2016 to even grant a hearing to President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, because it was an election year. McConnell, who delayed action for almost the entire year, said then that voters should have a say in who makes the choice.

“Unfortunately, Sen. McConnell has decided to go against Justice Ginsburg’s dying wishes and is cementing a shameful legacy of brazen hypocrisy,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in a tweet the night of Ginsburg’s death. “The right thing to do here is clear, and Senate Republicans know it. We should let voters decide. Period.”

Even moderate Democrats jumped to criticize McConnell and the White House for rushing to fill the seat, an appointment that could give conservatives an unassailable 6-3 majority on the court.

(Video by Caroleina Hassett/Cronkite News)

“The American people deserve to choose the president who will fill this vacancy,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the co-chair of the Moderate Democrats Working Group. “I will oppose any Supreme Court nominee until after Inauguration Day, and I will do everything I can to fight for fairness.”

Oliver said Sinema needs to speak up.

“They stole Merrick Garland’s seat, and you’re going to be silent or possibly vote with them to give them another seat? That’s unacceptable,” she said.

But political experts say it is not surprising that Sinema is in no rush to be grouped in with the Democratic establishment.

In her 2018 campaign for Senate, Sinema ran as a middle-of-the-road independent. Since taking office she has voted in line with the Trump administration 26.3% of the time, toward the upper end of the votes by moderate Democrats, according to a FiveThirtyEight vote tracker.

But that is not necessarily a liability for Arizona politicians, analysts said, invoking the late Republican Sen. John McCain who was often at odds with his party.

Voters in Arizona do not seem to be as bound by national party ideology as voters in other states, said Samara Klar, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy.

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While she and others said they would be surprised if Sinema voted for Trump’s nominee, Klar said Sinema is probably making a safe bet by not coming out against a Republican nominee now.

“The safer play for Arizona politicians generally is to try to straddle the middle as much as they can given how voters here see themselves,” Klar said.

Gonzalez said that taking a hard stance against Senate Republicans now would not be “worth the risk of giving a Republican challenger a talking point in four years” when Sinema will be up for re-election.

And by taking her time and hearing how Arizonans are feeling about the process before making a statement, Sinema is also reinforcing her brand, Bess said.

“The advantage for holding back a statement is to continue showing that she is willing to listen, willing to hear,” Bess said.

But Oliver said the people Sinema should be listening to are “the people that put her in office” or they will find someone else to support.

“If she does the wrong thing on this important issue, I will never knock on another door, I will not have another petition signed for her, I won’t do anything else for her,” Oliver said.

News Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

MacKenzie Belley expects to graduate in May 2021 with a degree in journalism with a focus on broadcast production. Belley, who previously worked for Arizona PBS and as a reporter for Cronkite News in Washington, is a broadcast producer this spring.

Caroleina Hassett CARE-UH-LEE-NUH HASS-IT (she/her/hers)
News Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

Caroleina Hassett expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Hassett has interned as a producer and reporter at ABC15, The Arizona Republic, 12News, PBS NewsHour West and AZTV7.