Kyrsten Sinema trails far behind in the polls. Can she make a comeback in Senate race?

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U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has kept her political future a closely guarded secret, repeatedly sidestepping questions about whether she plans to seek a second term.

She has until April 1 to turn in more than 42,000 signatures from eligible voters to qualify for the ballot, meaning her official decision won’t be postponed much longer.

But there is another element to the decision that may be just as important: Could she even win again?

Sinema, I-Ariz., is consistently finishing third in polls of the race, sometimes by more than 20 percentage points behind either Democrat Ruben Gallego, a U.S. representative, or Republican Kari Lake, a former TV news anchor. Voting in Arizona will begin in early October, meaning a comeback, if there is to be one, must get underway quickly.

Political comebacks are an inexact science, but there are few prominent examples of anyone winning a federal race in recent memory after trailing by double digits with less than eight months to go before voting begins.

That is what Sinema faces.

A Sinema spokesperson declined to comment, noting that she remains focused on the work of a senator.

The Arizona Republic asked political experts for examples of comebacks — or polling misses that got the outcome as wrong as Sinema now needs it to be. They struggled to find anything that seems to apply.

“Absent a scandal, not really,” said Jessica Taylor, who edits Senate and gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “But we also are at a point where I think the electorate is not fully engaged. So, I do think polls this early have to be taken with a grain of caution.”

Matt Grossman, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said, “Nothing jumps to mind,” when asked for such an example.

Grossman noted that Texas billionaire Ross Perot narrowly led the 1992 presidential campaign in June by some polling, only to drop out of the race, return months later and finish third to the man who was in third that summer, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Morris Fiorina, a political science professor at Stanford University who researches public opinion and elections, had a similar answer.

He noted that Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis led Vice President George H.W. Bush big after the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1988 and wound up losing.

“For Senate, the biggest recent surprise was (Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine) winning by 8 points after some polls had her down double digits,” Fiorina wrote in an email to The Republic. That 2020 victory over Democrat Sara Gideon came despite being heavily outspent.

Barrett Marson, a Republican campaign consultant, cautioned against writing off Sinema too quickly. For one, she still has the largest cash war chest at more than $10 million.

“She may be behind, but she has a lot of money to spend … and she has a true record of accomplishments,” he said. “Now, do voters care about records of accomplishment? I guess we’ll find out.”

Sinema has been one of the most consequential senators in Washington in recent years. She played a leading role in a national infrastructure spending plan, adding scrutiny to gun sales for younger adults and potential money for mental health care, and she was the last vote to secure President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, which happened when she preserved lighter tax treatment for financial managers and extra money for drought mitigation in the Southwest.

More recently, Sinema helped broker a bipartisan bill to boost resources along the border with Mexico that included foreign or military aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. That deal fell apart after former President Donald Trump urged Republicans to reject it.

There isn’t a lot of publicly available polling in Arizona’s Senate race to this point, and they reflect the slow-to-form candidate field.

Sinema, who won in 2018 as a Democrat, hasn’t announced her plans, and Lake, the Republican front-runner, only entered the race in October after months of anticipation that she would do so.

The politics website lists eight polls for the Arizona Senate race since Lake entered the contest. Of the six that included Sinema, she trailed by an average of more than 17 percentage points. That showing was outside the margin of error in each of the polls.

Lake recently has shown a narrow lead over Gallego in polls done by left- and right-leaning firms.

Sinema's best showing came in a pair of polls by the same organization taken in October that showed her getting 32% support in the only poll released so far featuring Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb as the GOP nominee.

In the other four polls with Sinema, taken by left- and right-leaning organizations, she didn’t get more than 17% support against Lake and Gallego.

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“Independents in general have a hard time,” said Don Ritchie, the U.S. Senate historian emeritus. “We’ve been stuck with a two-party system for such a long time that it’s hard to break out of that mold.”

He pointed to the 1980 presidential race in which John Anderson, an independent from Illinois, appeared strong in some polling, only to get less than 7% of the actual vote.

That isn’t surprising, Grossman said.

“Anytime there’s a three-candidate race, it usually means we expect more volatility,” he said. “Typically, it would mean the third-party candidate would lose support as we get closer to Election Day, but that is because voters want to be involved in making the decision between the two most likely candidates.”

In Sinema’s case, if the public believes she is trailing badly, it could make it harder for her to win as an independent over those who worry about wasting their vote.

If Sinema does hope to keep her seat, she must climb not only past one rival, but two, a reality that adds even more complexity to the task.

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Her fundraising has fallen three quarters in a row, while her Democratic and Republican challengers figure to inherit significant financial aid and campaign help from their respective parties as the contest heats up.

Sinema is also very well known to voters, suggesting that most have already formed an opinion of her that could be hard to change.

Taylor said, “Ruben Gallego is less of a known entity, so he has maybe more of an opportunity to introduce himself. But he’s still very well known within Maricopa (County). That’s going to be the majority of the vote, so I think it’s hard.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Senate race: If Kyrsten Sinema runs, can she win?