Sinema Trashes Dems: ‘Old Dudes Eating Jell-O’
Ever since Sen. Kyrsten Sinema became an independent in December, her Democratic colleagues have been restrained about the shift, careful not to alienate the Arizona lawmaker when they only have a single-seat majority and need her support on legislation and nominees.
Hoping to get through this year, and then gain clarity about whether Sinema will even seek reelection in 2024 let alone continue to caucus with her old party, Senate Democrats have dodged questions about the mercurial marathoner who’s still barely in their ranks.
“It's really early,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the Senate Democratic campaign arm, told me. “I don’t know what she’s planning on doing.”
But Sinema may be making the Democrats’ deliberations easier.
As she races to stockpile campaign money and post an impressive, statement-making first-quarter fundraising number, Sinema has used a series of Republican-dominated receptions and retreats this year to belittle her Democratic colleagues, shower her GOP allies with praise and, in one case, quite literally give the middle finger to President Joe Biden’s White House.
And that’s before an audience.
Speaking in private, whether one-on-one or with small groups of Republican senators, she’s even more cutting, particularly about Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, whom she derides in harshly critical terms, according to senior Republican officials directly familiar with her comments.
Sinema’s sniping spree has delighted the Republican lawmakers, lobbyists and donors who’ve taken in the show, giving some of them hope that she can be convinced to caucus with the GOP, either in this Congress or in the case she’s reelected as an independent.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who Sinema has assiduously courted, remains skeptical, however. Believing she remains a Democrat at heart, McConnell has focused on trying to recruit a non-controversial Arizona Republican into the race, somebody who could attract the moderate GOP voters and independents Sinema would need to win the purple state as an independent.
It's entirely possible, however, that such a Republican doesn’t run or can’t clear a primary in Arizona’s MAGA-fied state party. Former Gov. Doug Ducey has made clear he’s not interested, first-term Rep. Juan Ciscomani is likely to accrue more House seniority, and the most attainable option, Karrin Taylor Robson, just lost the gubernatorial primary to Kari Lake. With near-total name identification among Arizona Republicans and the affection of one Donald J. Trump, Lake would enter the Senate race as the odds-on favorite to be the GOP nominee.
Which all raises the question for McConnell: Should his efforts to woo a mainstream Republican fail, would he be better off attempting to cut a deal with Sinema or hope a candidate like Lake can prevail in a three-way race against a current and former Democrat? One potential arrangement: Sinema could remain an independent but caucus with the Republicans in exchange for a ceasefire in spending from the National Republican Senatorial Committee and McConnell’s Super PAC.
Otherwise, McConnell could find himself ushering the election-denying Lake into the Senate, a step he may be less inclined to take as he considers his legacy and, more proximately, the group of mostly newcomers who’ve already tried to overthrow him once from his post. Remarkable as it may sound, on the vote that counts the most for the longest-serving Senate leader, the one to extend his record further, the independent may be more likely to support McConnell than the Republican.
At least one prominent Senate Republican is hoping McConnell attempts a negotiated peace with Sinema.
“If he hasn’t he should,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has worked closely with Sinema, told me. Romney jokingly said that McConnell should even offer her the gavel of the influential Senate Finance Committee to sweeten the deal.
Just as notable, Romney said he hopes Sinema is reelected regardless and was open to stumping for her in Arizona, which has a significant population of Mormon voters.
“I’m not saying no, I could very easily endorse Sen. Sinema,” he said, calling her “one of the senators that is able to pull people together and actually get legislation passed.”
At the risk of spoiling the fun for political junkies and students of third-party campaign history, this all could be moot.
Some of Sinema’s friends believe she’ll retire rather than risk losing. To borrow the old line about the Clintons, after her taste of high finance on the fundraising circuit, she’s become like the Episcopal priest in the humble rectory who was surrounded by money in his pews and wanted a cut. (Her appetites for luxury hotels, car services and charter flights, as laid out in her campaign finance reports, are ample.)
Sinema’s office didn’t respond to emailed messages.
What’s clear after the last few months, though, is that it could prove even more awkward than it already is for her to remain even nominally part of the Democratic Party.
“Those lunches were ridiculous,” she told a small group of Republican lobbyists at a reception in Washington this year in explaining why she had stopped attending her caucus’ weekly luncheons in the Capitol, according to an attendee.
First off, she explained, she was no longer a Democrat. “I’m not caucusing with the Democrats, I’m formally aligned with the Democrats for committee purposes,” Sinema said. “But apart from that I am not a part of the caucus.”
Then she let loose.
“Old dudes are eating Jell-O, everyone is talking about how great they are,” Sinema recounted to gales of laughter. “I don’t really need to be there for that. That’s an hour and a half twice a week that I can get back.”
Now she was rolling.
“The Northerners and the Westerners put cool whip on their Jell-O,” she shared, “and the Southerners put cottage cheese.”
Cue the groans.
Turning more serious, but continuing to dismiss her colleagues, Sinema boasted that she had better uses of her time than “those dumb lunches,” which the windiest lawmakers can drag out but are also used to discuss substance and strategy.
“I spend my days doing productive work, which is why I’ve been able to lead every bipartisan vote that’s happened the last two years,” she said.
It was the sort of comment that reminded me of what one of her Democratic colleagues, a confirmed moderate, told me in private earlier this year about Sinema: “She’s the biggest egomaniac in the Senate.”
In fairness to Sinema, as Dizzy Dean purportedly said, it ain’t bragging if you really done it. And she was at the forefront of a series of bipartisan achievements in the last Congress, including on infrastructure and gun control. Along with needing her 51st vote this year, that’s why the White House was just as restrained about Sinema leaving the party as Senate Democrats.
Yet in private, she hardly returns the favor.
In the fall of 2021 — as my colleague Alex Burns and I reported in our book, “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future” — she used a Republican-heavy fundraising reception to criticize the president for what she suggested was hypocrisy. Noting that Biden had at times opposed lifting the debt ceiling while in the Senate, Sinema said that makes it harder for “folks to be” somewhat “righteous” on the matter.
This year, at the same fundraiser where she complained about Jell-O, she was even more pointed.
After thrilling the Republican lobbyists by saying that the country’s declining faith in courts is “the Senate’s fault” for eliminating the judicial filibuster (read: Harry Reid, not Mitch McConnell, started this), Sinema recounted how she was able to get a federal judge from Arizona easily confirmed in the divided Senate.
A White House aide telephoned Sinema last summer, she said, and told her she’d have to make sure all 50 Senate Democrats at the time were present for the vote to confirm Roopali Desai to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sinema said she told the aide there was no need to fret because the vote would be bipartisan.
Then she revealed who the aide was, saying “that was Klain,” as she quickly flashed her middle finger in the air to demonstrate what she thinks of the powerful and now-departed White House chief of staff.
After the laughter died down, Sinema boasted that Judge Desai picked up 67 votes in a swift confirmation and then got in one final dig at the White House. “I did not call Ron back,” she said.
At another Republican-filled fundraiser in Washington this year, Sinema chided Schumer.
Taking questions around the room, as she prefers to do rather than give remarks, the Arizonan encountered a lobbyist who said he was hoping to work with the Senate Democratic leader on finding a compromise over energy permitting. Sinema looked at the lobbyist and shot back: Oh, good luck, according to an attendee.
It's not just liberals who she’ll take aim at, though. At fundraisers, Sinema has mocked the name Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) bestowed on the climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, likening it to the moniker of the initially unpopular health law now known as “Obamacare”: the Affordable Care Act.
And when a Republican donor told the Arizona senator that it was not Manchin but Sinema who “carried the water for us in this last Congress,” she responded: “You’re hired.”
When the donor said, “Without you our taxes would’ve gone through the roof,” she concurred: “They would have.”
On Manchin, Sinema complained that “people often assume that we’re the same person” but then twice noted to the corporate crowd that she has “better tax policy ideas” than the West Virginian, who remains a traditional Democrat when it comes to taxing the wealthy.
It’s hard to overstate Sinema’s closeness with private equity, in particular. She spent part of her 2020 summer recess interning at a Sonoma winery owned by an executive in the industry; she single-handedly ensured taxing carried interest on private equity earnings was kept out of the IRA legislation, as Schumer memorably blurted out. And one senior administration official told me they’ve concluded the way to win Sinema’s vote on a crucial agency nominee is to have private equity executives weigh in with her.
After raising large sums from the finance industry in New York and a range of corporate lobbyists in Washington this year, Sinema’s Republican donor tour took her to the resort community of Sea Island, Georgia, earlier this month for the American Enterprise Institute’s annual forum there.
Seated with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sinema used her time on stage at the conservative think tank’s conference to hail her relationships with Collins and two other Republicans, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and, especially, former Ohio Sen. Rob Portman.
She sidestepped questions about her political future — to the dismay of some would-be No Labels donors in the audience looking for a 2024 horse — and offered an above-it-all presentation in which she disparaged Washington’s ways and said she didn’t like characterizing one’s rivals.
Multiple attendees told me that her comments were met with a warm response in the room from the major donors, a demographic that skews old, rich, white and male, doesn’t much like Trump and sure wishes more Democrats talked like Sinema.
Among those in the room who actually work in politics, and weren’t just hearing from Sinema for the first time, the reception was far more restrained. Which is to say if they had let their eyes roll collectively it may have caused tidal activity in the Atlantic.
This, along with the basic mathematical challenge of winning as an independent in polarized times, may be Sinema’s ultimate challenge: the risk that the voters will eventually catch up to her schtick.
As in: The senator lamenting Washington name-calling and cynicism before an audience of AEI contributors told another, smaller crowd earlier in the year that House liberals were “crazy people," that "most of my colleagues just aren't familiar" with tax policy and wondered why other senators didn’t leverage the 50-50 Senate to be a “pain in the ass” like her.
She may be a pain in the ass, but her obstinance is going to ensure she has plenty of money in the bank.
Sinema is going back to Sonoma in May for a $5,000 per-person “Weekend of Wine and Food,” according to an invitation. August will bring a Maui event for her leadership PAC. And then in the fall, she’ll head up to mountains around Sedona, Arizona.
What’s less clear is if by then she’ll still be using her current fundraising consultants, Fulkerson, Kennedy and Company. The Democratic firm also represents another, more prominent senator: Charles Ellis Schumer.