In her first years as senator, Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaGallego went to New York to meet Sinema donors amid talk of primary challenge: report The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden's public moment of frustration The Armageddon elections to come MORE (D-Ariz.) has confounded many in the media. She has been described as enigmatic by the media and as a DINO (Democrat in Name Only) by her detractors, but her recent statements suggest that strategic may be the more accurate descriptor. This week, Sinema signaled that she would not support a work-around that would allow a voting rights bill to pass without the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. She issued a statement to Politico saying, “[Sinema] continues to support the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, to protect the country from repeated radical reversals in federal policy which would cement uncertainty, deepen divisions, and further erode Americans’ confidence in our government.” Still, she signaled that she remains supportive of both the John LewisJohn LewisTrump and Biden should stop denigrating US elections Democrats say change to filibuster just a matter of time Despite Senate setbacks, the fight for voting rights is far from over MORE Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBiden to meet with CEOs to discuss Build Back Better agenda Hoyer says 'significant' version of Build Back Better will pass this year Gallego went to New York to meet Sinema donors amid talk of primary challenge: report MORE (D-W.Va.) compromise bill, Freedom to Vote Act.

The anger from the left was immediately palpable, especially since her moderate counterpart, Manchin, signaled that he would be willing to go along with a carve-out. Is Sinema truly enigmatic, or is she closer to her critics on the left and, in reality, a DINO? My research suggests that Sinema is acting as a strategic moderate, working to find a way to defend her seat in four years. In my book, “Life in the Middle: Marginalized Moderate Senators in the Era of Polarization,” I find that moderates in the modern era seldom (if ever) represent truly moderate voters. In reality, they tend to either represent hyperpolarized “purple” states, like Sinema in Arizona or represent states that lean towards the other party, like Manchin in West Virginia. This complicates the ability to be the pivotal vote to pass any “big ticket” legislation like a sweeping voting rights bill. 

Indeed, if Senate Democrats were to agree to a rule change that allowed the voting rights bill to bypass the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster, that would mean that Sinema would likely be viewed as the 50th vote that was needed to pass the legislation—or at least, it is not a far leap for an opponent to make that accusation. It wouldn’t be the first time such an attack was successful against a moderate--in his first attack ad against then-Sen. Mark PryorMark Lunsford Pryor11 former Democratic senators call for 'meaningful reform to Senate rules' Kyrsten Sinema is less of a political enigma than she is a strategic policymaker  Bottom line MORE (D-Ark.), Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion Senate's antitrust bill would raise consumer prices and lower our competitiveness Sinema scuttles hopes for filibuster reform MORE called Pryor the “deciding vote to pass ObamaCare.”  

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While it is relatively easy to see the merits of a voting rights bill that would expand voting opportunities to millions of voters, it is not a far leap to see right-wing opponents parlay such efforts into an argument around voter fraud. Arizona seems primed for this conversation, despite a Republican-led investigation into Maricopa County’s vote finding no evidence of any such fraud. This would likely mean that Sinema would enter her reelection race with red meat to galvanize her opposition—especially among Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE loyalists who have refused to acknowledge a Biden win in favor of a conspiracy based on massive voter fraud. 

Sinema’s hesitancy on most legislation suggests she is anticipating such fervor. Still, herein lies Sinema’s political prowess: by opposing a procedural change, Sinema can stake her position as fully supportive of both the compromise bill and the more liberal John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, without having to vote on the bill and have to defend it back home. That is to say, Sinema gets to have her cake and eat it too—she can favor a massive expansion of voting rights at the federal level, but refuse her opponents an opportunity to hold her accountable for that position. Will this undoubtedly anger the left? Of course—but she doesn’t represent them—she represents a highly volatile purple state where election outcomes are determined by turnout. She simply can’t afford to galvanize a Republican base to come out against her—especially when Arizona’s left-wing is still emerging.   

Neilan S. Chaturvedi is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and the author of “Life in the Middle: Marginalized Moderate Senators in the Era of Polarization.”