top of page

With Sinema out of the Senate race, attention shifts to another kind of independent — Arizona’s 1.4 million unaffiliated voters

In a state known for its dramatic Republican-controlled Legislature, relaxed gun laws and even more relaxed marijuana laws, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was in some ways a fitting unpredictable representative.

By Yana Kunichoff, AZ Luminaria

Sinema was a local Green Party candidate who left the Democratic party to become an independent and has alternately aligned with both Republicans and Democrats, at times spurning both. Sinema’s inconsistencies have baffled her congressional colleagues and political pundits, as well as voters. 

With this week’s announcement that she won’t run for reelection to the state’s U.S. Senate seat, attention has now turned to another type of independent, also unpredictable and much harder to categorize: Arizona’s 1.4 million unaffiliated voters. 

“Independents span the spectrum in ideological terms and on issues. But what they have in common is — individually and collectively — they are making a statement of noncompliance with the existing political arrangement,” said Jacqueline Salit, an independent voter in Yavapai County and the president of Independent Voting, a national organizing center

Those voters are now Arizona’s second-largest voting bloc. While they share a concern with the state of America’s two-party system, how they cast their ballots is likely to play a divided and consequential role in deciding which party controls the U.S. Senate. 

The rise in independents could influence voting access laws in Arizona, particularly when it comes to partisan systems. Currently, even though all Arizonans’ taxpayer dollars fund the state’s party-based presidential primaries, independents are barred from participating unless they change their political affiliation to a major party. A non-partisan primary system was supported by 87% of Arizona independents surveyed in May 2023 by the Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy at Arizona State University. Salit was a co-author of the report.

Unlike the Presidential Preference Election in March, all registered voters can cast a ballot in state-level primary elections such as the Senate race on July 30 and in the Nov. 5 general election.

Upcoming election dates

For more, check the Arizona Secretary of State’s website here:

March 15, 2024 – Deadline to vote early in-person for the March 19, 2024 Presidential Preference Election by 7 p.m. 

March 19, 2024 – Presidential Preference Election 

July 30, 2024 – Primary Election 

November 5, 2024 – General Election 

Unaffiliated voters, which include independents, trail Republican registered voters by less than 10,000 people, according to January 2024 voter registration numbers, the latest available from Arizona’s Secretary of State’s office. 

In total, the January report shows 34.38% of Arizona voters were independent, or not affiliated with a political party, compared to 34.58% who said they were Republican. Independent voters are included under the category of “other” in voter registration data. At a close third are 29.55% of Arizona voters registered as Democrats. Other parties Arizonans have aligned with are the bipartisan No Labels, with 0.63% of registered voters, the Libertarian Party, with 0.79%, and the Green Party with 0.06% of registered voters. 

Data shifts as Arizona voters continue to register. As recently as October 2023, unaffiliated voters were the largest group of registered voters in the state. In the 2024 election, those voters will choose between Democrat Congressman Ruben Gallego or a Republican frontrunner to be Arizona’s new state senator. 

Recent polls showed both Gallego and Kari Lake as possible frontrunners without Sinema in the race. Lake leads Gallego by 45% to 42% in a two-way race, according to a February 2024 survey from Rasmussen Reports. Another February survey, by Emerson College Polling/The Hill, put Gallego at 46% of the vote ahead of Lake at 39%. 

Regardless of the future front runner, it’s evident that in a three-way race in which Sinema was a candidate, she would have pulled voters from both major party candidates. (The Republican primary to decide whether Lake or Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb will run on the Republican ticket is in July.)

With Sinema out of the race, the pressure is on for both parties to sway independent voters. 

Candidates woo independent voters 

In a video message March 5 announcing her departure, Sinema pointed to partisan vitriol in America’s political system as the reason she would not run for reelection. 

“Despite modernizing our infrastructure, ensuring clean water, delivering good jobs and safer communities, Americans still choose to retreat farther to their partisan corners,” she said. “The only political victories that matter these days are symbolic, attacking your opponents on cable news or social media.” 

Sinema received criticism for retreating from Arizona constituents, with some state groups seeking her out to hold her accountable.

She is one of a handful of senators who have stepped outside the traditional political alliances of their home parties and, over the past year or so, announced they would not run for reelection. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, are two others. 

That’s setting up the rest of Arizona’s race for U.S. Senate to be a referendum on how independent voters see politicians seeking to represent them, and the extent to which staunchly partisan-aligned candidates can win their votes. 

Polls show Lake is currently leading the Republican primary. A February 2024 survey of Republican and independent voters likely to take part in the Republican primary found that 55% said they would vote for Lake, compared to 26% for Lamb, Rasmussen Reports found. 

The former local TV anchor turned Trump-endorsed candidate sent a message to her email list in the days following Sinema’s announcement. She highlighted fears of what would happen to the state if Gallego wins and spoke of deep divides between the two candidates.

“@RubenGallego is on the verge of being a full-blown Marxist,” Lake wrote in a post on X. “I’m going to defeat him, and I’m going to take the needs of the people of Arizona to Washington, DC, and represent THEIR interests instead of the radical fringe.”

Gallego is a former Marine Corps member who has represented Arizona in Congress since 2014. He’s the leading Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat.

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb speaks to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors about his use of an inmate welfare fund to purchase guns, vests and ammunition on Wednesday, Oct. 18 in Florence.

Lamb, in a statement on his website, said he expected that Sinema dropping out of the race would shift independent voters to his campaign.

“Kyrsten Sinema’s electoral strength has always been her ability to attract large numbers of Independent voters in Arizona. With her departure from the race, polls indicate most of those Independents will vote for Sheriff Mark Lamb in a general election,” he said. 

Dave Smith, chairman of the Pima County Republican Party, says he expects a number of Sinema voters to shift to supporting a Republican candidate. “Most of the independents I know once were Republican,” said Smith. “I think they’re gonna come back.” 

Still, Smith said he would caution any Republican candidates planning to switch to a more moderate stance to gain independent voters.

“Republicans lately have not done well when they have moderated their positions,” he said. “With Trump becoming the singular candidate, I expect both the establishment wing and the MAGA wing” to unify.

While Republicans see Sinema stepping out of the race as a positive sign for their candidates, so do progressive groups. 

​​Voter advocacy groups vocally opposed to Sinema applauded her decision not to run, and voiced their concern about the Senate seat going to a Republican candidate. 

“Sinema’s biggest accomplishment as Senator was today’s decision not to seek reelection,” said Alejandra Gomez, Executive Director of Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA.

LUCHA is expected to be a significant force in door-knocking efforts for Democrats this year, particularly among Latino voters, the state’s second-largest demographic voting bloc after White voters. 

Gallego made lambasting Sinema’s voting record a core part of his initial campaign messaging. Upon his Arizona congressional colleague stepping out of the race, he thanked Sinema and called for unity beyond party politics.

“I want to thank @SenatorSinema for her nearly two decades of service to our state,” he said on social media. “It’s time Democrats, Independents, and Republicans come together and reject Kari Lake and her dangerous positions.” 

Pollster and political strategist Paul Bentz, with the Phoenix-based public affairs firm HighGround, Inc. expects Sinema’s departure to be positive for Gallego. In part, because Gallego now has the opportunity to follow Sinema’s playbook to draw in unaffiliated voters.

“Sinema laid down a template that made it less partisan and more about being an Arizonan,” he said. 

That is already evident in Gallego’s responses to Sinema’s departure. In his post wishing her well, Gallego also named several issues he hoped his supporters would rally around: Protecting abortion access, tackling housing affordability, securing our water supply, defending our democracy — all of this and more is on the line.” 

Gallego shared on social media Thursday that his team had raised $1 million in donations in 24 hours following Sinema’s announcement. 

Bentz notes that the issues Gallego pinpoints cut across partisan divides, securing Arizona’s water supply in particular.

“Not all of those are progressive leaning issues,” he said. “Some of those are ones that are big in the independent unaffiliated community.” 

Surveys show independent voters united on non-partisan primaries 

Independents may not necessarily share political viewpoints, but they do share some values. Polling shows they want an American political system that offers more support for conducting elections outside a partisan system. 

Top state and local election officials should be required to take an oath to function in a non-partisan manner, according to 94% of independent voters surveyed by the Center for an Independent and Sustainable Democracy. 

The conversation playing out in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race is similar to buzz at the presidential level. Disaffected party members and independents are considering the costs and complications of running a third party candidate to challenge Biden and Trump at the national level. 

Nationally, polling by Gallup from October 2023 shows that there is broad support for a third U.S. political party. Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults surveyed told the polling company that the Republican and Democratic parties do “such a poor job” representing Americans that “a third major party is needed.” 

Salit suggests candidates who wish to woo independent voters should consider taking up the mantle of expanding election infrastructure to give independents more access. 

Bentz suggests campaigns who wish to win over independent voters to their candidate should start now. He warned against getting caught up in focusing on primary elections and not building a strategy to communicate with undecided independents. 

“They are generally left in the dark and ignored. That leaves a lot of voters feeling unengaged,” Bentz said, noting those voters often make a critical difference when the general election takes place. “Any campaign that wants to be competitive among  independent and unaffiliated voters needs to find the time and money and effort to speak to those voters.” 

Independent voters will only grow in Arizona, Salit anticipates. That means the sooner America’s political infrastructure moves beyond a strict two-party system, the better, she argues.

Sinema warned that there was little space for compromise in American political life. “Compromise is a dirty word. We’ve arrived at that crossroad, and we chose anger and division,” she said in her video. “I believe in my approach. But, it’s not what America wants right now,” she said. 

Salit, of Independent Voting, draws a distinction between what political parties want and what voters want.    

 “It is not where the political establishment is at, it’s not where the political parties are at, it’s not where the legal structures that govern the process right now are,” she said. “I do think it is where the American people are at. Independents are the future of this country.” 

15 views0 comments


bottom of page