Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Arizona in three decades, after an extended vote count delivered an upset victory and a blow to Republicans and President Donald Trump.
Sinema won over a fellow U.S. House member, Republican Martha McSally. She becomes the first female senator elected from Arizona and the first openly bisexual senator.
With almost three-quarters of the state’s voters casting ballots by mail in the close race, it took Arizona officials six days to finish tabulating the results. The outcome leaves the party division in the Senate at 51-47 in favor of Republicans, with the Florida race in a recount and another contest in Mississippi set for a runoff.
McSally called Sinema to concede the race shortly before the Democrat gave her victory speech, according to a person familiar with the call who wasn’t authorized to discuss it.
While Sinema praised her opponent in the speech, she took a more solemn tone when discussing the campaign.
“Arizona rejected what has become far too common in our country, name calling, petty personal attacks and doing and saying whatever it takes just to get elected,” Sinema said. “It’s dangerous and it lessens who we are as a country. But Arizona proved there is a better way forward.”
The outcome is a political setback for Trump, who carried Arizona in 2016 and spent two days in the state last month in an effort to shore up the candidacy of McSally, a former Air Force pilot. As the vote count dragged on, Trump asserted, without evidence, that there was corruption in the tally. Some state GOP officials pushed back against the assertion and settled a dispute over taking extra time to verify ballots.
Sinema won by 38,197 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast — for a margin of 1.7 percentage points — according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s tally.
McSally congratulated Sinema in a Twitter post. “I wish her success and am grateful to all those who supported me in this journey,” she wrote. In a video with the post, McSally spoke on a couch seated next to a playful dog.
Sinema will replace Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a frequent Trump critic who often attracted the president’s ire. Flake’s sparring with Trump all but assured that if the senator ran again, he would have faced a primary challenge from the GOP’s right wing that Flake decided he probably couldn’t win.
The race was one of the year’s most hotly contested, and each contender was ahead in two or more polls since mid-October.
Sinema is a former Green Party activist who over time became a moderate Democrat. Like many on the ballot from her party, she stressed her support for Obamacare and its popular protection for people with pre-existing health conditions. But she also distanced herself from more liberal Democrats by rejecting a push to expand Medicare to cover all Americans.
In 2015, Sinema helped introduce a bill that could have freed small employers from the cost of the Affordable Care Act health insurer tax.
In the House, Sinema backed Republican efforts to curb regulations and voted against Nancy Pelosi of California in the 2015 and 2017 speaker elections, backing civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia instead.
At the same time, she sided with Democrats in a number of key areas. She supports abortion rights, gun control, environmental protections and a vigorous government role in providing a social safety net, education, job training and infrastructure.
During earlier years of service in the Arizona state legislature, Sinema was among about three dozen state lawmakers who served on a health care task force that President Barack Obama used to develop his Affordable Care Act proposal in 2009.
McSally had a shifting relationship with Trump. She didn’t endorse him in 2016 as she represented a Tucson-area swing district, but embraced him during her Senate primary this year when she defeated two far-right rivals. She stuck closely to Trump’s agenda throughout the general election campaign.
Sinema benefited from the help of Latino voters, who make up nearly one-third of Arizona’s voting age population and who have heavily favored Democrats.
Sinema’s win suggests potential for further gains by Arizona Democrats in 2020. The state has voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1948, although Hillary Clinton lost Arizona by just 3.4 percentage points in 2016.
—With assistance from Sahil Kapur
— Read ACA HIT Repeal Bill Gaining Steam, on ThinkAdvisor.