Do Arizona's Moderate Democratic U.S. Senators Have More Influence In 50-50 Senate?

By Mark Brodie
Published: Wednesday, February 3, 2021 - 12:30pm
Updated: Friday, February 5, 2021 - 7:57am

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kyrsten sinema and mark kelly
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Mark Kelly in KJZZ's studio in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

MARK BRODIE: Arizona has two Democratic U.S. senators for the first time in decades, and with Democrats holding a tiny majority in the chamber, the conventional wisdom is that moderates, like Sens. [Kyrsten] Sinema and [Mark] Kelly, could hold sway over bills moving through Congress. In fact, Sinema's comments that she's not open to getting rid of the filibuster was cited by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a reason why he was able to move toward an organizing resolution for the Senate. So will moderate Democrats have more power in this closely divided Senate? To find out, I spoke with Steve Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, and asked if he agrees with the thought that moderates will be empowered because of the close partisan margin.

STEVE SMITH: Absolutely. It depends, though, of course, on what the Republicans do. The two Arizona Democrats promise to be important to their party, but their importance depends on what happens on the Republican side. You know, there are three, four, maybe five Republicans who are within reach of the Democrats on some issues. So I think there's a possibility that the Democrats can lose one or two from their own number and still carry the day, still have a majority, or at least bring it to a 50-50 tie so that the vice president, a Democrat, of course, can cast the tie-breaking vote. But in general, yeah, absolutely. I think the middle of the road senators — and it's just a handful of them, and somewhat unusually, two of them on the Democratic side are from the same state — could actually orchestrate outcomes by working with the leadership on one side or the other should they choose to do so. What will be interesting is the extent to which these Democratic moderates will try to reach out to the Republican moderates to try to create a critical mass there in the middle of the spectrum and force important compromises necessary to getting legislation passed.

BRODIE: One of the other really interesting dynamics here going, I think, is that Sen. Sinema, of course, is in her first term. She served in the House. She served in the state Legislature, but never in the majority. And Sen. Kelly, of course, has never held elected office before. Is it different governing and trying to cut deals like this when your party is in the majority, even if it's a very, very narrow majority, then when you or not?

SMITH: Well, it is. You know, the tendency for the leaders of both parties is to build a coalition from the inside out. That is, they try to maximize the support they get for the party's position from within the party first. And so we can expect [Chuck] Schumer, the new majority leader, to work with Sinema and Kelly and other Democrats. You know, there are six total new Democrats and there's probably as many as eight or nine who are reasonably moderate. And the leadership has to work to get their support. We can expect them to do that from the start. What will happen, I think, in practice is that on most major bills, the leadership will consult with them from the start, even before the legislation is drafted and certainly before it's brought to the Senate floor, and try to line up their support in advance. Most of that will be out of view to us. It could also be that Schumer will say, "Well, I'll give you an opportunity to offer your key amendment. And if it's voted down, we hope that you'll at least support us on, on final passage." So there's a way for a moderate member to get credit for trying to moderate a bill, but in the end, there'll be tremendous pressure on them to support the party on key votes.

BRODIE: Is this the kind of thing — and I hate to make it as transactional as it's going to sound — but is this a matter of who needs who more? Do the senators, the moderate senators, need leadership or leadership need the moderate senators in determining what happens and how it happens?

SMITH: Of course, it is a little bit of both. The leadership would like to get these members reelected. Now, for those who are just elected, that's a ways off. So it's not a big worry for the next year or two. But in the long run, they're going to try to give these moderate senators from very competitive states, try to give them opportunities to distinguish themselves from the rest of the party. So developing a voting record that shows, you know, less than average levels of support for the leadership of your own party is not something that Schumer would worry about. In fact, he'd probably encourage it. The question is, where do they vote against the party? Is it on key votes that causes the party's reputation to suffer? Or is it on other matters that are of less central importance to the party and its reputation?

BRODIE: Right. Well, and especially I'm thinking about Sen. Kelly, who is up for election again in two years for a full term. I would think that would be very much on his mind and probably on Chuck Schumer's mind right now.

SMITH: Well, that's right. And, you know, the mid-term of a president's term is usually pretty tough for the president's party. So we've got a Democratic president. Republicans in Congress will do everything possible to make life difficult for him, I assume. And so in the midterm election, we generally see the president's party suffering at the polls.

BRODIE: So at the end of the day, do you think that based on having such a close margin, that 50-50 split in the Senate, and as we've talked about, you know, moderates maybe have a little bit more power than they would otherwise, does that help senators like Sinema and Kelly maybe advance legislation that is either important to them or particularly important to Arizona with some kind of coalition of Democrats and Republicans?

SMITH: It does. You know, a general strategy for someone in their situation is to look for a way to gain a reputation for effectiveness as a legislator on issues that are not central to the divisions between the two parties. So there are many, many issues in government administration trying to improve the quality of administration, maybe even election administration this time around, that do not sharply divide the two parties. And so a member in that kind of position might want to get on a committee like Governmental Affairs in the Senate that deals with some of those nonpartisan issues. And you have to be kind of on a constant lookout for issues that might get you credit back at home that do not alienate partisans of either party at the same time, and build up a reputation for effectiveness on those less partisan issues. If you're effective at that, it might free you to support your party a little bit more often. So the strategy isn't of a moderate member — and especially a moderate member from a very competitive state — is not simply limited to whether or not you support your party or whether or not you end up being a pivotal player on key issues. It's much more than that. You try to develop a well-rounded reputation so you can get credit at home for other things.

BRODIE: All right, that is Steve Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. Steve, it was really nice to talk to you. Thank you.

SMITH: Great to be with you, Mark.

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