In news that should thrill Democrats, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has announced that she’ll run for the Senate next year, hoping to unseat Republican Jeff Flake.
Flake has frequently criticized Donald Trump and the extremist tilt of his own party (despite repeatedly voting for the GOP’s disastrous policies) and will likely be challenged — and beaten — in the GOP primaries. Given the rapidly changing demographics of Arizona, it’s a very good chance for Democrats to pick up a very important Senate seat… if they can find a decent candidate.
Sinema certainly fits the bill. She’s widely seen as a strong fundraiser, a champion of veterans, and a progressive who can work with Republicans. That last bit may be infuriating to some Democrats, but it means she’ll be able to deflect the inevitable GOP attack ads dismissing her as too “extreme.”
In her announcement video, Sinema talks about her childhood, going from middle class to homeless, and says her family made it through thanks to “family, church and, sometimes, even the government.”
Church was a part of her life growing up, but her religious beliefs have been hard to pin down even since she entered the national scene. Long-time readers of this site may be most familiar with Sinema because, as a candidate for Congress in 2012, she was believed to be a non-theist. She had received an award from the Center for Inquiry for the “Advancement of Science and Reason in Public Policy” while serving as state senator. In 2010, she was present at the opening of the Secular Coalition for Arizona.
However, just after she won her election and headlines began describing her as the only atheist in the new Congress, her campaign spokesperson said she didn’t consider herself a nonbeliever. And just to twist the knife even further, he added, “Kyrsten believes the terms non-theist, atheist or nonbeliever are not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.”
“Not befitting of her life’s work or personal character.” Talk about a slap in the face. (We’re good people, dammit.)
How she describes herself is ultimately irrelevant. But there’s at least symbolic importance in having an openly non-religious member of Congress. Right now, there are literally zero. Sinema made it clear, through her staff, that she had no intention of stepping into that role. That said, she’s currently the only member of Congress whose official religious affiliation is “Unaffiliated.”
She hasn’t talked about religion very much since that time, though there were a couple of nods in our direction. Weeks after her 2012 election, she told CNN, “I’m not a member of any faith community,” adding that it was a personal issue and not something she wished to discuss in public. And when she took her oath of office, she put her hand on a copy of the Constitution rather than a Bible.
Her refusal to be openly atheist, if that’s an accurate description of her religious beliefs, isn’t some sort of deal-breaker for me. Honestly, our country would be better off if all politicians treated religion as a private matter. And if Sinema felt an atheist label would hurt her chances of political success — giving more power to religious conservatives — then I’d much rather have her stay silent about her beliefs (even if her staff needs lessons on how to talk about the issue).
Progressives in Arizona should be very excited to see her step into this race. She’s a strong candidate who has the appeal to win over plenty of moderates during an election when anti-GOP sentiments are sure to run high.
If I lived in Arizona, I would be thrilled to vote for her in the primary and general elections.
But I don’t live in Arizona. So I just made a contribution to her Senate campaign. I hope you’ll do the same.