When Democrats Diverge: One Rips Trump, Another Hits Mute Button

(Bloomberg) -- In the neighboring western states of Nevada and Arizona, the Democratic strategy for flipping Republican Senate seats in the Trump era is moving in opposite directions.

Senate candidate Jacky Rosen is touting progressive policy ideals and hammering President Donald Trump to motivate the Democratic base in Nevada to turn out for the Nov. 6 election. Yet over the border in Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema is downplaying her party affiliation and rarely mentions the president as she pitches a moderate platform to middle-of-the-road voters.

When Democrats Diverge: One Rips Trump, Another Hits Mute Button

"This race is about Arizonans, not party politics in Washington," Sinema said. "As my record shows, I’ve never been afraid to buck my party to get things done for our state."

The two states represent Democrats’ best hopes for gains in a year when the party is facing one of the most politically skewed Senate-election maps in history. They are crucial to cushioning possible Democratic losses in states such as North Dakota and Indiana or, less likely, giving them a shot at Senate control if the party’s incumbents all manage to win re-election.

When Democrats Diverge: One Rips Trump, Another Hits Mute Button

“There’s no path to taking back the Senate that doesn’t run through Nevada,” Rosen, a first-term congresswoman, said in an interview. "I’m aware of that every day."

For the Republican candidates, incumbent Senator Dean Heller in Nevada and Representative Martha McSally in Arizona, the strategy is simple and unified: embrace Trump closely and count on a fervent Republican base to carry them to the Senate.

A new CNN poll released Wednesday showed tight races in both states. Sinema led McSally by a margin of 51 percent to 47 percent among likely voters, while Rosen led Heller by a margin of 48 percent to 45 percent.

Diverging Paths

Despite some demographic similarities, Arizona and Nevada have diverged politically in recent decades, and that’s dictating campaign strategy.

Nevada has become more of a swing state, going for the Democratic presidential candidate in the last three elections and consistently electing one Democrat and one Republican to the Senate since 2001. Arizona has been more reliably Republican -- it hasn’t voted to send a Democrat to the Senate since 1988 and voted for a Democratic presidential candidate only once since 1948. But it’s trending blue. Hillary Clinton lost Arizona by 3.4 percentage points in 2016, and Democrats lost an open Senate seat by just 3 points in 2012.

At a rally in Las Vegas last week, Rosen was joined by self-described Democratic-socialist Senator Bernie Sanders. She drew cheers from a young crowd as she vowed to "turn Nevada blue" and fight for gun control, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, protecting undocumented youth and tackling climate change.

Aligning With Sanders

She said she and Sanders "both believe that health care is a right, not a privilege." And she torched Trump’s "reckless" immigration policy that "tears babies from their mothers." The next day, she held a get-out-the-vote rally in a heavily Latino east Vegas community that she said was "under attack" by Trump.

Rosen also often reminds audiences that Heller is a Trump ally and urges them to vote to wrest Senate control from Republicans.

Sinema, a three-term U.S. representative, doesn’t talk much about the president or about flipping Senate control. She’s cautious about making explicit appeals to Latinos. And she’s emphasizing issues with centrist appeal like making sure people with pre-existing conditions can get health insurance and supporting veterans, while avoiding culturally divisive issues like immigration and guns.

On the campaign trail last week, Sinema blasted "the political partisanship that is creating chaos in Washington, D.C."

Hispanic Voters

Hispanics are critical to Democratic prospects in both states. They make up 29 percent of Nevada’s population and 31 percent of Arizona, according to the Census Bureau. They typically vote for Democratic candidates by large margins, but their turnout tends to be low compared to white voters, especially in midterm elections. Yet to be seen is how Trump’s use of immigration as a campaign issue, including proposing to limit birthright citizenship and dispatching U.S. troops to the Mexico border, will affect Latino turnout.

At a press conference last week in Phoenix, Sinema answered carefully when asked how she’s appealing to Hispanics, saying the contest is "not about what individual ethnicity a person lives with." She said she’s "communicating with all Arizonans" including Latinos, Native Americans, Anglos, African Americans and Asian Americans.

‘Trump Score’

Sinema has the fourth-highest "Trump score" of any House Democrat and votes with him 62.2 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. She has voted against her party leaders to make Trump’s tax cuts for individuals permanent, undo Dodd-Frank regulations on some financial institutions, oppose a carbon tax, and express support for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that some on the left want to eliminate.

McSally said she doesn’t buy Sinema’s centrist "makeover." Her campaign distributed fliers featuring side-by-side photos of McSally in an Air Force fighter pilot uniform and Sinema, a former Green Party activist, in a pink tutu protesting the Iraq war in its early days.

"I need you to talk to your friends, because a lot of them actually think she’s OK, that she’s OK on the issues," McSally told supporters at a synagogue in Scottsdale. "But she’s not."

Seeking distance from her party, Sinema rejects a push by some Democrats for Medicare for all, saying last week she’s interested in "pragmatic solutions to the health-care challenges we face." Rosen is more in line with party liberals, saying in an interview that she supports legislation to let Americans buy into Medicaid as a public insurance option.

At his rally in Henderson last Friday, Heller cited experience, economic progress and his alliance with Trump as reasons Nevadans should vote for him. “We have become friends, and we’re delivering for Nevada,” he told reporters.

"Everybody has to run their own campaign the way they think that their state is going to find appealing. Rosen is running a very liberal campaign — she wants to appeal to the Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders crowd. I don’t think that works in Nevada," Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an interview at a recent Heller rally in Henderson, Nevada.

"Kyrsten Sinema tries to appeal as a moderate — the problem is YouTube for her," Gardner said, alluding to recently unearthed videos of her disparaging Arizona leaders for the state’s sharp right turn early in Barack Obama’s presidency.

Obama recently visited Nevada to campaign for Rosen — but he hasn’t rallied in Arizona for Sinema. Before his Nevada rally with Rosen, Sanders paid a visit to Arizona and campaigned for Democratic gubernatorial nominee David Garcia. Sinema didn’t join him.

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