Sen. Kyrsten Sinema raked in campaign cash from corporate leaders at the end of last year as she prepared for a potential high-stakes 2024 reelection bid in the battleground state of Arizona.
Sinema, a centrist swing vote in the narrowly split Senate, switched her party affiliation from Democrat to independent in December. Real estate and private equity leaders, who have long helped to fill Sinema’s campaign coffers, contributed to a healthy cash haul for the senator in the final months of last year.
As Sinema considers whether to launch a bid for a second Senate term, the senator’s campaign entered 2023 flush with cash, with $8.2 million on hand, according to a new Federal Election Commission filing. Sinema’s campaign raised more than $800,000 during the last three months of 2022, and a portion of those funds came from affiliated committees, according to campaign filings that became public Tuesday.
Since October, Sinema has seen the support of leaders from private equity giants such as Blackstone, along with the president of America’s largest business lobbying group, the Chamber of Commerce, according to the filing.
A spokeswoman for Sinema did not return a request for comment.
The fundraising haul came both before Sinema changed her party affiliation — and faced a possible primary challenge from the left — and after the switch. Sinema, who in the last Congress blocked key Democratic tax proposals that would have affected private equity and corporations, largely appears to have kept her allies in the business community after she left the Democratic Party.
One week before Sinema switched from being a Democrat to an independent, she attended a private fundraising lunch in New York with at least a dozen titans of the real estate and private equity industries, according to political fundraisers familiar with the matter and an invite to the event.
The lunch, which took place on Dec. 2 at a private club within 75 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, was organized by two real estate executives: Scott Rechler, chairman and CEO of RXR Realty, and Jeff Blau, CEO of Related Cos., according to the invite. The event supported the Sinema Leadership Fund, a joint fundraising committee that benefits her campaign and her leadership PAC, called Getting Stuff Done. Donors could give between $2,900 and $10,800 to attend the gathering, according to the contribution website to buy tickets for the event.
Blau encouraged donors to come to the December event because he believes Sinema “is an intellectually gifted, smart legislator who is one of the most courageous and independent voices in the Senate,” according to the emailed invite signed by the Related Cos. CEO and his wife, Lisa.
“For her independence she will pay a price,” the invite added.
A spokesman for Related Cos. declined to comment.
At the lunch, Sinema discussed the incoming Congress and how the tight margins in both chambers could create gridlock, according to attendees. She also talked about her plans to keep working with Republicans. Sinema did not say at the lunch that she was planning to leave the Democratic Party and become an independent, these people said.
The invite Blau sent to donors suggests the fundraiser was meant to protect Sinema against a potential primary challenge. Corporate leaders have often jumped to her defense, and most of those allies seem undeterred since Sinema became an independent.
The other organizer Rechler told CNBC in an email Tuesday that he supported Sinema at the event in December “and I continue to support her today.”
The realty executive said he and his wife have known Sinema for years. He donated $10,800 to the Sinema Leadership Fund in late November, according to an FEC filing, ahead of the fundraising lunch that Rechler said took place at the private Club 75.
While many donors stayed in Sinema’s corner after she left the Democratic Party, the move lost her some support. Two donors who were invited to the December lunch, who declined to be named in order to share their views on Sinema, said they will likely support whoever the Democratic nominee for her seat is next year. One of the contributors came to the lunch and the other chose to not to attend.
The one corporate leader who went to the lunch said he would have held back from giving to Sinema if he had known that she would become an independent. The person fears her decision will split votes between Sinema and a Democrat in the 2024 race, allowing Republicans to pick up a pivotal Senate seat.
The other wealthy donor who was invited to the lunch but didn’t attend said that Sinema’s opposition to closing the carried interest loophole, which benefits many of the private equity leaders who support her, has led him to consider backing the Democratic nominee for her seat.
Sinema’s decision to leave the party has changed views on her beyond the donor community. Since the senator became an independent, the share of Democrats in her state who disapprove of her jumped by 18 percentage points, according to a new Morning Consult poll.
But her approval rating among both independents and Republicans in the state improved after the decision. Overall, Morning Consult ranks her as the fifth most unpopular U.S. senator.
Sinema announced a week after the fundraiser that she would become an independent but still caucus with Senate Democrats and keep her committee assignments. She sits on the influential Senate Banking Committee as well as the Commerce and Homeland Security committees.
Some Democrats in her state have long pushed for a more liberal challenger to Sinema, and her decision to leave the party opened the door to alternate candidates. Progressive Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., launched his campaign for Sinema’s seat last month.
The Arizona election next year will be one of the country’s most important Senate races. Democrats face a challenging map as they try to cling to their 51-49 majority in the chamber.
The incumbent senator has not announced whether she will run for reelection. But if she does, she will enter a potentially tough campaign with support from a bevy of business leaders.
The latest FEC filings from her campaign and affiliated committees, which cover October through the end of December, show that corporate leaders from Wall Street, real estate and tech, among other industries, flooded Sinema’s campaign coffers both shortly before and right after she moved to become an independent.
Sinema’s campaign had already seen more than $2 million from the securities and investment industry since the 2018 election cycle. Wall Street executives have also lobbied her office in the past in an effort to preserve the carried interest loophole.
That trend continued at the end of last year. Martin Brand, head of Blackstone’s North America private equity division, contributed $5,800 to Sinema’s campaign in October, according to an FEC filing.
The Sinema campaign saw dozens of contributions totaling over $145,000 from people who work at Apollo Global Management, another giant private equity firm, since October. The campaign recently received more than $60,000 from those who work at private equity behemoth TPG, according to the new filing. The support from TPG officials included a $5,800 donation from James Coulter, a co-founder of the firm in October, according to the latest filing.
Representatives for the firms did not return requests for comment.
Suzanne Clark, CEO of the massive pro-business lobbying group U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also donated $1,000 to Sinema’s campaign on Dec. 31, the new FEC filing shows.
A spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce told CNBC that Sinema is a leader on taxation and other key policy issues that are “deeply important to the business community.”
“The Chamber and our leaders support pro-business lawmakers who advance pro-growth policies that move the American economy forward,” Tim Doyle, a spokesman for the Chamber, told CNBC. “Sen. Sinema is a leader on taxation, infrastructure, and technology and innovation issues, all of which are deeply important to the business community.”
Records show Clark contributed to other lawmakers last year, including a donation to the campaign of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
William Hornbuckle, CEO of MGM Resorts International, also gave $2,900 to the Sinema campaign on Dec. 20, according to the filing. A spokesman for MGM Resorts declined to comment.
Alfred E. Mottur, a lobbyist from Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, donated $1,000 to Sinema’s campaign in late December. Mottur said in an email that he plans to help her get reelected — and is shrugging off her decision to become an independent.
“She is one of the most effective first term senators in modern history without whom we may not have had a gun control package, a gay marriage bill, an infrastructure bill, and the list goes on. I am proud to help her in her re-election campaign,” Mottur said.
Correction: Representatives for Apollo Global Management and TPG did not return requests for comment. An earlier version misstated that fact.