Kyrsten Sinema’s change of party is all about her political survival

Kyrsten Sinema’s change of party is all about her political survival

  • US News
  • December 9, 2022
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Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s move from Democrat to Independent won’t change much in the Senate, but it will have significant implications for 2024.

Sinema will continue to vote with Democrats most of the time. She will continue to chair two subcommittees, both of which are standard duties for a first-term senator. Republicans are no closer to a majority in 2023 than 5:59 a.m. Eastern time Friday morning, before stories announcing their decision went live on CNN and Politico.

“The reality is that not much has changed. I will continue to do what I do,” Sinema told Arizona Morning News, claiming she has never attended Democratic Party caucuses or luncheons.

Other Democrats agreed. “Senator Sinema was an independent in every respect,” Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said on CNN shortly after the news broke.

But the GOP could be a little closer to a majority after the 2024 election. Sinema’s decision makes an already brutal 2024 Senate map even more agonizing for Democrats, who now face decisions about how to deal with a senator who has scrapped important parts of President Joe Biden’s agenda but for salvaging other parts was crucial.

Sinema insisted her change of party had little to do with politics – she hasn’t even announced if she will stand for re-election in 2024. But the implications are obvious, even if the ultimate impact could remain unclear until Election Day two years from now.

As a Democratic incumbent, Sinema would have guaranteed protection for the well-funded, well-oiled political apparatus controlled by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.). Both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Senate Majority PAC, which combined could raise more than half a billion dollars in the 2022 cycle, would have spent on them in a competitive general election and probably a primary as well.

The Senate PAC majority did not respond to a request for comment on Sinema’s change of party, and Senate Democrats have yet to select a chairperson for the next cycle’s DSCC.

But these two groups do not typically support a Democratic challenge to the other independents who join the caucus, namely Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Angus King of Maine. While both occasionally break with fellow Democrats — King, for example, played a major role in blocking Biden’s first nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — neither irks the party nearly as much as Sinema. Both are also longtime political leaders in their home states, which means any challenge is doomed to fail anyway.

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent, recently helped pass a marriage rights protection bill. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent, recently helped pass a marriage rights protection bill.

Elizabeth Frantz for the Washington Post via Getty Images

For all her efforts to restore the coalition that supported the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sinema is not yet a hometown hero on that level. The most recent poll assessing her popularity, an AARP poll conducted in October by a bipartisan opinion duo, found that just 37% of Arizona voters had a positive opinion of her and 54% had a negative opinion.

Sinema’s numbers were matched only by Blake Masters, the Republican venture capitalist who lost to Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) in November. Kelly, governor-elect Katie Hobbs (D), GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Biden and former President Donald Trump were all more popular with Arizona voters than Sinema.

Switching parties allows Sinema to avoid a brutal primary challenge, or at least make one much more difficult. If another Democrat decides to enter the race, they could risk splitting the vote in the general election and giving the seat to the Republicans in 2024.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who would likely have run a primary campaign against Sinema, now faces the conundrum of becoming a spoiler candidate if he chooses to go through with it. The National Democrats will also have to decide whether to support Sinema and discourage other candidates from running against her.

In a statement Friday morning, Gallego appeared unwilling to back down.

“We need senators to put Arizonans ahead of big drug companies and Wall Street financiers,” he said. “Whether in the Marine Corps or in Congress, I have never retired from fighting for the Arizonans.”

Gallego said Sinema’s change of party is another example of her “putting her own interests ahead of Arizona’s.”

Functionally, Sinema’s announcement will have little to no impact in the Senate. While her desk is on the Democratic side of the Senate, she spends most of her time on the Republican side, where she is friends with many GOP senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). She rarely attends Democratic Group meetings, generally avoids partisan messaging events, and endorsed Hobbs just weeks before this year’s election.

Sinema has been a key bipartisan dealmaker over the past two years, helping negotiate and steer several notable bills. Most recently, she helped win 12 Republican yes votes for legislation codifying protections for same-sex and interracial marriages. She also successfully pushed for major infrastructure and gun law reform.

However, progressives, who largely backed their Senate bid in 2018, have a lot to complain about their time in the Senate. She opposed the abolition of the filibuster, including passage of a voting rights bill. And it helped block key progressive priorities, including a $15 minimum wage and efforts to close a tax loophole that benefits wealthy investors.

And the party’s left flank, emboldened by nationwide victories in a GOP-leaning interim year, is emphatically not behind her ahead of 2024. Primary Sinema, a group formed in 2021 to support a potential challenger, said their goal of defeating her remains unchanged.

“Today Kyrsten Sinema told us what we’ve known for years: She’s not a Democrat and she’s just out for herself,” the group said in a statement. “Over the last year, we laid the groundwork to defeat Kyrsten Sinema because Arizonans deserve a senator who cares about them, not special interests. In a way, Sinema made our jobs easier by saying goodbye to a Democratic primary she knew she couldn’t win. Now we will beat them in the general election with a real Democrat.”

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