Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has always marched to her own beat.
So it’s not shocking that she decided this week she’s officially switching from the Democratic Party to be an independent.
“Arizonans are strong and independent.”
“A fiercely independent record.”
“Independent, just like Arizona.”
Those weren’t quotes from her announcement Friday. Those were from one of her widely run 2018 Senate campaign ads (which is still at the top of her YouTube page).
Making herself look like an “independent” has been part of her brand for some time – despite her earlier days as a liberal activist.
She’s not the first senator to switch parties – Jim Jeffords of Vermont defected from the GOP 20-plus years ago, giving control of the Senate to Democrats.
Facing a difficult reelection, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania left the Republican Party in 2009 to become a Democrat. (Democrat Al Franken’s victory in Minnesota then gave Democrats a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority that helped pass the Affordable Care Act.)
After serving as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2004, the hawkish Joe Lieberman of Connecticut bolted to become an independent in 2006. The writing was on the wall for a while with Lieberman and Democrats. When he visited Arizona in 2003, for example, right as the Iraq war was starting – a war he voted for and defended – he was greeted by anti-war protests.
“He’s a shame to Democrats,” the organizer of the protest said. “I don’t even know why he’s running. He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him — what kind of strategy is that?”
That protester? None other than Kyrsten Sinema.
Ironically, though she hopes her decision to remove the “D” from next to her name will bolster her brand back home, it may contribute to a Republican being elected senator from Arizona in 2024.
No room for moderates?
Practically speaking, the deregistration won’t change much on Capitol Hill. Because incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock won his runoff election in Georgia, Democrats still have firm control of the chamber, 50-49.
Sinema says she didn’t make her decision because of Warnock’s win but the timing, that she’s keeping her Senate committee assignments through Democrats and won’t be caucusing with Republicans suggests otherwise.
Sinema also says this move fits her more ideologically. That, some may see as proof of a lack of ideological diversity within the Democratic Party.
But while the party has gotten more liberal over the last 50 years and both parties have become more ideologically cohesive, Republicans have gotten far more conservative than Democrats have become liberal in that time, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
“Five decades ago, 144 House Republicans were less conservative than the most conservative Democrat, and 52 House Democrats were less liberal than the most liberal Republican, according to the analysis. But that zone of ideological overlap began to shrink….
“Since 2002,… there’s been no overlap at all between the least liberal Democrats and the least conservative Republicans in the House. In the Senate, the end of overlap came in 2004, when Democrat Zell Miller of Georgia retired. Ever since, the gaps between the least conservative Republicans and least liberal Democrats in both the House and Senate have widened – making it ever less likely that there’s any common ground to find.”
Voting with Democrats most of the time
Going forward, Sinema says she won’t attend Democratic caucus meetings, though unlike now-fellow independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, Sinema rarely did anyway.
Sinema has been a thorn in the party’s side on some major pieces of legislation. The Arizona Democratic Party censured her over her opposition to changing the filibuster. But she has actually voted with Democrats on most – almost all – things.
She voted with the party 93% of the time, which is not even the lowest of other Democrats (or those who caucus with them). Sens. Sanders, Jackie Rosen of Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia all have voted with the party to a lesser degree, albeit slightly, according to a tally by 538.
So what’s this really about?
It’s certainly good publicity for someone with low approval ratings – just 37% overall, including 41% of independents, approved of the job Sinema was doing, according to a bipartisan survey conducted by Impact Research and Fabrizio Ward.
She also needs to appeal to independents and moderate Republicans, because Arizona is a state where they matter a lot. More than a third of the state’s voters identify as “other,” and Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 166,000.
Fellow Democratic Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, during his successful reelection campaign this year, also appealed to the middle, separating himself from Biden administration border policies, for example.
But it’s not at all clear that, politically, Sinema’s tactic will benefit her as much as she’d like.
One benefit is that by declaring herself an independent and deregistering with the Democratic Party, she would avoid that primary competition and buy herself a go-straight-to-general-election pass, provided she can meet the higher signature threshold for an independent to qualify to get on the ballot.
“Last month, the voters of Arizona made their voices heard loud and clear – they want leaders who put the people of Arizona first,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., someone progressives have been clamoring to see challenge Sinema in a primary. He added, “[A]t a time when our nation needs leadership most, Arizona deserves a voice that won’t back down in the face of struggle. Unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”
The reality is Sinema is less popular in the state than Kelly or Biden, and Democratic polling has shown her getting trounced in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup against Gallego in a Democratic primary.
So going “independent” may be her only path to a general election. But there’s no guarantee a Sinema independent bid would win her reelection.
What’s true in politics is that you have to start with a base of support. Sinema abandoning the Democratic Party may alienate her further with the voters that used to be that base.
National Democrats will also have a decision to make – whether to support a “Democrat” in the 2024 Arizona Senate election or to back Sinema.
There’s a real danger here for both the party and for Sinema. Backing someone wearing the team jersey could imperil Democrats’ chances at retaining the seat. It’s very likely her candidacy would pull more from the Democratic nominee and open up a path for a Republican to win with a mere plurality.
But backing Sinema could enrage the Democratic base and also potentially cost them the seat.
Without party support, Sinema could find herself in something of a political no man’s land. But she’s banking on her brand being enough to pull from moderates on both sides.
That’s going to be a difficult test, especially since Sinema is widely unpopular.