kyrsten sinemas party switch is all about her political survival

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s switch from Democrat to independent won’t change much in the Senate, but it has significant implications for 2024.

Sinema will continue voting with Democrats most of the time. She’ll maintain her chairmanship of two subcommittees, both of which are standard assignments for a first-term senator. Republicans are no closer to having a majority in 2023 than they were at 5:59 a.m. Eastern time Friday morning, before stories announcing her decision went live on CNN and Politico.

“The reality is, not much has changed. I’m going to keep doing what I do,” Sinema told Arizona Morning News.

Other Democrats agreed. “Senator Sinema has been an independent for all intents and purposes,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said on CNN shortly after the news broke.

But the GOP might be a bit closer to a majority following the 2024 elections. Sinema’s decision makes an already brutal 2024 Senate map even more excruciating for Democrats, who now face decisions about how to handle a senator who tanked major pieces of President Joe Biden’s agenda but was critical to rescuing other parts.

In the hours after Sinema announced the change, a clear split was already emerging between Arizona Democrats — who seemed gung-ho to challenge her in 2024 — and their more cautious national counterparts, who would prefer to retain her support for large swaths of their agenda over the next two years and would worry about the dangers of a three-way race for her seat.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) emphasized that her move would do little to affect the Senate in the near term. But he also praised Sinema as a “good and effective” senator.

“Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been,” Schumer added.

In-state Democrats, on the other hand, seemed finished with the incumbent in a statement of their own.

“As a party, we welcome Independent voters and their perspectives,” said outgoing party Chair Raquel Terán. “Senator Sinema may now be registered as an Independent, but she has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans. Senator Sinema’s party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents.”

A rift between local and national branches of the party is what could lead to real Democratic headaches in 2024. While national Democrats control huge sums of money typically needed for a nominee to win, there is little they can do to prevent local Democrats from running a candidate.

The nightmare scenario is obvious: A Democrat and Sinema split liberal and moderate votes while a Republican relies on the GOP base to deliver them a relatively easy victory.

That possibility now hangs over potential Democratic candidates like Rep. Ruben Gallego, who had openly considered a challenge to Sinema. Public surveys — albeit ones conducted way too early to have any predictive value — showed Gallego and other Democrats crushing Sinema in a primary.

In 2020, Gallego mulled running in a primary against now-Sen. Mark Kelly but ultimately decided against it, fearful of hurting the party’s chances of winning a crucial seat.

In a statement Friday morning, Gallego did not sound like he planned on repeating such a decision in the future.

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

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

As a Democratic incumbent, Sinema would have been guaranteed the protection of the well-funded, well-oiled political apparatus controlled by Schumer. Both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC, which combined to raise more than a half-billion dollars in the 2022 cycle, would have spent on her behalf in a competitive general election and likely in a primary as well.

Senate Majority PAC declined to comment on Sinema’s party switch, and Senate Democrats have not yet selected a chair for next cycle’s DSCC. Schumer’s office did not immediately respond when asked if Democrats would continue to support her electorally. (According to a Democratic aide, the leader only found about Sinema’s decision Thursday.)

But those two groups typically don’t support any Democratic challenge to the other independents who align with the caucus, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maine Sen. Angus King. While both break with other Democrats on occasion ― King played a major role in blocking Biden’s first nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, for instance ― neither aggravates the party nearly as much as Sinema. Both are also long-time political leaders in their home state, meaning any challenge is doomed anyway.

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent, recently helped pass a bill protecting marriage rights.
Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Sinema, for all her aspirations of recreating the coalition that backed the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is not yet a hometown hero on that level. The most recent polling judging her popularity, an AARP survey conducted by a bipartisan duo of pollsters in October, found just 37% of Arizona voters had a favorable 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, Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs (D), GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, Biden and former President Donald Trump were all more popular than Sinema with Arizona voters.

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

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

Most of those laws are popular in public polling, and a well-funded campaign could use them to improve Sinema’s public image.

Progressives, who largely lined up behind her Senate bid in 2018, have found much to complain about her time in the Senate, however. She opposed eliminating the filibuster, including to pass voting rights legislation. And she helped block major progressive priorities, including a $15 minimum wage and efforts to close a tax loophole benefiting rich investors. Broadly, she has adopted liberal positions on social issues and conservative positions on economics — especially on those impacting the financial services and pharmaceutical industries.

And the party’s left flank, emboldened by statewide victories in a GOP-leaning midterm year — including Sen. Raphael Warnock’s recent win in the Georgia runoff — is very explicitly not behind her ahead of 2024.

“With Senator Warnock’s re-election, Kyrsten Sinema’s ability to be the center of the political universe has ended within the Democratic Party,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a progressive who serves as the dean of Arizona’s congressional delegation, said in a statement.

“This is a predictable outcome for Senator Sinema as she has entirely separated herself from any semblance of representing hardworking and struggling Arizonans. Her alignment with wealthy and corporate interests has crippled her ability to support the Democratic agenda.”

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