WASHINGTON (TND) — Fresh off celebrating the reelection of Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, Senate Democrats were hit with the news that Kyrsten Sinema would be leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent.
Sinema’s announcement came just a few days after Warnock’s reelection, which gave Democrats a true majority in the Senate that would allow the party to have full control over committees and nominations.
The Arizona senator has been known to buck her party on several Democratic priorities since being elected. Along with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Sinema was a frequent “no” vote who party leadership needed to court to get legislation through the evenly split Senate.
In an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, Sinema said the state’s voters reject partisan politics and that she would continue to be an independent voice for the state.
“When politicians are more focused on denying the opposition party a victory than they are on improving Americans’ lives, the people who lose are everyday Americans,” Sinema wrote. “That’s why I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”
She has been facing growing blowback from Democrats in Arizona over instances where she bucked the party, including voting no on increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour and supporting keeping some of former President Donald Trump’s signature tax cuts.
The Arizona Democratic Party censured her in 2021 after she opposed getting rid of the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.
“As a party, we welcome Independent voters and their perspectives,” Arizona Democrats said in a statement after her announcement. “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.”
Polling taken in the run-up to the midterm elections found Democratic voters also had negative attitudes toward Sinema. A Civiqs survey of likely voters taken before Election Day found Democrats see her more unfavorably than Republicans, 76% to 42%.
“The impression of many Democrats is that Sinema, when she got in office, basically raised a big middle finger to the rest of the Democratic Party,” said Brooks Simpson, a history professor at Arizona State University.
Sinema was likely going to face a difficult primary test from her left, which could have endangered her Senate seat.
“I think her motivation is primarily to position herself so that she has better luck with not having to run a primary and then moving straight to the general election in 2024,” said Todd Belt, political science director at George Washington University. “It also gives her a chance to really underscore the fact that she is independently minded, both in appearance and in substance.”
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., one of the potential candidates who could take her on in a primary, accused Sinema of working for her own interests.
“At a time when our nation needs leadership most, Arizona deserves a voice that won’t back down in the face of a struggle,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”
Sinema has not said if she will seek reelection with under two years left in her first Senate term, but her party switch could set up a difficult general election in a closely divided state politically. Democrats won close statewide races in the November midterms, which could set up a difficult three-way race between Sinema, a Democrat and a Republican.
Gallego, the state party and other potential primary candidates have not indicated yet if they will run against Sinema during a general election, though some Arizona political observers still expect the party to nominate a candidate.
“Democrats are still going to nominate their own candidate,” Simpson said. “They're not going to let Sinema run unopposed because if they do, a lot of people will simply drop out of the campaign and Democrats will suffer the same thing that Republicans suffered this last time, which was people just saying, ‘I'm not playing.’”
In Washington, Senate Democrats will still retain their majority and have control over committees but still might need her support to get bills or nominations through a 51-49 split. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., acknowledged her history of independence in a statement where he said she would keep her committee assignments.
Not having the Democratic affiliation could lead to more instances of Sinema bucking Democrats and leadership trying to pass legislation in a divided Congress.
“It symbolizes her getting out ahead in front of the Democratic leadership and saying, ‘I'm willing to break with you, Democratic leadership because I don't necessarily see myself connected to your train and you do need to negotiate with me if you want to get anything passed,’” Belt said.
How the dynamics of Sinema’s discretion over what gets through the Senate remains to be seen but Warnock’s reelection may have cost her some ability to shape legislation.
“When Warnock won, Sinema’s game became much harder to play because she's not necessarily the deciding vote anymore,” Simpson said. “In fact, the person is more empowered is Manchin because he can still play these games. She really can't.”