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Kyrsten Sinema's 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 on Friday, 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 Sinema’s move would do little to affect the Senate in the near term. But he also praised her 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 of the sort 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.

“She’s engaging in the political version of mutually assured destruction,” said Andy Barr, a Democratic consultant and veteran of multiple campaigns in the Copper State. “She’s saying, ‘If you make any move against me, I’ll make sure no Democrat wins.’ The number one thing she’s done is dramatically increase the odds of a Republican winning the seat.”

Some national Democrats privately suggested that Arizona Democrats could decide discretion is the better part of valor, and opt not to run a candidate. But interviews with progressives in the state made it clear the die is cast.

“She is the one that has to decide if she’s going to run. She’s the one that’s put herself at the center of this story,” said Alex Gomez, the executive director of the progressive group LUCHA. “She’s the spoiler. The onus is on her.”

The possibility of a three-way race now hangs over potential Democratic candidates like Rep. Ruben Gallego (Ariz.), 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 (D-Ariz.), 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.”

However, Gallego may not be the only Democrat with an interest in running. Local Democrats said Tucson Mayor Regina Romero could be a strong candidate, and Rep. Greg Stanton (Ariz.) all but confirmed he has statewide ambitions of his own, sharing a polling image Friday that showed him crushing Sinema in a hypothetical primary.

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Even if established politicians like Gallego and Stanton decide not to run, Barr noted, Sinema’s decision is exceedingly risky. There’s nothing Democrats in D.C. or Arizona can do to stop a rank-and-file Democrat over the age of 35 from filing to run and siphoning votes from Sinema.

“It only take one registered Democrat getting 10,000 signatures, and that person will get 20% of the vote,” Barr said.

Democratic margins in the state remain exceedingly thin. Barr noted that just 510 votes decided the state attorney general race between a Republican-turned-Democrat on one side and an utterly unqualified conspiracy theorist on the other. If Republicans in the state are able to hold their voters, virtually any siphoning of votes there would hand an election to the GOP.

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 half a 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 Sinema 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 longtime 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.
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent, recently helped pass a bill protecting marriage rights.

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent, recently helped pass a bill protecting marriage rights.

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 that 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 Kelly in November’s Senate race. 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 economic ones — especially those with bearing on 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,” Grijalva said. “Her alignment with wealthy and corporate interests has crippled her ability to support the Democratic agenda.”

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