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Never Leave a Party Early: Sinema Skating on Thin Ice

Staff writer Matteo Cardarelli examines Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic party and sit as an independent.

For a moment, Raphael Warnock’s victory in the December 6 Georgia Senate run-off calmed the waters in Washington. Come January Democrats would rule the upper chamber – it seemed – with a solid majority. Republicans were once again consigned to opposition, yet this time with no immediate prospect of dashing Democrats agenda. Alas, Kyrsten Sinema’s bombshell decision to leave the Democratic Party last week made sure that this peace remained transient. When everything seemed to be going well for the Democrats, Christmas was stolen by a fuchsia-clad grinch. 

It seems that Sinema derives a perverse sense of satisfaction in her ability to subvert expectations. The junior senator for Arizona and one-time Green Party activist has made a career of defying the bookmakers – and more importantly, her colleagues. Alongside Joe Manchin, she constituted the Democrats’ proverbial soft underbelly on the Hill, voting against signature proposals such as the Build Back Better bill, a $15 federal minimum wage and reforming the Senate filibuster. Democratic leadership was never able reign her in, and her assent, along with Manchin’s, acted as a legislative Damocles’ sword, always seconds from dismembering progressive hopes. So prone to voting against the party was Sinema, that the American Conservative Union gave her the second-highest rating among Senate Democrats. Given her credentials, it seems easy to suggest that her defection is not such a surprise. 

On the one hand, that wouldn’t be too wrong. Sinema has eschewed party politics before, and ran with the explicit promise to vote as an independent. Yet since Biden took office in 2021, she has voted with Democrats 93% of the time. Crossing the political Rubicon, she delivered an embarrassing rebuke to her former party in a moment when Democrats had acquired an elusive sense of safety. Despite her mercurial tendencies, no one really expected Sinema to go independent. It’s a blow to Democrats, one that concusses the party back into a state of feral inquietude.

Even in her independence, Sinema has remained atypical. Though she has asked Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to keep her committee positions, indicating a willingness to remain within the Democratic mainframe, she has also not publicly stated whether she will caucus with Democrats, like the chamber’s other two independents, Sanders and Angus King. Given her meagre attendance record at caucus meetings, it’s unlikely Democrats will go to the trouble of saving her a seat. And, while she has claimed she will not caucus with Republicans, the GOP’s leadership is doubtlessly relishing the unexpected prospect of a more balanced Senate, despite their dismal performance in the midterms.

The timing of Sinema’s announcement is curious. It’s no coincidence that it falls on the coattails of Warnock’s victory in Georgia. Independence is a means to reclaim whatever leverage she wielded with the chamber at 50-50. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s muted reaction and the White House’s tepid press conference are emblematic of a ‘wait and see’ attitude. If independence does not change the way Sinema’s vote falls, it is unlikely she will receive a much more than a wrap on the knuckles from party leadership. Yet others were less conciliatory. Bernie Sanders trashed Sinema in the most public of ways, telling reporters that she had “helped sabotage” the Democrats’ agenda. He not-so-subtly hinted that he would endorse a challenger to her in 2024, when Sinema is up for re-election. 

Sinema claims she has opted for independent status because of the toxicity of partisan politics. Perhaps this is true; but her decision comes at a time when her approval ratings in Arizona are underwater. A betting man would not wager on Sinema in the next Democratic primary. It’s not the first time a Senator facing the axe has gambled; Arlen Specter, a Republican who switched party allegiance under the Obama administration, publicly admitted that his decision had been led strategically by his dismal ratings in GOP polls. Specter’s gambit did not pay off though, as he was dispatched in the Democratic primary.

Though it goes without saying that the outcome in 2024 is hard to predict, Kyrsten could easily share Specter’s fate. Already reviled by most Democratic voters, this is unlikely to endear her further. If she won in 2018, it was also because of the money pumped into her campaign by Democratic donors and the party apparatus, a source of support she is now willingly foregoing. The illustrious endorsements of the party’s bigwigs will likely desert her. Already, it appears we’ll see a Sanders-shaped flag pitched in the camp of whomever decides to run against Sinema in 2024. Her gamble largely rests on Democrats’ anxieties about the possibility of splitting the liberal vote, thereby handing Arizona to Republicans on a platter. Whether they take up her challenge remains to be seen.

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