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In Senate shake-up, Sinema changes her party affiliation to independent

Democrats say not much will change on the Hill, but the switch casts a long shadow on 2024

On Dec. 9, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced that she’s changing her party affiliation from Democrat to independent. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) announced she was leaving the Democratic Party on Friday, dampening Senate Democrats’ post-midterms celebrations and potentially endangering Democrats’ chances of holding onto the seat in 2024.

“Registering as an independent and showing up to work with the title of independent is a reflection of who I’ve always been, and it’s a reflection of who Arizona is,” Sinema said in a video detailing her decision. “We don’t line up to do what we’re told. We do what’s right for our state and for our country.”

Sinema’s new independent label is unlikely to significantly change the workings of the Senate next year, which Democrats will still narrowly control after their runoff win in Georgia this week. Sinema — who has voted with President Biden over 90 percent of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis — will keep her Democratic committee assignments and said she doesn’t plan to change how she votes.

But the break with the party caps a long-simmering rift between Sinema and Democrats in her home state, and sets up a potentially bruising Senate contest in 2024, when Democrats already face several challenging races in red and purple states that will put their majority at risk.

Some Arizona Democrats on Friday accused the senator of making the switch for political reasons, to avoid a near-certain Democratic primary challenge in 2024 if she decides to run as an independent in that race. (Sinema has not announced her plans for 2024.)

Her decision “isn’t about a post-partisan epiphany, it’s about political preservation,” Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.) wrote on Twitter, before sharing internal polling data that purported to show him beating her in a hypothetical Democratic primary. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine veteran and potential challenger for the Senate seat, blasted her in a statement for “putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizona.”

“She knows how to read a poll and what she’s clearly seeing is no path to victory for her in a Democratic primary,” said Sacha Haworth, who was Sinema’s communications director in her 2018 Senate race but is now advising a political action committee that will back a Democratic candidate for Sinema’s seat.

Haworth expressed concern that Sinema would serve as a “spoiler” if she runs as an independent in 2024, boosting a Republican candidate. Sinema is a formidable fundraiser and could draw more Democratic-leaning voters than Republicans in a three-way race. Republicans in Arizona were expressing new interest in the race on Friday.

“I would expect that there’s probably a few folks that ran in the primary this last time around that are dusting off their campaign signs and a few more that didn’t that are probably thinking about it,” said Kirk Adams, a former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

But Sinema, and some of her colleagues in the Senate, said her decision was more about reflecting a discomfort with formally belonging to a party that increasingly felt alien to her in recent years. Sinema, who was once a Green Party member and activist, was censured by the state Democratic Party in January over her unwillingness to get rid of the legislative filibuster to advance voting rights legislation and was followed into a bathroom in Arizona by activists angry at her for objecting to the $3.5 trillion price tag of Biden’s Build Back Better bill last year. (She eventually voted for a slimmed-down version of that bill, after demanding changes to a tax targeting private equity executives that also angered liberals.)

In Washington, she rarely attended Democrats’ weekly lunch meetings, where they hash out messaging and legislation, and preferred to push her own bipartisan legislative efforts. She helped deliver several bipartisan wins for Biden, most notably on infrastructure and gun control, and has been a consistent vote for the president’s administration and judicial nominees. Yet during the furor over Build Back Better, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to say whether he would support her in a hypothetical primary challenge.

Her absence at key events this week raised eyebrows. She didn’t travel with Biden when he visited Arizona. She also missed Senate Democrats’ leadership elections on Thursday, according to an individual familiar with the gathering who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose details of private meetings.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is retiring, said Friday that Sinema “clearly” did not fit into the Democratic caucus. “I’m interested to see where this next step leads,” he said.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate who has worked with Sinema on several bipartisan bills, noted that the Arizona lawmaker has received fierce blowback from the left in recent years, despite the fact that she has helped advance legislation that achieved liberal priorities in a chamber where most bills need Republican support to pass.

Collins said she texted Sinema that she was “proud of her” for the decision on Friday.

“Being an independent reflects who she is, her philosophy and her voting record,” Collins said.

“She really does brush off political pressure and she says this is about policymaking and not politics,” said John LaBombard, a longtime Sinema spokesman who is now a Democratic strategist at Rokk Solutions.

He argued that the move would encourage Democrats to let go of preconceived notions of what type of senator Sinema is.

Democrats in Washington said they believed Sinema’s decision would not affect their newfound clout in the Senate, where a 51-seat majority will end the complicated 50-50 power-sharing agreement they operated under with Republicans for the past two years. Under that agreement, committees were split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, giving the GOP more power to slow down nominations and legislation.

Schumer, in a statement Friday, said Sinema asked him to keep her committee assignments on Homeland Security, Banking, Commerce and Veterans Affairs panels — and he agreed.

“Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been,” Schumer said. “I believe she’s a good and effective Senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate. We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes.”

In a statement Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Sinema a “key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months,” including the infrastructure law, a semiconductor chips measure, and a sweeping climate and health-care bill.

“We understand that her decision to register as an independent in Arizona does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate, and we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her,” Jean-Pierre said.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said he was unsurprised by the news. “This seems like this changes the letter next to her name and not much else,” he said.

Arizona state Rep. Cesar Chavez (D) noted that it is in line with the state electorate, where 34 percent of registered voters aren’t affiliated with a party.

“I support the fact that she continues to push an agenda for all Arizonans,” Chavez said.

The reaction to Sinema’s announcement from Democrats in Arizona was strikingly different from those in Washington. In Arizona, the Democratic Party and members of the state congressional delegation took shots at her, saying she was giving up leverage in the Senate. Their primary aim appeared to be preparing to replace her in two years.

“Senator Sinema may now be registered as an independent, but she has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans,” Arizona Democratic Party Chair Raquel Terán said in a statement. “Senator Sinema’s party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents.”

Sinema’s announcement comes days after the Senate’s Democratic caucus claimed 51 seats with the reelection of Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). The group includes two independents — Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Angus King (Maine) — who caucus with the Democrats. Sinema, a first-term senator who has modeled herself after the “maverick” style of late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has declined to say specifically whether she will caucus with Democrats, though she told Politico that she is not joining Republicans.

Sinema informed Schumer of her decision on Thursday, according to Politico.

The majority leader will face pressure to decide whether to back Sinema, should she run for reelection, with the party’s resources.

Sinema, 46, ran for the Phoenix City Council more than 20 years ago on the Green Party ticket, served in the House and broke the GOP grip on Arizona in 2018 when she won the Senate seat, defeating Martha McSally (R). During her Senate tenure, her willingness to break with her party on key issues has drawn praise from the other side of the aisle.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invited Sinema to speak at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville in September, calling her the “most effective first-term senator” he has seen in his nearly 40-year Senate career.

“She is, today, what we have too few of in the Democratic Party: a genuine moderate and a dealmaker,” he said.

That appearance, in the heat of the midterm election campaign, angered Gallego, who wrote on Twitter, “I mean you could be out there helping our candidates @SenatorSinema But my sense is that you would actually prefer the Dems lose control of the Senate and House.”

During her first run for the U.S. Senate in 2018, Sinema tailored her campaign to undecided voters and independents. She avoided party labels and events, frequently wore purple and closed the race with a rare one-minute TV ad that had a theme of working beyond partisan lines. “She’s independent, just like Arizona,” the ad said.

In freeing herself of a party label, Sinema — should she choose to run for reelection — averts what could be a nasty primary contest in a battleground state almost evenly divided between Republican, Democratic and independent voters.

“What she’s going to have to do is win 40 percent of Republicans, 40 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents,” said Chuck Coughlin, a GOP consultant in Arizona. “It realigns who you’re marketing to, and the reason most people don’t do it is because you can’t afford to have a primary going on where you’re ignored.

“Well, she’s not going to be ignored, we know this. She’ll be sitting there, waiting,” he added.

Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.

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