Facebook Twitter

Understanding Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s declaration of independence

Three takeaways on how the Arizona senator’s independence will impact politics

SHARE Understanding Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s declaration of independence
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing to examine social media’s impact on homeland security on Sept. 14, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced Friday that she is leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent, angering some Democrats in her home state and raising questions about her political future.

Similar to the Declaration of Independence signed by our country’s founding fathers, Sinema listed grievances with her former party in her announcement, but, unlike the founders, she reserved the right to continue working with them.

While Sinema’s decision will not affect Democratic control of the Senate, her move will still cause waves in the nation’s Capitol. In an op-ed published Friday morning in The Arizona Republic, Sinema heavily criticized partisan political pressures. “Neither party has demonstrated much tolerance for diversity of thought. … I pledged to be independent and work with anyone to achieve lasting results,” she said.

“My approach is rare in Washington,” Sinema continued, “and has upset partisans in both parties. It is also an approach that has delivered lasting results for Arizona.”

It is unclear if Sinema still plans to caucus with Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the other Democrats in the Senate. If she did, she would follow the lead of other independent senators like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. Either way, her abrupt announcement will likely prove consequential to the upper chamber and to politics in her home state.

“I don’t anticipate that anything will change about the Senate structure,” Sinema told Politico. She also said committee assignment details are “a question for Chuck Schumer. … I intend to show up to work, do the same work that I always do. I just intend to show up to work as an independent.”

The Arizona Democratic Party hit back quickly in a statement released early Friday morning. “Senator Sinema may now be registered as an Independent, but she has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans.” It continued that her “party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents.”

Sinema said she left partly because of a disconnect between what Americans need and what political parties prioritize. Arizonans, she said, “make our own decisions, using our own judgment and lived experiences to form our beliefs. We don’t line up to do what we’re told, automatically subscribe to whatever positions the national political parties dictate.”

Sinema officially leaving the Democratic Party seems a formality to those who have watched her closely since she was first elected to the Senate in 2018. Some of her stands on policy issues have provoked the ire of Democratic party hardliners. 

In January, the Arizona Democratic Party voted to censure Sinema for refusing to support Democratic efforts to reform the filibuster to pass a voting rights bill central to the party’s platform. While the reprimand was mostly symbolic it did signal a growing divide between Sinema and left-wing ideological leaders and donors.

The differences appear to emanate from a difference in priorities rather than support for or against proposed policy changes. For example, Arizona Democratic Party chair Raquel Terán said the censure was necessary as “a result of her failure to do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our democracy.” While Sinema told The Associated Press that she supported the voting rights legislation, she said she did not agree that abolishing the filibuster to get it passed was the right thing to do. 

“When one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards extremes,” Sinema said on the Senate floor.

The upper chamber in Congress is likely to keep the legislative filibuster because of Sinema’s and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s continued insistence on protecting minority opinion in the Senate. Without their votes, the Democrat majority falls short of the support needed to dismantle the longstanding parliamentary rule.

What does Sinema’s independence mean for 2024?

Sinema wouldn’t say whether she is running for reelection to the Senate in 2024 during her interview with Politico. However, she did quiet rumors that her announcement was in some way positioning her for a bid for the White House. 

“I am not running for president,” she said.

Sinema said reelection to the Senate is not top of her mind at this point. “I keep my eye focused on what I’m doing right now. And registering as an independent is what I believe is right for my state. It’s right for me. I think it’s right for the country,” she said.

She continued, adding that “politics and elections will come later.” However, she is almost certainly aware of how her announcement introduces a measure of unpredictability in a potential three-way Senate race in 2024.

For the past two years there have been whispers that a candidate from the progressive left-wing of the Democratic Party might attempt to challenge Sinema in a primary.

Many have pointed to Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., as a potential challenger. He has been especially critical of Sinema’s refusal to adhere to the prevailing orthodox positions of the progressive policy agenda. 

Friday, Gallego slammed Sinema for “abandoning” the Democratic Party.

“Last month, the voters of Arizona made their voices heard loud and clear — they want leaders who put the people of Arizona first,” Gallego said in a statement. “We need Senators who put Arizonans ahead of big drug companies and Wall Street bankers.” 

Gallego has met with some of Sinema’s top donors about the possibility of a 2024 bid, according to media reports. These meetings allegedly happened months ago when she stood in the way of getting rid of the filibuster.

With Sinema bowing out of the party, there is little that stands in the way of Gallego from winning the Democratic nomination if he decides to run.

His statement Friday included what can only be reasonably characterized as the opening salvo for his campaign. “Whether in the Marine Corps or in Congress, I have never backed down from fighting for Arizonans. And at a time when our nation needs leadership most, Arizona deserves a voice that won’t back down in the face of struggle,” he said, adding, “Unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”

Sinema’s 2018 campaign was the first time a Democrat won a Senate seat in Arizona in over three decades. Since then Arizona has retained the battleground state label, with a habit of deciding elections by tight margins. 

Could her potential 2024 campaign become the first time the Grand Canyon State elects an independent? 

The math proves it will be difficult.

Republicans and independents both outnumber Democrats in registered voters in the state. NBC News’ exit polls from the last three elections in Arizona show that Democratic candidates have prevailed in general election races by joining forces with independents.

But if Sinema runs as an independent and Democrats support their own nominee, the alliance may break down giving Republicans a chance to win.

Will others declare independence and follow Sinema?

Although the senior senator from Arizona is stepping away from the Democratic Party, she isn’t directly encouraging anyone else to leave their respective parties. But she said she hopes others will join her in fostering “an environment where people feel comfortable and confident saying and doing what they believe.”

Sinema told the media she enjoys working relationships with a number of legislators from both sides of the partisan divide. Many have noted that her bipartisan behavior is not just accomplished through talk or action, but also through advocacy.

In September, she gave a speech in Kentucky about the importance of bipartisanship at the invitation of Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell. And she told news outlets that she recently reached out to Republican Sen.-elect Katie Britt from Alabama to explore ways to work together.

Another way Sinema’s announcement could impact national politics is to encourage more action by independent minded senators in both parties, including Utah’s Republican Sen. Mitt Romney.

In a tweet Friday, Romney called Sinema a “force in the Senate” and said the “country is better for it.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat posited that a formal independent third party appears implausible, but “an alliance of ‘maverick’ Senators who can plausibly win three-ways elections” would start with Sinema.

If a formal third party is out of reach, Sinema’s success could encourage a loosely affiliated band of centralist senators to continue speaking out for their constituents rather than “bending to party pressure,” as she stated in her op-ed.

“If anyone previously supported me because they believed contrary to my promise, that I would be a blindly loyal vote for a partisan agenda,” Sinema concluded, “then there are sure to be others vying for your support.” 

“I offer Arizonans something different,” she said.