WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has broken with her party on more votes than nearly every other U.S. senator so far this year.
The Arizona freshman Democrat, who won a historic election last fall in part by appealing to centrist and Republican voters, has maintained her independent streak since assuming her Senate seat in January.
She’s voted against Democrats 27.5% of the time so far this Congress, according to a ProPublica database. That puts her at No. 2 on the list of senators who break with their party most frequently, behind Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Many of Sinema’s defections have been votes to confirm President Trump’s nominees to the executive branch and to federal courts, votes that have pleased some of her centrist backers while outraging some of her progressive constituents.
“It does not surprise me; it delights me as a constituent and someone who knows her,” said Stan Barnes, an Arizona Republican political strategist. “I believe she will be rewarded for these types of votes someday.”
Two of her votes that garnered national media attention were her support for two Trump cabinet officials, Attorney General William Barr and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Both officials have come under fire from the left — Barr most notably for his defense of Trump in light of the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and Bernhardt for his policies to boost domestic energy production.
“As Arizona’s senior Senator, Kyrsten will evaluate every presidential nominee based on whether he or she is professionally qualified, believes in the mission of his or her agency, and can be trusted to faithfully execute and uphold the law as it exists,” a Sinema spokeswoman told the Arizona Mirror this week.
Beyond those high-profile picks, Sinema has also helped confirm several other lower-level executive branch officials and judicial nominees.
This month, she joined Republicans to confirm Richard Hertling as a Judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims for a 15-year term. Hertling has come under fire from progressive groups for refusing to say that the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling — which struck down state laws establishing segregation in public schools — was correctly decided.
Hertling told the Senate Judiciary in written comments, “Brown is a seminal case and a crucial moment in U.S. constitutional history. I would have no difficulty applying it to any case before me in which the decision was applicable. I believe, however, that it would be inappropriate for me, as a judicial nominee, to express a view as to whether Brown or any decision of the Supreme Court was correctly decided.”
Kristine Lucius, executive vice president for policy and government affairs at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called it a “moral floor” to say that Brown was correctly decided. “Senators should be clear on this standard and oppose the confirmation of nominees like Hertling,” she said in a statement.
Sinema also voted this month to back Susan Combs, Trump’s nominee for the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. The Texas rancher and former state comptroller was vehemently opposed by environmentalists. During her time as a Texas official, she referred to new endangered species listings as “incoming Scud missiles,” the Washington Post reported.
As she continues to buck her party in Washington, Sinema is facing friendly fire back home from Arizona progressives.
“We like Kyrsten. We just want her to vote like a Democrat,” said Dan O’Neal, Arizona State Coordinator for Progressive Democrats of America. “It’s a pretty simple request.”
Arizona progressives are prodding her in person, too. During Sinema’s speech last month at an Arizona Democratic Party dinner, members of the progressive group held up signs saying, “Vote like a Democrat.”
O’Neal noted that he considers Sinema an old friend. “It’s all in the family,” he said of the criticism.
But other political observers say Sinema’s centrist leanings are what helped her win a Senate seat in a state that hadn’t sent a Democrat to the chamber since Dennis DeConcini retired in 1995. Trump won the state by 4 points in the 2016 presidential election, and Arizona hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton clinched the state’s electoral votes in 1996.
Sinema is “measurably centrist” in the “mold of Dennis DeConcini,” Barnes said. “She did not run as a Democrat and she’s also not performing as a traditional national Democrat.”
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Sinema’s voting record reflects “pretty usual behavior,” given her position representing a Republican-leaning swing state.
He noted that she similarly voted strategically, sometimes breaking with her party, when she represented Arizona in the U.S. House. In the 115th Congress, in 2017 and 2018, Sinema was ranked as the second-most conservative Democrat in the House, according to an analysis by the website GovTrack.us.
“It’ll be interesting to see over the years — if she breaks with her party on big legislation — if she will attract a primary challenger in 2024,” Kondik said.
In contrast to Sinema, Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally has been among the senators most loyal to their party so far this Congress. She has split with Republicans on just 3.7% of the Senate votes this year, according to ProPublica. In the U.S. House from 2017 to 2018, McSally broke with Republicans on 7.2% of the votes.
Last month, she voted against Republicans (and Democrats) by rejecting a bipartisan disaster aid compromise after partisan sparring over border funding delayed the bill. McSally argued that the final product should have included $4.5 billion in funding for humanitarian aid and security at the U.S.-Mexico border.
McSally notably opposed Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on Mexican exports unless the country took steps to block undocumented immigrants from entering the United States. “While I support the President’s intention of stopping unchecked illegal immigration, I do not support these types of tariffs, which will harm our economy and be passed onto Arizona small businesses and families,” she said.
Her Senate record is in line with who she is, Barnes said of McSally. She is a workhorse and a “center-right elected official,” he added.