Kyrsten Sinema has left the Democratic Party, registered as an independent

By: , and - December 9, 2022 7:10 am
Kyrsten Sinema

U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee confirmation hearing on Feb. 1, 2022. Photo by Al Drago | Pool/Getty Images

Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona’s senior U.S. senator, has left the Democratic Party and re-registered as an independent.

“Nothing will change about my values or my behavior,” she told Politico, which broke the news Friday morning.

The first-term senator wrote in an opinion piece for the Arizona Republic that she does not intend to change the way she legislates or casts votes, but plans to be “an independent voice for Arizona.”

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“​​When politicians are more focused on denying the opposition party a victory than they are on improving Americans’ lives, the people who lose are everyday Americans,” she wrote in the op-ed. “That’s why I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”

Democrats this week had celebrated their growth to a 51-seat majority in the next Congress, a number that already included independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who normally vote with Democrats. The 51st seat was gained in a Senate runoff election in Georgia when Democrats kept U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s tightly contested seat.

The move has immediate political implications for Democrats, who this week won a 51-seat majority in the Senate after Raphael Warnock won a run-off on Tuesday and was elected to a full term. Sinema’s departure from the Democratic conference makes Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative West Virginia Democrat, the pivotal swing vote in the caucus.

In an interview with CNN, Sinema said the new party affiliation will not affect her work, and she plans to keep her committee seats. In an interview with Politico, she said she does not plan to caucus with Republicans.

“I’ve never fit neatly into any party box. I don’t want to,” she said on CNN. “Removing myself from the partisan structure — not only is it true to who I am and how I operate, I also think it’ll provide a place of belonging for many folks across the state and the country, who also are tired of the partisanship.”

A Senate Democratic aide said Friday morning that Sinema is expected to maintain her committee assignments through Democrats and that she notified Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday of her plans.

Sinema’s spokesperson pointed out Friday morning that during Sinema’s interviews with news organizations, “she made clear she intends to maintain her committee assignments from the Democratic majority.”

The aide also noted that Sinema “has never attended caucus meetings and will not moving forward.”

Sinema currently sits on the ​Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, where she is chair of the Subcommittee on Government Operations and Border Management; Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs; Commerce, Science, & Transportation, where she is chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Safety, Operations, and Innovation; and Veterans’ Affairs.

It’s unclear whether Sinema will run for re-election in 2024, but her status as an independent could throw such a contest into chaos. For starters, it would allow her to avoid a primary election in which she was all but certain to be challenged from the left. The most likely contender to take her on was U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who had for months positioned himself as a challenger.

But beyond the 2024 primary, an independent campaign could mean three candidates on the November ballot if both parties field candidates. Arizona law allows independent candidates to advance directly to the general election, though they must file substantially more nominating petition signatures than candidates running as a member of a recognized political party. While meeting the higher threshold is daunting for most independent candidates, Sinema is a prodigious fundraiser and would likely easily clear the petition signature hurdle.

Sinema told Politico that her change will fully separate her from a political party she she never really fit in, despite her long political career as a Democrat. A former Green Party member who became an independent in the early 2000s before joining the Democratic Party, Sinema won election the the state legislature as a progressive Democrat in 2004 and served in the state House of Representatives and the state Senate until 2012, when she was first elected to Congress.

For the first half of her legislative tenure, she was regarded as a a left-wing bomb-thrower. But several years into her legislative career, she began to remake herself into a consensus builder, and scratched out a reputation as a Democrat who could work with Republicans. During a crowded Democratic congressional primary for a Phoenix-based swing district in 2012, Sinema played up her liberal bona fides and fended off attacks from fellow Democrats that she was too chummy with Republicans and had abandoned her progressive roots.

Once in Congress, Sinema positioned herself as a centrist deal-maker who could work with both Republicans and Democrats. She parlayed that into a Senate run in 2018, where she campaigned as an independent voice for Arizona voters. That year, she defeated Republican Martha McSally — a moderate Republican who campaigned by aligning herself with then-President Donald Trump — to become the first Democrat to represent Arizona in the U.S. Senate in three decades.

Although state and national Democrats went all-out to support Sinema in that race, she never embraced her party. In the weeks before the election, she distanced herself from the party, saying she was not proud of the Democrats.

Sinema became a central negotiator during the 117th Congress on several significant bills, including Democrats’ climate change, health care and tax package they passed without Republican support this summer.

She was also part of the small group of senators who worked on the bipartisan infrastructure law Congress passed last year and worked with a handful of colleagues to draft the religious liberty language that was added to the marriage equality bill before it passed the Senate last month.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a written statement that Sinema “has been a key partner on some of the historic legislation” that President Joe Biden and Democrats have enacted during this Congress.

“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.

Back home in Arizona, Sinema’s party change was greeted with derision on the left and praise from business allies and others on the right.

The Arizona Democratic Party thanked Sinema for backing “several pieces of historic legislation” during the Biden presidency, but ultimately washed its hands of the senator. Sinema, party chairwoman Raquel Terán said in a written statement, has “fallen dramatically short” in protecting voting rights and tax policy.

“Senator Sinema may now be registered as an Independent, but she has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans,” Terán said. “Senator Sinema’s party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents.”

In January, the Arizona Democratic Party formally censured Sinema for refusing to change Senate rules to end the filibuster. The move effectively killed sweeping voting rights bills. Sinema said she opposed changing the filibuster rules because she felt it would only add to political polarization and that the Senate needed to work to pass any legislation on a bipartisan level.

Other Democrats said Sinema’s party switch won’t boost her chances at re-election.

“Democrats will vote for a good Democrat, not someone who used us then discarded us,” Robbie Sherwood, the spokesman for the Arizona House of Representatives Democrats, wrote on Twitter. “If Republicans nominate another MAGA weirdo — count on it — then moderates will flee for another option as they did in 2020-22. Even if some go to Sinema, she has no base. Maybe not so brilliant.”

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry lauded Sinema as “one of the most effective members of the US Senate” who had brokered deals on semiconductor manufacturing, economic competitiveness and immigration, and predicted she will continue to be so.

“She’s set partisan labels aside throughout her tenure to focus on what’s best for our state. That commitment to doing what’s best for Arizona won’t change, and we’re excited as ever to work with @SenatorSinema to advance good policies for Arizona job creators,” the business advocacy organization wrote on Twitter.

Sinema’s move even drew praise from Cathi Herrod, the leader of the Center for Arizona Policy, the state’s most prominent anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ advocacy group. Center for Arizona Policy was a driving force behind banning gay marriage in the Arizona Constitution in 2006, and Sinema was among the leaders of the successful campaign against the ballot measure.

“I’ve long disagreed with @SenatorSinema on issues. But she’s a brilliant, shrewd politician. Now she’s the leader of independent voters in AZ and nationally. Take note America,” Herrod wrote.

***UPDATE: This story has been updated to include additional reaction and context.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. News organizations and journalists under his leadership have won numerous state, regional and national awards for accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.

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