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What Sinema’s party switch means for the next Congress and 2024

Her next campaign, if she runs, was always going to be competitive

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is leaving the Democratic Party but will not caucus with Republicans so her decision will not change the balance of power in the next Congress.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is leaving the Democratic Party but will not caucus with Republicans so her decision will not change the balance of power in the next Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party and register as an independent in Arizona is unlikely to upend the political equilibrium in the Senate. But her announcement could add new complications to the 2024 race in her increasingly purple home state.

Americans are more united than the national parties would have us believe,” Sinema wrote in an op-ed published Friday in the Arizona Republic. “Arizonans — including many registered as Democrats or Republicans — are eager for leaders who focus on common-sense solutions rather than party doctrine.”

Her announcement comes three days after Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia won a runoff election that gave Democrats a 51-seat majority — including independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine — in the 118th Congress, which starts on Jan. 3. 

Sinema’s move to the independent column will likely have little practical impact on the Senate itself. The senator said she intends to continue with committee assignments through the Democratic caucus even though she won’t join the party for its weekly lunch, where policy and strategy are often discussed.

“She asked me to keep her committee assignments and I agreed,” Senate Majority leader Charles E. Schumer said in a late morning statement. “Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been. I believe she’s a good and effective Senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate.”

Schumer said that Sinema’s action will not lead to a continuation of the restrictions of a 50-50 Senate. 

“We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes,” Schumer said.

Since the Senate is a continuing body, returning senators actually maintain their previous committee assignments and responsibilities after the new Congress convenes until organizing and committee assignment resolutions are adopted. At the start of the current Congress, that process took weeks, and so Republicans like James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma at the Armed Services Committee technically remained chairmen as business got underway.

It wasn’t immediately clear, however, where Sinema would sit in the chamber. Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon, who left the Republican Party and became an independent, spent one day sitting in the center aisle of the chamber, but that was a symbolic gesture.

On policy matters, Sinema’s party change also will likely have a muted impact. Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, noted that Sinema and her political compatriot, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, have a long history of bucking Democratic Party leaders.

“There have been a lot of compromises that this White House and the Democratic caucus have made because of her and Manchin,” Tobias said.

But Sinema has generally backed President Joe Biden’s judicial and executive picks, and Tobias said he expects that support to continue. “She’s been very loyal to the Democrats,” he said. “She’s voted for every Biden nominee.”

The White House released a statement Friday calling Sinema a “key partner” on legislation ranging from the American Rescue Plan to gun control and same-sex marriage. 

“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,’’ White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Sinema’s relationship with the Democrats has been rocky. In January, she drew a rebuke from the Arizona Democratic Party for opposing changes to the filibuster

In her op-ed, Sinema said she did not plan to change the way she approached Senate work, and said she remained committed to abortion and LGBTQ rights, a secure southern border with protections for “Dreamers,” and affordable health care.

In Arizona, Sinema’s departure from the Democratic Party could have a more significant effect. 

“Arizona was a battleground Senate race in 2024 and it remains a battleground race in 2024,” said CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales. “Sinema’s decision makes things more complicated.”

Sinema has not disclosed whether she intends to seek reelection. 

“She was going to have a challenging reelection before she made this decision,” Gonzales said. “There was going to be a primary and a likely competitive general election. Now, her reelection path is different but still difficult. She will avoid a primary but will likely face a competitive three-way race.”

Arizona is a politically purple state with a strong independent streak. Last month, Democrats scored two major victories: Democratic gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs narrowly defeated Republican Kari Lake and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly beat Republican Blake Masters by almost 5 percentage points.

But despite the state’s emerging status as a swing state, Republicans still hold a registration edge. 

One potential Democratic Senate candidate, Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, said in a statement that Sinema “is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans” but did not explicitly say what his next move would be.

Rep. Greg Stanton, another potential candidate for the seat, posted a tweet with what he said were the results of a hypothetical 2024 primary that showed him with 52 percent and Sinema with 14 percent, with the caption saying her decision wasn’t “a post-partisan epiphany, it’s about political preservation.”

Sinema has long been politically mercurial. A liberal on social issues such as gay marriage and on environmental issues, she parted with Democrats on fiscal matters. 

On Friday, some progressive Democrats ripped into her on social media. “This isn’t about the party, this is about your pharma donors! Stop lying!” Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York tweeted.

Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Sinema was leaving the Democratic Party to “spend more time with her Wall Street family.”

Sinema, Gonzales said, was in a “precarious political position because of her relationship with Democratic Party.  Progressive groups wanted a more pure alternative.”

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