Why Sinema left the Democratic Party
Sen. Kirsten Sinema (R-Ariz.) had many reasons to leave the Democratic Party and become an independent, Senate Democratic aides and strategists say.
Her relationship with Democrats in her home state had deteriorated so badly that she might not survive a primary challenge in 2024.
And the timing — while her Senate colleagues were still celebrating their victory in the Georgia runoff and the prospect of controlling 51 Senate seats — also came as no shock, Democratic sources said Friday.
After all, she has outspent her fellow Democrats several times over the past two years.
“I’m not surprised, and I think that would probably be the same response from anyone who really knows Senator Sinema,” said John Labombard, Sinema’s former senior adviser. “I think it’s a really good move for her in terms of her ability to continue to work on these big bipartisan deals.”
Sinema has often grabbed the spotlight since Democrats took over the Senate in 2021, sometimes by blocking key elements of President Biden’s agenda, such as his plan to raise the corporate tax rate, and other times by taking leading roles in negotiations on infrastructure and anti-gun violence legislation that gave Biden some of his biggest legislative victories.
She told CNN in an interview that her removal from the “partisan structure” was “true to who I am and how I operate” and would “provide a place of belonging for many people everywhere [her] the state and the country, who are also tired of partisanship.”
Labombar, who now serves as a senior vice president at Rokk Solutions, a bipartisan public relations firm, said the change in party affiliation reflects how Sinema has worked in the Senate for the past two years as a centrist broker.
He said that could “reset” expectations about how she would vote, which could ease some of the tension that built up between Sinema and Democrats when she broke with them on tax policy and Senate rule reform.
“There’s some of that that I think can really serve as a helpful realignment of expectations in the Democratic Party and Congress in general and a good reminder that diversity of thought and opinion is good,” he said. “Both parties for long-term success need to really think hard about what expectations they place on their more independent-minded members.”
“It could be a pressure relief valve,” he added.
Sinema does not plan to hold meetings with either party in the Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (DN.Y.) announced Friday that he would allow her to keep her committee assignments.
“She asked me to keep her tasks on the committee and I agreed. Kirsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been,” he said in a statement.
The practical effect will be that not much will change for Sinema in her day-to-day life in the Senate.
She hardly ever attended meetings of the Senate Democratic Caucus even before she announced she would become an independent. And she will still work with bipartisan “gangs” outside the committee structure
Senate Democrats say they will still have a one-seat majority on committees in 2023 and 2024, meaning they can issue subpoenas and impeachment bills and other issues out of committee without Republican votes.
The White House released a statement on Friday that touted Sinema as a “key partner on some of the historic legislation that President Biden has championed for the past 20 months” and promised that “we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her “.
The biggest practical implication of going independent is that Sinema won’t have to face a Democratic primary challenger in 2024 if she runs again.
As a result, she won’t have to defend her opposition to key elements of Biden’s tax plan or her opposition to changing the Senate’s filibuster rule to allow voting rights legislation to bypass GOP opposition.
“She wouldn’t discuss partisan purism,” said Stacey Pearson, an Arizona-based Democratic strategist.
Sinema has not discussed her plans for 2024, and party strategists are divided on how much more difficult her path to re-election as an independent would be.
Pearson said Sinema’s statement didn’t come as much of a surprise given how rocky her relationship has become with the state Democratic Party, which rebuked the senator after she refused to change the Senate’s filibuster rule in January.
“I’m not surprised that she’s formalizing her break with the Democratic Party, which has already condemned her and continues to criticize her for the negotiations she’s led in the interest of the state,” Pearson said.
Arizona Democratic Party Chairwoman Raquel Teran issued a furious response to Sinema’s announcement, saying the senator has “failed dramatically” as a leader.
“Sen. Sinema may already be registered as an independent, but it has shown that it caters to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans. Senator Sinema’s party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents,” she said.
The state party’s executive board announced in January that it had decided to formally censure the senator for what it described as “her failure to do what is necessary to ensure the health of our democracy.”
Sinema made it clear in her op-ed for The Arizona Republic that she is tired of receiving this kind of criticism for working across the aisle and trying to preserve the Senate’s tradition of bipartisanship.
“The pressure in both parties is pulling leaders to the edges, allowing the loudest, most extreme voices to set the priorities of their respective parties and expecting the rest of us to join in,” she wrote. “In serving the fringes, neither side has demonstrated much tolerance for diversity of thought.”
Former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who served as a bipartisan Senate broker during President Obama’s first two years in office in 2009 and 2010, said the official’s connection to the state is a key factor in determining national party allegiance.
“It’s like coming home and being bitten by the family dog,” he said. “I’ve never come across that.”
Nelson said that sometimes “someone on the really, really extreme left” will run a TV ad against him, but polls always show him with “tremendous support” from Democrats in Nebraska.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to Obama, speculated on Friday that Sinema did not think she could win the primary and, by registering as an independent, could pressure Democrats to support her out of fear that Sinema and a Democrat who split votes, will give way to the Republicans.
“The thing with Sinema is very simple. Her calculation is that 1) She can’t win the primary; 2) If she runs as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, another Democrat cannot run as they will split the vote and give the seat to the Republicans,” he tweeted.
But other Democratic strategists predict that Arizona Democrats are certain to field a candidate against Sinema in 2024 if she decides to run for re-election, and predict that the primary for the nomination could be crowded.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) is seen as a likely candidate for the Senate in the next election cycle, and he wasted no time trying in Sinema on Friday.
“We need senators who will put Arizonans ahead of big pharma and Wall Street bankers,” he said in a statement.
Pearson, the Arizona-based political strategist, said Sinema would still have a good chance of winning re-election in a three-way general election race, noting that independent voters make up about a third of registered voters in the state.
She said the Democratic primary could be very crowded and very competitive, meaning whoever emerges with the nomination could be defeated heading into the general election.
“Democrats in Arizona make up only 30 percent of the electorate. It is the smallest bloc after Republicans at the top and independents in second place. So when she talks about representing Arizona, she’s not lying. This is not hyperbole,” she said.
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