In January, after the Arizona Democratic Party censured Krysten Sinema for opposing changes in the filibuster rule, I wrote that I was generally opposed to purity tests but that the move made sense in that particular instance despite carrying the “potential for her to simply switch parties and throw power in the Senate to the Republicans and Mitch McConnell.” The idea being that it sent a shot across the bow of any Democratic senator who might oppose filibuster reform in the future. Obviously, I didn’t assess the risk that she’d flip to the Republicans as high, but I didn’t directly assess the possibility that she might simply switch to an independent, as she has now done.
I did, however, write this:
Setting aside the possibility that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is one of the rare politicians who takes contrary positions purely out of principle, it seems clear that she’s modeling herself as a maverick in the same vein as former Arizona senator John McCain. That’s her brand– or theory for how she’ll get reelected, and it might not be delusional if she can somehow survive a primary from her left and get to a general election.
In that sense, she probably welcomes the decision by the Arizona Democratic Party to censure her for opposing changes in the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule. It inoculates her thoroughly against any future charge that she’s too tied to the national party and gives her a wide berth to run in the middle. Whether our hyper partisan age has an appetite for candidates with crossover appeal is debatable, but Sinema will be a test case.
Those two paragraphs were pregnant with the logic of party independence. It was clear already that she would face a strong primary challenge and that she’d have a very uphill climb in surviving it. Her strength was as a maverick with crossover appeal but if she couldn’t get to the general election, it was a death sentence. Switching to the Republican side was one strategy, but the Arizona GOP (as just demonstrated by their slate of midterm candidates) is no more interested in middle-of-the-road standard bearers than the Arizona Democrats. It looked like Sinema had no future in either party, yet she still had a more natural home on the left than the contemporary right.
I see on social media that some Arizona organizers are suffering very hurt feelings about Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party, but she didn’t have another move. From her perspective, this was necessary, and remember that the state party essentially disowned her, so this shouldn’t be treated as a new betrayal. Her betrayal was in how she acted after she was elected and that, and the ensuing reaction, has already played out.
All indications are that she’ll continue to caucus with the Democrats, which makes sense because it allows her to operate in the majority.
If so, she’ll be the third independent member of the Senate Democratic caucus, joining Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the left and Senator Angus King of Maine in the center. Her situation will also somewhat resemble that of Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who won a write-in candidacy in 2010 after losing in the primary, won the Republican primary and reelection in 2016, and then prevailed in a ranked choice runoff this November.
Of the three, her situation most nearly resembles Senator King, in that she’s hoping to win in a center-left lane. But King was a two-term independent governor of Maine prior to becoming a candidate for Senate, and he (along with Sanders) has been successful in preventing the Democrats from running serious candidates against him in general elections. Sinema will have a tougher road when she defends her seat in 2024, and she could become a spoiler who doesn’t win but splits the left and hands her seat to the Republicans. Conversely, she could conceivably attract more support from the center-right and help a Democrat prevail in a three-way race.
Either way, it makes sense for her to start building her brand as an independent now when it doesn’t appear to be so obviously a desperate move made under duress. It also sends a shot across the bow of her left-leaning critics and Senate colleagues, because she could always make life more difficult for them by caucusing with the Republicans.
The Democrats have a bit of a dilemma, in that it’s in their interest to poison her brand so that virtually no Arizona Democrats will support her independent candidacy in two years, but they’d also like her to remain in the caucus and provide key votes. That’s an easy task to screw up, either way.
In any case, she’s made her bed and now she’s crawled in it. If she wins another term, it will be a remarkable accomplishment, and quite surprising.