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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has left Democratic Party, registers as an independent

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has left Democratic Party, registers as an independent

  • 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.
    NASA HQ/Flickr 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.

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.”

“​​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.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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