Why Sinema left the Democratic Party

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) had plenty of reason 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 — wasn’t a shock either, Democratic sources said Friday.

After all, she had overtaken her Democrats several times in the past two years.

“I’m not surprised, and I think that would probably be the same response from anyone who really knows Senema,” said John LaBombard, a former senior adviser to Sinema. “I think it’s a really good move for her in terms of her ability to keep working on these big bipartisan deals.”

Sinema often grabbed the spotlight after Democrats captured 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 gun violence legislation that gave Biden some of his biggest legislative victories.

She told CNN in an interview that removing herself from the “partisan structure” was “true to who I am and how I operate” and would “provide a place of belonging for many people across [her] state and country, who are also tired of partisanship.”

LaBombard, who now serves as a senior vice president at Rokk Solutions, a bipartisan public affairs firm, said the change in party affiliation reflects how Sinema has served in the Senate over the past two years as a key dealmaker.

He said it could “reset” expectations of how she will vote, which could ease some of the tensions that built between Sinema and Democrats as she broke with them on tax policy and reforming Senate rules.

“There’s a part of this that I think could really serve as a useful reset of expectations in the Democratic Party and Congress as a whole, and a good reminder that diversity of thought and opinion is okay,” he said. “Both parties for long-term success should really think hard about the kind of expectations they place on their more independent-minded members.”

“This could be a release valve for pressure,” he added.

Sinema does not plan to caucus with either party in the Senate, but Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (DN.Y.) announced Friday that he will let her keep her committee duties.

“She asked me to keep her committee duties and I agreed. Kyrsten is independent; she always has been,” he said in a statement.

The practical effect will be that not much will change for Sinema in her daily life in the Senate.

She almost never attended Senate Democratic caucus meetings, even before she announced she would run as an independent. And she will still work with “gangs” outside the committee structure

Senate Democrats say they will still have a one-man majority on the committees in 2023 and 2024, meaning they can issue subpoenas and push bills and other matters out of committee without Republican votes.

The White House issued a statement Friday, praising Sinema as “a key partner in some of the historic legislation that President Biden has championed over the past 20 months” and vowing “we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her.”

The biggest practical consequence 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 doesn’t have to defend her opposition to key elements of Biden’s tax agenda or her opposition to changing the Senate’s filibuster rule to allow voting rights legislation to bypass GOP opposition.

“She didn’t want to debate partisan purism,” said Stacy Pearson, an Arizona-based Democratic strategist.

Sinema has not discussed her plans for 2024, and party strategists disagree on how much tougher her path to re-election would be as an independent.

Pearson said Sinema’s announcement wasn’t much of a surprise given how rocky her relationship had become with the state Democratic Party, which criticized the senator after she refused to change the Senate’s filibuster rule in January.

“I am not surprised that she has formalized her separation from the Democratic Party, which has already censured her and continues to criticize her for the deals she makes in the interests of the state,” Pearson said.

Arizona Democratic Party Chairwoman Raquel Terán issued a scathing response to Sinema’s announcement, declaring that the senator had “fallen dramatically short” as a leader.

“Sen. Sinema may now be registered as an independent, but she has shown that she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans. Sen. 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 over what it characterized as “her failure to do all that is required to ensure the health of our democracy.”

Sinema made it clear in her Arizona Republic op-ed that she was tired of receiving that kind of criticism for working across the aisle and trying to preserve the Senate’s tradition of bipartisanship.

“Pressures in both parties are pulling leaders to the fringes, allowing the loudest, most extreme voices to determine their respective parties’ priorities and expecting the rest of us to fall in line,” she wrote. “As for the fringes, neither party has shown much tolerance for diversity of thought.”

Former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who worked as a bipartisan dealmaker in the Senate during President Obama’s first two years in office in 2009 and 2010, said an official’s relationship with the state party is a key factor in determining national party loyalty.

“It’s like going home and having your family dog ​​bite you,” he said. “I’ve never come across that.”

Nelson said that sometimes “someone from the really, really far left” would run a TV ad against him, but the polls always showed him with “overwhelming support” from Nebraska Democrats.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior Obama adviser, speculated Friday that Sinema didn’t think she could win a primary, and by registering as an independent, it could put pressure on Democrats to support her out of fear that Sinema and a Democrat splitting the vote would give the seat to the Republicans.

“The Sinema thing is very simple. Her calculation is that 1) she can’t win a primary; 2) If she runs as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, another Democrat can’t run because they would split the vote and give the seat to the Republicans,” he tweeted.

But other Democratic strategists predict that Arizona Democrats will certainly field a candidate against Sinema in 2024 if she chooses to run for re-election, predicting that the primary for the nomination could be crowded.

Rep. Considered a likely Senate candidate in the next election cycle, Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) wasted no time taking a shot at 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 race, noting that independents 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 nominee could be battered heading into the general election.

“Democrats in Arizona make up only 30 percent of the electorate. That’s the smallest block behind 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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