Kyrsten Sinema leaves Democratic Party, registers as independent

PHOENIX – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said Friday she is leaving the Democratic Party and will formally become an independent in a move that more fully places her at the center of a narrowly divided chamber.

She announced her decision in an opinion piece published Friday in The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network.

"I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington," she wrote.

Sinema maintained she doesn’t plan to change her voting habits: often aligning with Democrats but backing Republicans on certain issues. And she won’t dispense with the legislative filibuster that has led many Democrats to call for her to face a primary challenge in 2024.

Sinema’s move will jar Democrats who had hoped Sen. Raphael Warnock’s runoff victory in Georgia on Tuesday would provide the party a measure of breathing room on difficult votes that often hinged on Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“We’ve seen in recent years that the parties have pulled folks to the political edges,” Sinema said during a 45-minute interview with The Republic. “There’s an increasing demand that you kind of fit in with one political orthodoxy or the other. … I’ve never fit that.”

She plans to caucus with Democrats, giving the party an edge on committee seats, something that could prove especially important to moving quickly on judicial nominations. But Sinema will remain uninvolved in party leadership votes and advancing the party’s broader efforts.

Sinema on registering as an independent: 'I promised Arizonans something different'

She envisions a more detached role for herself than the Senate’s two other independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, both of whom are usually in sync with Democrats.

Her move underscores the fragile advantage Democrats will have in the Senate entering the next two-year cycle.

Sinema’s defection also creates the intriguing possibility of a three-way race in 2024 for Arizona’s U.S. Senate contest, which already figured to be among the nation’s most closely watched. Though she had steep disapproval ratings among Democrats in limited polling, Sinema said her prospects in a 2024 primary race had no bearing on her decision and would not even say she plans to run for a second term.

Her submission to The Republic, however, notes that “there are sure to be others vying for your support. I offer Arizonans something different.”

Sinema’s switch comes after months of deliberation and reflects her view that the two-party dynamic in Washington is an obstacle to policy progress, especially in a state with a vast swath of independent voters. The political loyalties of that bloc could face an unprecedented test in 2024.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., at a meeting of the Senate Homeland Security Committee at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 3, 2022.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., at a meeting of the Senate Homeland Security Committee at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 3, 2022.

“I don’t anticipate that this changes anything for me in terms of the way that I work,” she said. “But I will be happy going to work each day as an independent representing Arizona values, and I think Arizonans will be happy about it, too.”

Her latest decision is the next step in the political career of someone who has evolved from an anti-war, liberal activist before joining the Arizona Legislature nearly 20 years ago to a deal-making pragmatist who helped shape some of the most-consequential legislation in the current Congress.

Her political style has defied easy labels, and, dating to her 2018 Senate run, Sinema has cast herself in purple and described herself as an independent in an environment unaccustomed to anything but Democrats and Republicans.

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Sinema said she never considered becoming a Republican.

She has told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Sinema declined to discuss whether she had informed the White House or her seatmate, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. She noted that she kept such conversations private.

A growing gap with Democrats

Her move comes years after Arizona’s Democratic base had grown disillusioned with her and openly called for her to face a primary challenge during the 2024 election cycle, perhaps from Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.

On Thursday, after Warnock’s victory, an anti-Sinema group characteristically posted on Twitter: “And now we focus on primarying (Sinema) in 2024.”

Many grassroots activists have lamented that even before the pandemic, Sinema didn’t hold town halls. She has generally limited her public availability to small groups or private functions.

Sinema’s historic 2018 win represented a breakthrough for Democrats in Arizona, but the party’s continued success in high-profile races since then has only deepened the calls for greater loyalty from someone indifferent to party priorities.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., (center) joined from left by, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., speaks to reporters just after a vote to start work on a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, at the Capitol in Washington on July 28, 2021.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., (center) joined from left by, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., speaks to reporters just after a vote to start work on a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, at the Capitol in Washington on July 28, 2021.

“Political pressure doesn’t work on me; never has, never will,” Sinema said. “I am slow to come to decisions. I try to be very careful about decisions, do a lot of research … then I make a decision, and I’m comfortable with it.

“It doesn’t matter to me if there are some who agree or some who don’t agree once I feel confident I’m making a decision that is right for my state and country.”

Her centrist style, which often antagonizes Democrats and leaves Republicans wary, limited her role in last month’s midterms. She played only a behind-the-scenes role helping Kelly win a full six-year term and had no evident part in Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs’ win.

Sinema didn’t attend President Joe Biden’s visit to the site of a Phoenix semiconductor plant on Tuesday, citing the Senate’s unfinished business. That includes a potential bipartisan legislative deal she is heading to create citizenship for those brought to the U.S. as children in exchange for beefed-up border security.

If Sinema sees her partisan move as unlikely to change her, in Washington it seems certain to further scramble the legislative calculus for Democrats already bracing for the Jan. 3 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives.

A familiar scene: Sinema stands apart

Sinema’s place in Washington has seemed especially enigmatic in recent months.

In late July, Manchin and Schumer announced a surprise $700 billion deal to pass a slimmed-down version of Biden’s domestic agenda that blindsided Sinema and put her in the spotlight as the only potential impediment.

Days later, Sinema agreed to the package but ensured it didn’t include a $14 billion tax hike on very high-income taxpayers, such as hedge fund managers. She also helped add $4 billion in drought-mitigation provisions that have special relevance to Arizona.

Sinema said her colleagues had known her position on the package for more than a year: Its original price tag was too steep, and businesses needed certainty, especially in an inflationary environment. Also, the Manchin-Schumer deal “negotiated a massive climate package without a single word about drought. That was unacceptable for me.”

“Nothing that happened last summer in terms of the way I engaged in negotiations on the Inflation Reduction Act was a surprise to anyone. That’s not my style,” Sinema said. “There were some differences of opinion that we worked through. I’m proud of the end result for Arizona.”

The resulting deal sparked a firestorm of complaints from the left, with many noting that over the past year she had raised nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from private equity, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists, whose taxes she kept from rising.

In late September, Sinema raised eyebrows with a speech at the University of Louisville at an academic center named for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. In it, she defended the filibuster as a way to ensure cross-party collaboration, something she defended even before joining the Senate.

As he introduced Sinema, McConnell praised her for not yielding on the filibuster.

“It took one hell of a lot of guts for Kyrsten Sinema to stand up and say, ‘I’m not going to break the institution in order to achieve a short-term goal,’” he said.

Years of antagonism

Sinema, a prolific fundraiser, has for years directed money to Democrats across the country, including Kelly and Warnock in 2022. But her differences with Democrats left her repeatedly at odds with the party’s progressive wing.

In March 2021, she voted against raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of a COVID-19 relief bill, a position she had staked out well in advance. Sinema sought a standalone bipartisan solution that automatically adjusts the federal wage with inflation. That hasn’t happened.

Sinema voted no with a thumbs-down gesture while dipping a knee in a move that went viral.

Her critics saw indifference to America’s lowest-paid workers, or using her thumb to echo the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who memorably used the same gesture to reject a GOP bid to strike down President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Sinema’s office has said her curtsy acknowledged the Senate clerks, whom she had given cake after being required to read aloud the entire 628-page bill. She was one of eight Democrats to vote against the wage measure and likely the one most remembered for it.

A month later, she took to social media wearing a raspberry-colored newsboy hat that matched her glasses while sipping from a straw. The hand holding the straw had a ring on it with a message for those wanting a closer look: F--- off.

Sinema’s fashion tastes have often drawn scrutiny – from thigh-high boots in the Senate chamber to a lavender-colored wig during the pandemic – and her office routinely declines to explain the senator’s clothing choices, which are hers to make.

Wearing a face mask to reduce the chance of transmission of the novel coronavirus, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema arrives at the U.S. Capitol for a vote May 18, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Wearing a face mask to reduce the chance of transmission of the novel coronavirus, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema arrives at the U.S. Capitol for a vote May 18, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The ambiguity over the ring seemed to solidify the left’s view of Sinema as often aloof.

There was another flashpoint in October 2021, when a woman pursued Sinema at Arizona State University, where the senator has long doubled as an adjunct instructor. Their encounter, taped on the woman’s cellphone, showed Sinema retreat to a bathroom stall.

The woman, an activist who identified herself as an undocumented immigrant brought to the U.S. at 3, outlined a frustration on the left that has only grown in the year since.

“We knocked on doors for you to get you elected,” she told Sinema, who remained silent. “And just how we got you elected, we can get you out of office if you don’t support what you promised us.”

Three months later, Sinema again refused to do away with the filibuster as her party sought to pass sweeping voting-rights legislation out of concern that Republican-led changes in GOP-controlled states would help dismantle American democracy.

Sinema supported the goal of the bills, but Republicans killed the proposed changes using the filibuster.

Protesters gathered outside her Phoenix office and some staged a hunger strike.

Emily’s List, a political action committee that financially supports Democratic women who back abortion rights, ended its backing of Sinema, who has a clear record of supporting legalized abortion rights.

The Arizona Democratic Party formally censured Sinema over the filibuster.

“In the choice between an archaic legislative norm and protecting Arizonans’ right to vote, we choose the latter, and we always will,” Raquel Terán, chairwoman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said in a statement at the time.

“As a party, our job is to support our Democratic candidates, and we appreciate Senator Sinema’s leadership in passing the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. However, we are also here to advocate for our constituents and the ramifications of failing to pass federal legislation that protects their right to vote are too large and far-reaching.”

The party had weighed similar action against her beginning in 2019 over what some Democrats viewed as overly accommodating relations with the Trump White House.

Close ties to Republicans

It wasn’t just her votes confirming President Donald Trump’s nominees or selected legislation. Her generally warm relations with Republicans often grated Democrats.

In October 2021, just weeks after the bathroom incident, Sinema playfully appeared in social media with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, dressed as the fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso sharing “biscuits with the boss.”

In March 2022, Sinema was singled out in an insiders account of the Trump years in a book by New York Times reporters. They noted that after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Sinema maintained her longstanding friendship with Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., who was a prominent figure in the efforts to set aside the certified election results, including Arizona’s.

“I love Andy Biggs,” Sinema said at a September 2021 fundraiser with business groups, according to the book. “I know some people think he’s crazy, but that’s just because they don’t know him.”

As Arizona Democrats hurtled toward Election Day in 2022, Democratic critics noted that Sinema, the state’s top-elected Democrat, had traveled to Paris. It seems likely, however, that any public-facing role for her would have distracted from the campaigns.

A big hand on big bills

Sinema has undeniably had a major role in defining what happens in Washington.

In August 2021, she helped bring together bipartisan support for a $1.2 trillion national infrastructure bill that had broad, perennial support on Capitol Hill during the Trump era but never happened because of an impasse on funding the projects.

After the failure of another effort involving direct talks with the Biden administration, Sinema worked with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, to bring on board a filibuster-proof majority.

In the same period, Sinema and Manchin balked at Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. The legislation’s $3.5 trillion price tag was too steep for both senators, effectively killing that version of the plan.

It angered some House Democrats, many of whom passed her infrastructure bill with the expectation that both elements would eventually go into effect.

The partisan rancor deepened months later when she held firm to the filibuster, which caused the voting-rights bill to fail.

In June, after a pair of mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, Sinema helped bring together an unlikely bipartisan alliance to pass the biggest changes to the nation’s gun laws since 1994.

President Joe Biden, with a bipartisan group of senators, speaks on June 24, 2021, outside the White House in Washington. Biden invited members of the group of 21 Republican and Democratic senators to discuss the infrastructure plan. From left are Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Biden, Sen, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., rear, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
President Joe Biden, with a bipartisan group of senators, speaks on June 24, 2021, outside the White House in Washington. Biden invited members of the group of 21 Republican and Democratic senators to discuss the infrastructure plan. From left are Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Biden, Sen, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., rear, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

That legislation creates more scrutiny for younger adults seeking to purchase firearms and helps bolster “red-flag” systems intended to intervene before tragedies happen. It does not ban semiautomatic rifles.

It was a legislative compromise supported by gun-control advocates such as Kelly and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and gun-rights advocates such as Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

She was the last hurdle to passage in July of the deal negotiated by Manchin and Schumer. With her support, billionaires averted a tax hike and the Southwest can expect more funding to help manage climate change.

And last month, Sinema again helped bring together bipartisan support for legislation that protected same-sex and interracial marriage rights that seemed imperiled after the Supreme Court erased federal abortion rights in June.

A striking political evolution

Sinema’s shift is only the latest in a transformation that began in Arizona state politics with her first running as a failed Green Party candidate who prominently opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

She became a Democrat and won four terms in the Arizona Legislature, where she evolved from a reliable liberal to more of a pragmatist by the end of her tenure there.

By the time she joined the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2012 elections, Sinema overcame accusations of being a liberal and ran as someone looking to move past partisan politics.

Her narrow U.S. Senate triumph over then-Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., in 2018 marked the first win for Democrats in Arizona in 30 years.

During their 60-minute debate, Sinema repeatedly promised to stand against party pressure. She only said the word “Democrat” once, to note that both parties should work together. At one point, she hit McSally as overly partisan while offering herself as a model of cooperation.

“Martha has chosen to be an apologist and support anything that her party puts forward,” Sinema said, “whereas I’ve been ranked the third-most independent member of Congress. I’ve also been ranked the third-most bipartisan member of Congress. It’s because I’m willing to stand up to my party to do what’s right.”

Her first two years in the Senate coincided with the final two years of Trump’s term in the White House. Her limited support for Trump’s legislative agenda ranked third among Democrats in voting with his priorities, according to a measure compiled by FiveThirtyEight.

At the outset of the Biden era, many Democrats hoped she would prove a more reliable vote for her party’s efforts as they held slim, unified control of Congress and the White House.

Instead, her support for the filibuster helped limit Democratic ambitions.

Superficially, Sinema’s 93% record supporting Biden’s agenda looks little different than Kelly’s 95%. But Sinema helped curb Democratic votes from moving forward on several key issues that failed due to the filibuster she defends.

In her new role, Sinema hopes her status as an independent will burnish her credentials with senators in both parties as someone seeking common ground, often among unlikely allies, that leads to durable legislative breakthroughs.

“When I approach challenges in my work, I don’t come at it from a red or a blue perspective, or a box A or a box B,” she said. “It’s not about what color jersey you’re wearing. It’s about how can I solve this problem to make life better for Arizonans and for our country.”

A primary that won’t include her

Sinema declined to discuss how she might have fared in a Democratic primary.

There were multiple polls, including one from September conducted for The Republic, that showed Sinema had high disapproval ratings among Democrats.

As of the end of September, Sinema’s Senate campaign had $7.3 million in cash, one of the highest totals among senators facing reelection in 2024.

By contrast, Gallego, who has criticized Sinema and is often mentioned as a potential Democratic challenger, had $1.1 million through late November.

Historically, incumbent senators are rarely defeated in party primaries.

It’s only happened 41 times in more than 1,300 Senate races since 1946. The most recent examples came in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

In 2010, Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Bennett of Utah lost their primaries. Murkowski won a subsequent write-in campaign to keep her seat that year.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania lost the Democratic nomination in 2010 after bolting the Republican Party in 2009. His challenger, Joe Sestak, lost the seat to Republican Pat Toomey.

And in 2012, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., lost his primary to Richard Mourdock, who lost the seat to Democrat Joe Donnelly.

Independents a rare breed in Senate

The Senate’s two other independents, Sanders and King, have long caucused with Democrats, allowing that party to control the Senate the past two years on the strength of Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote.

Independents are otherwise a rarity in the Senate.

In 2006, then-Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut switched from a Democrat to an independent after losing the party’s primary to Ned Lamont. Lieberman, who had won three terms as a Democrat, won the general election under the banner of a new party named for him.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Kyrsten Sinema leaves Democratic Party, cuts margin in US Senate