Sinema leaving Democratic Party, will register as Independent

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has announced that she will leave the Democratic Party and officially register as an Independent.

“I’ve registered as an Arizona Independent. I know some people might be a little bit surprised by this, but actually, I think it makes a lot of sense,” Sinema said in an interview Thursday with CNN’s Jake Tapper in her Senate office.

“I’ve never fit neatly into any party box. I’ve never really tried. I don’t want to,” she added. “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.”

The announcement from Sinema comes just days after Democrats solidified a 51-49 majority in the upper chamber with Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win in Georgia.

Sinema declined to say whether she will caucus with Democrats, like Independent Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Angus King (Maine) currently do, but the Arizona senator said she plans to continue in her committee assignments.

“When I come to work each day, it’ll be the same,” Sinema said. “I’m going to still come to work and hopefully serve on the same committees I’ve been serving on and continue to work well with my colleagues at both political parties.”

Despite the high-stakes nature of the decision, Sinema’s move will not have much structural impact on the upper chamber in the immediate future. Due to the one-seat expansion of the Democratic majority, the power Sinema and other centrist senators like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) had over nominations has been diluted.

But the move will have a major impact on Sinema’s electoral prospects.

The Arizona senator is up for reelection in 2024 and was increasingly likely to face a contentious primary. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) had signaled over the last year that he might run to unseat her. Recently, he criticized her for not helping Democrats enough during the midterm elections.

If she runs for reelection, that could spawn a high-wattage three-way race if both parties make a concerted bid to take her down. Sinema declined to say whether she would be seeking a second term in the upper chamber. 

“It’s fair to say that I’m not talking about it right now,” she told Politico. “I keep my eye focused on what I’m doing right now. And registering as an independent is what I believe is right for my state. It’s right for me. I think it’s right for the country.”

“Politics and elections will come later,” she added. She also ruled out a presidential bid in 2024. 

Sinema won her seat in 2018 by defeating former Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) in a race in which Democrats across the board spent heavily to help push her over the finish line. 

However, Sinema continues to enjoy close relationships with key leaders on both sides of the aisle. Just this week, President Biden praised her in his remarks, saying she’s “a tremendous advocate for the people of Arizona and a leader in so many issues important to this state.” However, unlike other Arizona lawmakers, she did not join him in his inaugural visit to the state this week.

Sinema also appeared in late September at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praised her as the “most effective first-term senator” he has ever dealt with. Her closely watched remarks were centered around bipartisanship. 

“More and more it seems like Americans are being told that in order to be a member of either political party, you must adhere to a strict set list of policy viewpoints,” Sinema said at the time. “But I don’t think that’s how a majority of Arizonans or Kentuckians or everyday Americans think.”

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a top McConnell ally, went so far as to say last year that he would be surprised if the GOP tried to unseat her, though he quickly backtracked. That remark came amid the Democratic effort to pass the multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better agenda, which Sinema helped upend. Less than a year later, though, she voted for the Inflation Reduction Act — a slimmed-down proposal that passed via budget reconciliation. 

Dating back to last year, many of the items that have garnered Biden’s signature have had Sinema’s imprint on them, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the fall of 2021, the gun safety legislation that passed over the summer in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school shooting and, most recently, the effort to codify same-sex marriage into law. Sinema is the first openly bisexual senator.

However, progressives grew increasingly infuriated with her over the past two years as she gummed up the works on some of the party’s top priorities, headlined by the Build Back Better push and the effort to nix the legislative filibuster in the name of voting rights. Sinema and Manchin have vowed repeatedly that they would not vote to weaken the filibuster under any circumstance. 

Sinema’s decision marks the first time a sitting senator has switched their party affiliation since then-Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), a longtime Republican, became a Democrat in 2009, aiding his chances of winning in 2010. He lost the party primary in 2010, and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) eventually won his seat. 

Updated at 8:32 a.m.

Tags Arizona Bernie Sanders Democrats independents Kyrsten Sinema Raphael Warnock Senate Sinema
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