Democrats barely had two days to celebrate the Senate victory by Democrat Raphael Warnock over Herschel Walker that gave them a 51-49 edge in that body when Arizona sentaor Kyrsten Sinema said that she was leaving the Democratic party and changing her registration to Independent but would still caucus with the Democrats, joining Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.
“I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington. I registered as an Arizona independent,” she said in an op-ed for Arizona Central, a local media outlet.
Sinema said her shift came as a growing number of people in her state were also declaring themselves politically independent, rejecting the Republican and Democratic political labels.
“Like a lot of Arizonans, I have never fit perfectly in either national party,” she wrote.
Sinema intends to maintain her committee assignments from the Democrats, an aide told Reuters on condition of anonymity. The aide would not say whether or not Sinema would continue to caucus with Democrats.
The senator herself, however, said she would not caucus with the Republican party, according to an interview published by Politico on Friday.
If that holds, Democrats could still maintain greater governing control in the closely divided chamber.
Despite all her high-minded reasons, given her record, it is hard not view her move as driven by cynical self-interest. Sinema came into Congress as a progressive with a history in Green Party environmentalism but has since made a remarkable transformation to becoming seen as a reliable ally of the wealthy. This has infuriated the rank-and-file Democrats who worked tirelessly to get her elected to the Senate in 2018. They were vowing to run someone against her in the primary for the 2024 election and there was a good chance that she would lose the primary. By making this move, she avoids a primary and must be thinking that Democrats will not run a candidate of their own in order to avoid splitting the vote and allowing a Republican to win by a plurality. By caucusing with Democrats she also gets to serve on committees that will be drafting legislation, which is where much of the real work is done, and so she can continue to satisfy her corporate bosses.
She is not a total loss, though. She has supported Biden’s positions 93% of the time.
The White House stuck a similarly constructive note, perhaps hoping they could continue working with her, as they do with Bernie Sanders and Angus King, two independent senators who vote with Democrats.
“Senator Sinema has been a key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months, from the American Rescue Plan to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, from the Inflation Reduction Act to the Chips and Science Act, from the Pact Act to the Gun Safety Act to the Respect for Marriage Act, and more,” the press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said.
“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.”
The problem is that she has balked on some key items.
Sinema did indeed support those pieces of legislation, but she has become best-known for what she has not supported: changing the Senate’s filibuster rules to ensure voting rights legislation can pass, various aspects of Biden’s failed Build Back Better Act, and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, to which she expressed her rejection with an eye-catching thumbs-down delivered on the Senate floor.
I am reminded of an utterly cynical and odious conservative Democratic politician Joe Lieberman of Connecticut who was one of the most smug and sanctimonious politicians around who seemed to take pride in sinking progressive Democratic party initiatives. One terrible thing that Al Gore did was pick Lieberman to be his vice-presidential running mate in 2000, giving him much greater visibility. So bad was Lieberman that he lost in the Connecticut Democratic primary in 2006 but then ran and won as a third party candidate. He caucused with the Democrats but continued to be a thorn in the party’s side. He even endorsed Republican John McCain in 2008 against Barack Obama. He was also pivotal in eliminating the public option in the Affordable Care Act. Thankfully, he left the Senate in 2013 to become (what else?) a lobbyist and was replaced by a much better senator in Chris Murphy.
Sinema may be hoping to follow the Lieberman model and win as an independent but as the poet Robert Burns said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley”, and she runs a risk of losing her seat even if the Democrats do not run a candidate against her out of fear of splitting the vote. This is because while Connecticut is a.solidly Democratic state, Arizona is a swing state and her win in 2018 and the Democrats’ very good showing this year was due to tireless efforts by the party’s rank and file to turn out the vote. Given their sense of betrayal by Sinema’s performance in office, I just cannot see them putting that much energy into her campaign in 2024, however much they fear losing the seat to a Republican. So she may well lose in 2024 even with only a Republican challenger. But if she does, she will probably land a very lucrative lobbying position from one of her many wealthy backers. Just like Lieberman.