Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced Friday that she’s leaving the Democratic Party to register as an independent.
So what does that mean?
The initial reaction from analysts is that the Arizona lawmaker’s move won’t shake up how the Senate functions that much, and that it has more to do with her possible 2024 campaign for re-election.
“At this point, we don’t expect Sinema’s defection to formally change the balance of power in the Senate,” said Benjamin Salisbury, director of research at Height Capital Markets, in a note.
“Two independents, Senators Angus King [of Maine] and Bernie Sanders [of Vermont], formally caucus with Democrats,” Salisbury noted. “While Sinema declined to say which party she would caucus with, she did say that the change would not change how she votes, and she plans to keep her committee assignments, which is an indication to us that she will keep her affiliation with Democrats. In our view, the move is more about positioning herself for a tough 2024 reelection.”
Sinema, who has been criticized frequently by progressive Democrats for moves such as opposing changes to the so-called carried-interest loophole, was expected to face a challenge from the left in a Democratic primary. But as an independent, she can avoid a primary and focus on the general election in her battleground state.
Her calculation is that “the progressive Democratic ‘brand’ won’t help her to reelection in Arizona, but centrists and some from each party will,” Terry Haines, founder of Pangaea Policy, wrote in a note. “So there’s no percentage in doing anything but emphasizing her independence, and this is a high-profile, direct, and effective way of doing it.”
Haines said the senator’s move isn’t an earthquake for the Senate: “Sinema herself says it’s not so, that she’ll continue to do the job in the same way — and there’s no reason to dispute it.”
He also wrote that the “basic result for 2023-24 is as it was before Sinema’s announcement: domestic gridlock, basic fiscal/government spending stability, and continued foreign policy unanimity, particularly on China and Ukraine.”
The Biden White House offered a similar reaction on Friday, saying that Sinema’s 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.”
Sinema has voted with Democrats 97% of the time, according to Bloomberg Government data.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sinema would keep her committee assignments.
“I believe she’s a good and effective Senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate,” Schumer, a New York Democrat, also said. “We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes.”
For the past two years, Democrats have controlled the 50-50 Senate only because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast tiebreaking votes.
Following Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win on Tuesday over Republican challenger Herschel Walker in their closely watched runoff election, Democrats were expected to enjoy a 51-49 majority in the Senate.
There’s talk that Sinema’s announcement on Friday may have changed that, but analysts such as Salisbury and Haines are pushing against that view.
“Sinema’s defection is another sign of the tentative rise of overt bipartisanship in Congress,” Haines wrote. “There’s an increasing view that solving issues is what the vast majority of voters want, and some legislators seem prepared to risk the wrath of their party establishments to achieve it.”
Most U.S. senators have been affiliated with a major political party, but more than 70 have been independents or represented a minor party, according to Senate records.
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is a recent example of that group, as he started out as a Democrat, then became an independent but still caucused with his former party. That’s even as Democratic leaders criticized him for backing the late Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential race.