Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, formerly one of the most conservative Democrats in the US Senate, has ditched her former political party, declaring herself an independent in a move that may shake the Democrats’ narrow majority in the chamber.
Sinema announced her decision on Friday, days after Democrat Raphael Warnock won a Georgia run-off election solidifying the party’s control of the Senate in the next Congress, which takes office early next month.
“I registered as an Arizona independent,” Sinema wrote in an op-ed published in The Arizona Republic newspaper. “Like a lot of Arizonans, I have never fit perfectly in either national party.”
It is unclear how Sinema’s switch will affect the partisan makeup of the incoming Senate, where Democrats have a 51-49 majority. But after Warnock’s victory, the party can afford to lose one seat. In an evenly split Senate, Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris would serve as the tie-breaker.
Sinema, 46, told Politico that her move will not change the “Senate structure”. She said she will not caucus with Republicans, but she will no longer attend Democratic Caucus meetings either. The news outlet cited the senator as saying that she “expects” to keep her committee assignments through the Democratic Party.
In a natural extension of my service since I was first elected to Congress, I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington and formally registering as an Arizona Independent. 1/3 pic.twitter.com/jUQHAeuxym
— Kyrsten Sinema (@kyrstensinema) December 9, 2022
The White House praised Sinema as a “key partner” on Friday, invoking her work to pass major laws backed by President Joe Biden, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
“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,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
In The Arizona Republic article, Sinema slammed what she portrayed as polarisation, with Democratic and Republican leadership being pulled to the “fringes”. But, she said, Americans “are more united than the national parties would have us believe”.
Still, she committed to some key policy priorities for Democrats, including protecting reproductive and LGBTQ rights.
Sinema will be the third independent in the Senate, alongside Bernie Sanders and Angus Kings. But the latter two are effectively Democrats. They caucus with the party and are reliable votes for Democratic-led legislation.
In the Senate’s current 50-50 split, Sinema and her fellow conservative Democrat Joe Manchin exercised enormous influence, using their votes to reshape Biden’s agenda.
While Sinema’s supporters praise her ability to work with Republicans across the aisle and rise above partisanship, left-leaning Democrats have rebuked her for refusing to back more ambitious policy goals.
Last year, the senator drew the ire of progressives when she helped sink a push to include a minimum wage increase in a pandemic aid bill. She cast her vote with a thumb-down gesture on the Senate floor – a move that left-wing activists saw as callous disregard for working people.
Sinema is serving her first term in the Senate after getting elected as a Democrat in 2018. Her victory marked a political shift in Arizona, from a conservative stronghold to a swing state.
Despite emerging as one of the most conservative, corporate-friendly Democrats on Capitol Hill, in her early years in politics, Sinema was a Green Party activist who championed progressive causes.
Early this year, the Arizona Democratic Party censured her for voting against changing the filibuster, a Senate procedure that allows the minority to veto major legislation by requiring a 60-vote threshold to pass bills.
At that time, Democrats were looking to advance a voting rights bill in Congress.
Sinema will be up for reelection in 2024. It is not clear whether she will run again. But not identifying as a Democrat would make her immune to a primary challenge from the left.
If she runs as an independent and both major parties field candidates, it would set up a tumultuous race in a state that may become key for control of the Senate in a presidential election year.
In her interview with Politico, Sinema ruled out running for president.