By Tom Ozimek
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s surprise announcement that she’s left the Democrat Party raises questions about its implications for the balance of power in Washington and whether the move is more of a shock wave or merely a murmur.
Sinema’s defection from the Democrat Party and registering as an Independent is certainly symbolic—with her announcement being a sharp rebuke of Washington’s bitter partisan divides—but it’s also substantive, multiple sources told The Epoch Times, as it narrows the Democrats’ razor-thin edge in the upper chamber and makes Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) job harder.
Sinema said in a statement on social media and op-ed in the Arizona Republic that she was ditching the Democrat Party because she’s fed up with what she described as a “broken partisan system in Washington” that makes a priority of denying the rival party a win rather than “delivering for all Americans.”
“Everyday Americans are increasingly left behind by national parties’ rigid partisanship, which has hardened in recent years,” she wrote in the Arizona Republic.
In a video posted on Twitter, she insisted Arizonians don’t care that much about political labels and aren’t asking if certain policy ideas are Republican or Democrat. Rather, they fundamentally want to see policies adopted that benefit their families and communities.
“Registering as an Independent and showing up to work with the title of Independent is a reflection of who I’ve always been. And it’s a reflection of who Arizona is,” Sinema said.
Sinema’s defection was predictably criticized by some of her former Democrat colleagues, with some taking a dim view of her claim that the move means better representations of Arizonans’ interests.
“Senator Sinema may now be registered as an Independent, but she has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans,” the state’s Democratic party chair, Raquel Terán, said in a statement.
“Senator Sinema’s party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents,” Terán added.
‘Substantive, Not Just Symbolic’
Sinema has been a thorn in the side of some of the Democrats’ more progressive policy efforts, for instance opposing ending the Senate filibuster and voting against a proposed federal minimum wage bump to $15 an hour.
The Arizona senator also withheld her support for President Joe Biden’s so-called Inflation Reduction Act until she won concessions to remove the carried interest tax provision from the bill and include protections for advanced manufacturing.
But while Sinema’s former Democrat colleagues like Terán and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.)—who claimed that Sinema was “once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans”—sources told The Epoch Times that the move will empower Sinema to push for policies that will benefit her constituents.
Irina Tsukerman, a lawyer and president of Scarab Rising, Inc., told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement that Sinema’s defection gives her greater flexibility and leverage to negotiate with both parties as the Democrats’ margin in the Senate has become vanishingly thin.
Democrats “will face same challenges as in the past two years in having to negotiate with Republicans and with Sinema having greater personal power and latitude, will likely have to compromise more heavily on issues involving Arizona,” Tsukerman said.
“The impact of her departure will be substantive, not just symbolic,” she said, insisting that Sinema’s departure will force the Democrats to reconsider some of their positions on key issues, especially more radical ones like the ones around fighting climate change.
What It Means for the Majority
Sinema’s surprise announcement comes just days after the Democrats secured an absolute majority in the Senate following Raphael Warnock’s Georgia runoff win.
Warnock’s victory over Senate candidate Herschel Walker gave the Democrats a 51–49 margin in the upper chamber, which Sinema’s defection slims to 50–49–1.
That’s not enough for Democrats to lose control of the Senate, even if Sinema votes with Republicans for a 50–50 split, since Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
A key factor will be whether Sinema caucuses with the Democrats, which remains unclear, as she said she would not be caucusing with the Republicans.
Aron Solomon, the head of strategy at Esquire Digital, contends that “this is very far from over.”
“From a practical perspective, we’re at 50–50 again,” Solomon told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement.
“No way the Dems can count on someone who is going to sit with the independents, especially when, unlike Sanders and among, she can’t be counted on to caucus with them,” he added.
Two other senators—Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine—are registered independents but caucus with Democrats.
‘Nothing Will Change About My Values’
For her part, Sinema suggested in her interview with Politico that she would continue to vote in the same way she has for her first four years serving as a senator from Arizona.
“Nothing will change about my values or my behavior,” she told the outlet but added that she won’t attend weekly Democrat caucus meetings.
Asked about how her defection affects the distribution of votes, Sinema told Politico it’s not a question she’s “interested in,” preferring to focus instead on working across the aisle.
“I want people to see that it is possible to do good work with folks from all different political persuasions, and to do it without the pressures or the poles of a party structure,” she told the outlet.
Sinema’s defection came a day after Schumer was elected for another term as Senate Democrat Leader. In a statement, Schumer said that Sinema would be keeping her committee assignments.
“She asked me to keep her committee assignments and I agreed,” Schumer said.
“I believe she’s a good and effective Senator and am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate,” he continued.
“We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes,” Schumer added.
But despite Schumer’s apparent confidence that it’ll be business as usual on Capitol Hill despite Sinema’s defection, Solomon insisted that her departure “takes all the wind out of their sails.”
“This defection is nothing but a Dem loss—they really lose face here,” he added.
Amani Wells-Onyioha, operations director at a Democrat-aligned political consulting and campaigning agency, expressed a similar sentiment, telling The Epoch Times in an emailed statement that her leaving “unfortunately does make the majority less stable.”
“It does tic away at our majority so that is the biggest consequence here,” she added. “Kamala will have to be used as a tie breaker if the Democrats do try to push any major legislation forward.”
At the same time Wells-Onyioha said Sinema’s defection should be viewed by Democrats as a “relief” so that “we can finally stop pretending that Sinema is an ally or party mate to us in any way.”
‘Continue to Work Successfully’ With Sinema
The White House reacted to Sinema’s announcement by calling her a “key partner” in efforts to pass “historic legislation” under President Joe Biden’s watch while expressing hope she’d continue to work with the current administration.
“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 press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
Sinema’s defection represents the first party switch in the Senate for over a decade. The last switch was when Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter left the Republican party and joined the Democrats in 2009.
Specter’s switch came at a particularly challenging time for the Republicans as his defection gave the Democrat caucus 59 votes, a single vote away from the margin needed to defeat GOP filibusters.
While Specter’s switch was a blow to Republicans, he insisted at the time that he would “not be an automatic 60th vote.”
“I would illustrate that with my position on employee choice, also known as card check. I think it’s a bad deal and I’m opposed to it. I will not vote to impose cloture,” he said in April 2009. “If the Democratic Party asks too much, I will not vote with them.”
Sinema’s departure also raises questions about whether other Senators might defect, which could shift the balance of power in the upper chamber.
There’s been speculation that another maverick, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), might also leave the Democrat party.
Take an Independent Path
Schumer was asked by CNBC’s Rachel Maddow in an interview in mid November whether he was confident that neither Sinema nor Manchin would switch parties in the future.
“I’ve disagreed with them strongly … but they’ve kept being Democrats. It would have been easy for them to do it in the past,” he said at the time.
Schumer called Manchin “a progressive” on certain issues, including prescription drugs, and insisted that neither “would be comfortable in the Republican Party.”
Manchin, along with Sinema, has kept Washington in suspense over the last two years as both have repeatedly withheld their needed votes for legislative initiatives spearheaded by Biden.
Like Sinema, Manchin withheld his support for the Inflation Reduction Act until he secured a number of concessions, including ones that would reduce the bill’s impact on public debt.
Despite long-running speculation that Manchin might switch his political affiliation, several political strategists familiar with West Virginia politics told Fox News they believe a Manchin defection is highly unlikely.
Wells-Onyioha agrees, adding further that she doesn’t “foresee any other Democrats defecting.”
Tsukerman, by contrast, isn’t so sure.
“Whether Manchin will follow the same path remains unclear,” she told The Epoch Times. “However, he is the only one in the Democratic party who has the most incentive to do so with a significant Republican constituency to worry about.”
Another question that has been raised is what Sinema’s defection means for her staff.
When Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey switched in 2019 and expressed his “undying support” for then President Donald Trump, five staffers left his office.
It’s unclear whether any of Sinema’s staff members may be mulling a similar move.