Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party and become an independent is putting top Democrats in a tricky position ahead of what is expected to be a brutal election year in 2024.
If Sinema decides to run for reelection in Arizona, Democrats will be forced to choose whether to support her, stay neutral in the race or back a potential Democratic opponent. The latter option could lead to a nightmare scenario for the party: a split vote in the general election between Sinema and any Democratic opponent, leading to an easy victory for Republicans.
Democrats could opt for a non-confrontational approach to a Sinema reelection bid like they do for the other independents in the Senate: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine. Both senators caucus with the Democrats, and the Democratic Party does not get actively involved in their races.
But Arizona politics may force their hand: A few Democrats have already expressed interest in challenging Sinema in 2024, including Rep. Ruben Gallego. The five-term congressman and Marine Corps veteran has long been a critic of Sinema, saying in an interview on Monday that her party switch proved she doesn’t “match Arizona values.”
For the moment, at least, Senate Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach, ducking questions about how they plan to deal with the situation.
“Right now, I’m going to work with Sen. Sinema. She’s on my committee, Homeland Security, so we’ll be working together,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who led the Democrats’ campaign arm this election cycle, told HuffPost when asked if his party should endorse a Sinema reelection bid.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) praised Sinema but similarly declined to answer.
“She’s a very independent leader in the Senate, and her new party affiliation matches that very nicely. She’ll still be part of our majority,” Baldwin said.
Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a key progressive voice on Capitol Hill, is declining to engage on the topic.
“I’m not thinking about that right now. We’ve got to get through this lame-duck [session of Congress] and do the work we need to do,” Warren told HuffPost.
Only Sanders indicated he was prepared to back a Sinema challenger as he was interviewed Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Sanders has repeatedly criticized Sinema publicly for helping block Democrats’ biggest priorities in Congress.
“She’s a very independent leader in the Senate, and her new party affiliation matches that very nicely. She’ll still be part of our majority.”
– Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.)
“I support progressive candidates all over this country, people who have the guts to take on powerful special interests,” Sanders said. “I don’t know what’s going to be happening in Arizona. We will see who they nominate. But, certainly, that’s something I will take a hard look at.”
What to do about a Sinema if she decides to run for reelection is a question likely to be answered by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and the next chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. Schumer hasn’t yet announced who will chair the DSCC. Several rank-and-file Democrats told HuffPost they don’t want the job. With Democratic incumbents on the defensive in seven states next cycle, whoever takes the job will face daunting challenges.
Functionally, Sinema’s party switch won’t mean much for the Democratic majority in the Senate. She’ll continue voting most of the time with Democrats. And she’ll continue serving on Democratic-led committees. In a statement downplaying the news last week, Schumer praised Sinema as a “good and effective” senator whose announcement won’t affect how the Senate operates.
“Sen. Sinema asked me to keep her committees, and that keeps the Senate committees functioning in a 51-49 vein. And that’s what we want to do,” Schumer told reporters on Tuesday.
Generally speaking, the DSCC’s main job is to make sure Democrats have a majority in the Senate. But a key secondary task is protecting Democratic incumbents.
The party does not always prioritize their protection ― the DSCC did not spend any money on former Sen. Doug Jones’ long-shot 2020 reelection campaign in Alabama, for instance ― but given the choice between backing an incumbent or supporting a challenger, the committee will typically choose the incumbent.
Sacha Haworth worked for Sinema’s first Senate campaign in 2018 and now serves as an adviser to Replace Sinema, an Arizona-based group with a self-explanatory name. In an interview, she argued the DSCC would find backing whoever ends up being the Democratic nominee a better bet for protecting their majority than helping Sinema.
“Their goal is to ensure that a Democrat wins, to expand the map,” Haworth said. “She’s not going to be the best option to do that.”
It’s clear Sinema’s path to reelection is a bit different from that of the other independents in the Senate. Both Sanders and King are broadly popular in their states, including with Democratic voters and independents. Right now, Sinema is not.
An AARP survey conducted in October found that just 37% of Arizona voters had a favorable opinion of her, and 54% had a negative opinion.
If she runs, Sinema would hope to rely on support from independents, an increasingly influential group in Arizona. There are already 134,000 more registered independents than Democrats in the state. But polling shows she isn’t particularly popular with them either: Just 41% have a favorable opinion of her, while 51% have a negative opinion.
But Arizona Democrats don’t seem keen on letting things lie, at least for the moment.
“As a party, we welcome independent voters and their perspectives,” said outgoing Arizona Democratic Party Chair Raquel Terán. “Sen. Sinema may now be registered as an independent, but she has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans. Sen. Sinema’s party registration means nothing if she continues to not listen to her constituents.”