Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's defection from the Democratic Party on Friday effectively upped the ante on Arizona's battleground status ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
Sinema said she will register as an independent, dampening the Democratic Party's 51-49 control of the Senate after Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., won his reelection bid Tuesday.
Political experts said Sinema's move complicates her party's ability to hold onto to the seat, and control of the Senate, in 2024 — not to mention efforts to secure Arizona's key electoral votes in that year's presidential contest.
If Sinema runs for reelection and another Democrat runs for the Senate, it could split left-leaning voters, paving a path for a Republican to win the seat.
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"She has put (Senate Majority Leader Chuck) Schumer, D-N.Y., and the Democrats, in a really tight spot," said Adam Hilton, an assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College. "This is a shrewd move on her part."
Sinema a thorn for Democrats
Before her surprising announcement, several Democrats had expressed their exasperation with Sinema.
Sinema, along with West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin, blocked the party from changing filibuster rules and passing voting rights legislation — to the ire of the Democratic base.
The two senators were also instrumental in blocking the trillion dollar Build Back Better legislation that would have expanded Medicare, included funding for universal pre-kindergarten and initiated climate change moves.
Some Democrats celebrated her defection after the announcement Friday. "Bye Felicia," progressive Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., tweeted.
Yet other Democrats are proceeding cautiously.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Sinema a "key partner" in a statement Friday.
"We understand that her decision to register as an independent in Arizona does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate," said Jean-Pierre. "And we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her."
Senate surprise: Kyrsten Sinema leaves Democratic Party, registers as independent
It's too early to tell if Sinema will cost President Joe Biden Arizona's 11 electoral votes in 2024, said Alex Alvarez, executive director of Progress Arizona, a digital hub for Arizona Progressives. But he said it's still possible for Democrats to win the Grand Canyon state.
"We're going to continue to build on those victories in 2024, to make sure that the presidency remains in Democratic hands,” said Alvarez.
'Red state with purple spots'
Unlike national Democrats, Arizonans aren't surprised by Sinema's departure from the party, said Stacy Pearson, co-founder of the Arizona-based political consulting firm Lumen Strategies.
"She never promised to move to the left," Pearson said. "Should she get elected, she promised to govern for the majority of Arizonans. And the majority of Arizonans are not Democrats."
Until President Joe Biden won Arizona by just 0.3% in 2020, no Democratic presidential candidate had won the state since Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election. Between 2008 and 2018, when Sinema and other Democrats won their races, Democratic candidates did not win any Arizona statewide races, at any level, either.
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Since then, Democrats have picked up both U.S. Senate seats, most recently with Sen. Mark Kelly winning reelection this year, and several House seats. Democrat Katie Hobbs defeated Republican Kari Lake for the state's governorship, as well. But that's more a reflection of the state's Republican candidates than its Democrats, Pearson said.
That doesn't mean the state is turning blue — or even purple, said Paul Bentz, senior vice president at the Arizona political consulting group Highground, Inc.
"The fact of the matter is Arizona is not a purple state; it's a red state with purple spots," Bentz said. "It is more of a Dr. Seuss character than it is an actual solidified base. We're a microcosm of the country."
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How will Democrats proceed in 2024?
Experts said that Sinema's move puts the attention in the Senate squarely back on the maverick senator while putting Democrats on the defensive.
"I think it'll be challenging and interesting to see the messaging over the next two years because now there's a lot of focus on Sinema, just the way she wants it," Bentz said. "When we look at what's happening with the Senate majority, it already sort of ran through her and Manchin and now it definitely runs through her and puts her in center stage to get things done."
If Sinema runs for reelection as an independent — and she hasn't announced that she will — she would now bypass a challenge from Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and the left, because she would not need to go through a Democratic primary.
"It will be much harder for Democrats to win the seat if Sinema runs for reelection," said Kim Fridkin, a professor of political science at Arizona State University. "Democrats can’t win the seat without independents, and they would need cross-over support from moderate Republicans. However, independents and moderate Republicans would be more likely to support Sinema, I would think."
Should Sinema run for reelection as an independent in 2024, Democrats’ priorities in the Grand Canyon state could be split between supporting its own in-party candidate for her Senate seat and ensuring Sinema stays in line while she still holds the seat.
Keeping the peace with Sinema without alienating key voters and simultaneously running a candidate for president could prove complicated. Arizona has increasingly played a vital role in helping Democrats win national elections.
In 2020, Arizona flipped from former President Donald Trump to Biden. In 2024, it will once again be a state where Democrats will heavily invest.
A boon to MAGA Republicans?
Plus, experts said this could benefit Republicans who lean into Trumpism and the MAGA wing of the GOP. During the 2022 midterm elections, several Trump-endorsed candidates lost their Senate races, including Arizona's Blake Masters to Sen. Kelly. While GOP primary voters were excited by these candidates, general election voters soundly rejected them.
But Arizona could prove differently in 2024.
"If the Arizona Republican base selects another, let's call it high-risk MAGA Republican candidate for the Senate, but you've effectively got a three-way race, that could actually be the path of victory for a MAGA Republican from Arizona," said Hilton, the political scientist at Mount Holyoke.
But Sinema's defection might not be all bad for national Democrats, Pearson said.
"This prevents (Sinema) from having to run against a partisan purist from the left, prevents that nonsensical debate between partisan purity and good policy," Pearson said. "What I think this does is give the Democrats a shot to run a partisan purist and see how it goes."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democrats' path forward without Sen. Kyrsten Sinema