First they chased her into a bathroom, and then they chased her out of the party.
While some on the left are outraged by her decision, it was a sagacious one based on a realistic appraisal of (a) who Sinema is and (b) what Arizona Democrats demand of a U.S. senator.
Let’s start with who Sinema is not. It’s entirely possible that a different sort of politician could have voted as a moderate and simultaneously placated the progressive base long enough to stave off a serious primary challenge. Sinema is not that politician.
Most moderates are moderate in all ways, which is to say they are boring. Sinema’s brand is more contrarianism meets radical centrism. Sinema’s a flamboyant rogue. She is, to use the phrase admirers of the late Sen. John McCain probably overused, a maverick. And these traits were always guaranteed to garner attention and piss people off.
But keep in mind that, despite her history as a progressive activist, Sinema did, as she claims, run as an independent-minded Arizonan. So what you get is what you got.
It’s also important to understand that you can vote with your party 90+ percent of the time (see Liz Cheney) and be utterly unacceptable, or vote against your party a lot and still be welcomed in good standing.
Context (including your state or district) matters. So do the fights you are willing to pick—and the hills you are willing to die on.
Sinema chose to stand up against Democrats on big things, like when she refused to nuke the filibuster to change voting laws.
Progressives saw this as apostasy, but I saw it as courage. (If nothing else, Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia this past week suggested that the liberal hand-wringing about Republican voting laws being tantamount to Jim Crow 2.0 were overwrought.)
For the sin of not nuking the filibuster, Sinema was censured by the Arizona Democratic Party.
This was at least better than the time furious progressives chased her into a bathroom for refusing to support a $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill, due to its high cost. (Sinema insisted on passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill that she helped craft first. After that passed, she later voted for a scaled-down version of Build Back Better.)
The irony is Sinema has proven to be one of the most effective U.S. senators. As liberal columnist Bill Scher (who is simultaneously critical of Sinema for leaving the party) noted, “…Democrats could have been crediting Sinema all year for her role in legislation that IMO was pretty important for the party’s midterm success, infrastructure and gun safety in particular. Instead she was openly targeted for a primary challenge & Emily’s List withdrew support…”
As Dave Weigel reported earlier this year, “Last year’s pressure campaigns against Sinema spawned three PACs dedicated to unseating her…The PACs present the 2024 race as a fight to save a Democratic seat, with Primary Sinema ads on Facebook declaring that the senator is ‘betraying our country and our president’ and saying she’s already been captured by right-wing donors.” (Important note: When it comes to the charge of donor capture, I do think progressives have a point about Sinema potentially being compromised by forcing Democrats to keep the carried interest tax loophole.)
After being both censured and chased into a bathroom, and then seeing the emergence of three SuperPACs dedicated to defeating her in a primary election, Sinema’s decision to leave the party is a completely rational attempt at self-defense.
Voters may say they want an independent voice who marches to the beat of her own drum, but our current primary system definitely doesn’t reward that behavior. By being her authentic self, Sinema precluded the possibility that she could coast to the Democratic nomination for another term in 2024. So Sinema flipped the script.
Still, it’s important to note that Sinema’s stand does not jeopardize Democratic control of the Senate. Indeed, by going rogue, she hasn’t hurt Democrats—at least electorally—one bit.
That could change, depending on how Dems react to her decision to affiliate as an independent, and how Sinema reacts to that.
Once a politician comes untethered from a political party, the distance between them can widen over time. This, of course, is exacerbated when a politician feels attacked by their erstwhile partners.
Take, for example, former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, who left his party after losing a primary in 2006 based on his support for the Iraq war.
The next year (2007), Lieberman endorsed Republican John McCain (his good friend) for president over Barack Obama. And in 2009, Lieberman screwed Democrats by opposing the Medicare buy-in proposal that was a compromise to the public option.
Sinema has suggested she won’t change her voting habits. But it’s also possible that if she runs again—and I think she will—that, by opposing Sinema in the 2024 election for the U.S. Senate, Arizona Democrats could inadvertently swing the election to a Republican. That’s a dicey prospect, as it could be a mainstream Republican like former Gov. Doug Ducey—or a fringe candidate like his wannabe successor Kari Lake, who still hasn’t admitted she lost last month.
The 2024 Senate map was already stacked against Democrats. But their best hope was that Republicans would once again blow a golden opportunity like they did in the 2022 midterms.
Democrats will get a chance to nominate their own candidate now. And if she tries to run on her own, Sinema will face massive financial obstacles (perhaps her donor friends can help with that) and logistical ones, as well.
But she can overcome those.
After all, Lieberman looked doomed when he lost his primary—until he founded a party vehicle branded around himself, and won another term.
Sinema’s poll numbers are weak, but there is some evidence that Republicans do not despise her the way they do most Democrats. That could make another term achievable in an environment pitting her against Kari Lake types on one hand and progressive diehards on the other.
If Democrats are smart, they’ll leave well enough alone and quit chasing Sinema. In other words, they shouldn’t poke the bear.