'A shot across the Democratic leadership bow': Kyrsten Sinema shakes up Senate, switches to independent

WASHINGTON–Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema threw some cold water on Senate Democrats' celebration of a new 51-49 majority, leaving the party Friday and registering as an independent.

"Becoming an independent won't change my work in the Senate," she wrote in the Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY network.

It's a move that could have major implications in the remaining lame-duck session, when lawmakers will be sprinting on legislation to spare themselves a Christmas at the Capitol.

"She's sending a shot across the Democratic leadership bow, saying 'I’m still important, I still matter,'" said Todd Belt, professor and director of the political management program at George Washington University.

Switching parties will have a deeper impact on the remaining days of the current session and her political future than the new Congress, Belt said.

He added: "It gives her veto power over the omnibus bill. She can extract whatever she wants before Republicans take the House." 

Sinema is trying to forge a path as a maverick at every turn.

Sinema explains: 'I promised Arizonans something different': Sinema on registering as an independent

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What Sinema's decision means

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., flanked by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., left, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks to reporters following Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., flanked by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., left, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks to reporters following Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022.

Sinema had already acted independently as a Democrat, and her party switch makes formal what has been a feature of her time in the Senate since 2019.

For example, she has voted with Republicans on taxes and with Democrats on LGBTQ rights, gun control, infrastructure, Trump impeachments, efforts to mitigate COVID, inflation and more.

A day before announcing she had switched her party affiliation to independent, she cheered the passage of her bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act in the House and advancement to President Joe Biden's desk.

Sinema's switch to independent comes decades after she started in politics with the Arizona Green Party and voted as a progressive through much of her career.

On Friday, she joined the ranks of independent Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who caucus with Democrats.

Keeping her committee assignments, she indicated her party switch to independent won't change the balance of power much – other than giving more political power to herself and swing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

"Manchin has been the senator to watch in this Congress," Belt said. "Sinema has made herself the new pivot vote to watch heading into the new Congress."

More: Kyrsten Sinema leaves Democratic Party, registers as independent

The 2024 election question

Sinema's six-year Senate term is up in 2024.

Before switching her party affiliation to independent, she faced a potential 2024 primary challenge from Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat who told MSNBC last month that Sinema "did nothing" to help Democratic candidates in this year's midterm elections.

Leaving the party means she would not be part of a Democratic primary, whether or not Gallego decides to run.

The “Primary Sinema” political action committee issued a scathing statement:

"Today, Kyrsten Sinema told us what we've already known for years: she's not a Democrat, and she's simply out for herself. For the last year, we've been laying the groundwork to defeat Kyrsten Sinema because Arizonans deserve a Senator who cares about them, and not special interests. In one way, Sinema just made our jobs easier by bowing out of a Democratic primary she knew she couldn't win. Now, we'll beat her in the general election with a real Democrat."

Sinema has drawn ire from some Democrats during Biden's term when her centrist positions have held up or blocked his agenda, including her unwillingness to end the filibuster.

She wouldn't tell CNN or Politico whether she's running for reelection.

Belt said changing her party affiliation makes her path to victory "pretty risky."

Fashioning herself as a maverick in the mold of late Republican Sen. John McCain to represent all of Arizona might be a nice ideal, "but to really win in electoral politics, you have to pick one team or the other."

Though Sanders has been able to be reelected as an independent, he has decades of Senate experience and name recognition.

"Sinema is a freshman senator, and they tend to be easier to unseat than someone who has been in office for decades," Belt said.

What does it mean for the Senate majority?

Sinema's switch marks the first time a U.S. senator has switched parties since April 2009, when the late Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched from Republican to Democrat, claiming the GOP had moved too far to the right. Specter, who was Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator with 30 years in office, lost in the 2010 Democratic primary.

The move comes days after an exuberant Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said his Democratic Party's new 51-49 majority in the Senate would make it "a lot quicker, swifter and easier" to get things done in the upper chamber.

In a statement just before noon Friday, Schumer stayed positive. "We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes."

The last is especially important for Biden and Democratic leaders, Belt said, as the president enters the second half of his term with a Republican House that will push him to govern more administratively than legislatively.

What did the White House say?

The White House offered support to Sinema in a statement Friday and said the working relationship wouldn't change, but it punctuated a week of ups and downs for Biden, who had a crystal clear majority Tuesday and a murky one by the end of the week.

"We understand that (Sinema's) 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, describing Sinema as a "key partner" on some of Biden's biggest wins, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the Respect for Marriage Act.

A confident Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also remained positive on CNN Friday morning, claiming Sinema's switch doesn't take away the victory Democrats have in the Senate majority.

"She's going to continue to work with us," Klobuchar said. "I don't think it's going to greatly change the way the Senate is working right now."

But it does change the mood and messaging, Belt said.

The majority party thought they had finally "disproved the narrative of Dems in disarray," he said. "But now they're not. It's another black eye for Democrats who thought the days of Vice President (Kamala) Harris as a tie-breaking vote were behind them."

Lawmakers react

Sinema’s announcement drew mixed reactions from Democrats while also receiving cheers from figures in the Republican party.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said Friday morning he was a little surprised, but not shocked, about Sinema's decision to leave the Democratic party.

"I don't expect much to change to be honest," he said on MSNBC's Jose Diaz-Balart Reports. "She's shown that she has an independent streak in how she operates."

Padilla said Sinema's core values– battling climate change, fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, defending reproductive rights– are still progressive.

"I look forward to continuing to work with her on a lot of these important issues," he said.

Arizona’s state Democratic Party, which has expressed disappointment before in Sinema’s positions, said her decision “has shown she answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans.”

Sinema has also drawn the ire of progressives numerous times for blocking key progressive priorities through her opposition to ending the Senate filibuster.

New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a prominent House progressive, cheered Sinema’s departure from the party, uploading a video on Twitter saying “You were never a Democrat anyways.”

Meanwhile, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, a prominent figure among hard-right Republicans, celebrated Sinema’s decision.

“Good to see @KyrstenSinema leaving the Democratic Party,” tweeted Boebert, comparing her decision to former Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s decision to leave the Democratic party and register as an independent.

“Hope many more see the light!,” Boebert said.

Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kyrsten Sinema leaving Democratic Party: What it means for Senate