We have, at long last, reached peak Kyrsten Sinema. The Arizona senator’s decision to leave the Democratic Party is characteristically ineffectual and largely symbolic, as she will continue to caucus with the party and thus preserve the narrow one-seat majority Democrats need to enhance their powers in the upper chamber. But the move reflects who Sinema is at her core: devoid of any scrutable ideology but profoundly cynical. And while Democrats should be able to navigate the immediate impact of her decision, there are potentially destabilizing and even destructive days ahead that could give Democrats nightmares—especially when she’s up for reelection in a key purple state in two years’ time.
Sinema’s not known for acting in ways that make much sense—and she’s typically found to be lacking in explanations when she’s called on the carpet. This has led to a cottage industry of speculation into her motivations, just as people read into the meaning of the spangles on her outfits. Maybe she makes lonely stands against voting rights and budget bills because she is cosplaying as John “Maverick” McCain! Maybe it’s because she aspires to one day become a lobbyist! Maybe it’s because people are mean to her online! It keeps her in the news, however, which ultimately may be the entire point.
But here, Sinema has broken with that tradition by offering an explanation for her decision to leave the Democratic Party, something she’s rarely provided in a recent career spent obstinately blocking legislation. “In a natural extension of my service since I was first elected to Congress, I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington and formally registering as an Arizona Independent,” she said in a tweet. It’s a common and calculated bit of political posturing: I am just like you, fellow Americans, in hating both parties. There’s also a little bit of shade at her colleagues thrown in: If you were nicer to me, I wouldn’t be doing this.
And yet Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party is blessedly uncomplicated and free of mystery. Sinema is switching parties because she is deeply unpopular in Arizona and because she would almost certainly lose her primary when she is up for reelection in two years. Ruben Gallego, a charismatic veteran and rising star in the House, has hardly made his desire to primary her a secret; early polling suggests that he would easily win a Democratic primary against her.
There aren’t really any near-term political reasons guiding Sinema’s decision; it changes little to nothing in the immediate future. Raphael Warnock’s election on Tuesday means that Democrats have an extra cushion when dealing with inveterate sticks-in-the-mud such as Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. And even that may not matter, as the new year will bring in a divided Congress and the likelihood of little to nothing getting done legislatively over the next two years. Any bill the Senate is likely to pass will likely be of the watered-down, pro-corporate variety that Sinema prefers; in any case, Democrats will still be able to launch investigations and subpoena witnesses. In many ways, Sinema’s decision to leave is a relief for Democrats: It underlines what Warnock’s election made official. As Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalava said in a statement, “With Senator Warnock’s re-election, Kyrsten Sinema’s ability to be the center of the political universe has ended within the Democratic Party.” And to that, I say: Good riddance!
But Sinema’s decision isn’t about 2023. This is all about 2024.
Democrats hate Sinema. Polling in September found her 20 points underwater among voters in her own party. Their antipathy is understandable: Sinema has spent her entire political career drifting rightward and has increasingly acted as if corporate plutocrats are her actual constituents. During the Biden administration she has regularly blocked initiatives, from climate to voting rights to the expansion of the child tax credit, typically without explaining her reasoning. She has typically raked in cash from industries lobbying on behalf of a variety of special interests, from energy to Big Pharma. She also, famously, refuses to explain herself or even meet with voters in her home state, who have had to essentially stalk and harass her to earn her attention.
It’s hard to imagine Sinema beating Gallego in a Democratic primary; she’d probably lose a primary to any vaguely normal Arizona Democrat. Now she doesn’t have to run in a primary against anyone. She simply will waltz into the general election.
This puts Democrats in a bind. Arizona has voted blue in recent elections—thanks in large part to the growing extremism of the state’s Republican Party—but narrowly so. Katie Hobbs won the 2022 gubernatorial race over 2020 election truther Kari Lake by a mere 17,000 votes; Mark Kelly, a charismatic former astronaut, won reelection with a shade over 51 percent of the vote. Sinema, by running as an independent, is daring Democrats to run a challenger. If they do so, they risk Sinema playing spoiler and the state electing Lake or a similarly deranged Republican. This is the entirety of Sinema’s calculus. The party was salivating to replace her in 2024; now, by virtue of her abandoning it, it may be stuck with her.
Sinema’s plan may be too clever by half, however. Sinema is not Manchin, for one thing. West Virginia is a deep red state that will almost certainly not elect a Democrat not named Joe Manchin for Senate. Manchin is a pain in the ass, but he’s also extremely valuable for this reason. Sinema has no such value for Democrats. Arizona is a swing state, yes, but it’s a swing state that regularly elects Democrats. Normal Democrats. Like Mark Kelly.
The other is that it’s not immediately clear that Sinema would be a spoiler for Democrats. She is widely hated in Arizona. The same September poll that found her 20 points underwater with her own party also found her 18 points underwater with Republicans and 10 points underwater with independents. There isn’t three-way polling at the moment in a race between Sinema, Gallego, and Lake but, at this point, it’s impossible to say that Sinema would definitely hand a 2024 Senate race to an extremist Republican like Lake.
But even without that polling, Sinema’s decision should be causing Democrats to sweat. She’s putting a reasonably safe seat in jeopardy—and in jeopardy to being handed to a goon like Kari Lake—for one reason and one reason alone. A three-way race that pits her against another Democrat is the only way she can be reelected to the Senate. No one knows what Sinema believes or why she wants to stay in Congress—beyond doing the bidding of Big Pharma and private equity. But her self-preservation and self-interest is clearly the only thing guiding her. As they say, ’twas ever thus.