By announcing that she is now an independent, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema achieved what is clearly her most important goal: making herself the center of attention. She also achieved what has always been her other major goal: screwing over the Democratic party.
In the short term, Sinema’s decision to declare herself an independent will have limited practical impact on the Senate. She will continue to caucus with Democrats, and she will continue to hold onto her committee assignments as a member of the majority party.
Where her decision does make a difference is in the 2024 campaign. Assuming that she decides to seek re-election, Sinema may think calling herself an independent gives her the best chance of winning in 2024. In fact, it offers the Republicans a clear pathway toward winning her Senate seat.
In her announcement, as well as in her 2018 campaign ads, Sinema branded herself an “independent” over and over again. That’s all well and good, but Sinema’s brand of independent amounts to a party of one: her.
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Most independents are moderates who appeal to what they would like to think of as commonsense solutions to policy issues. That is not who Sinema is.
Sinema is in the pocket of pharma and the ultra-wealthy. She fought the Democrats’ efforts to raise taxes on the rich, something that is popular across party lines. She singlehandedly watered down the effort to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, at huge savings to the elderly. Of course, taking unpopular positions has paid off handsomely for Sinema.
Her willingness to sabotage President Joe Biden’s agenda has made Sinema persona non grata among Arizona Democrats and guaranteed a primary challenge. At the same time, she’s been a reliable vote on many other progressive measures, earning her the enmity of Republicans.
All of which means that Sinema doesn’t actually have any real base of support. Her poll numbers are in the tank among Democrats, who will never support her. (Declaring herself an independent spares her the humiliation of losing in a primary.) Republicans don’t like her either, and independents aren’t thrilled with having her as their senator.
The most that Sinema can do in 2024 is serve as a threat to Democrats. Arizona politics are very narrowly divided between the two parties, so the election will depend a lot on who the other candidates are. Sinema could decide to portray herself as the reasonable alternative to two extremes, much as she did in the op-ed announcing her departure from the Democratic party. It’s a laughable concept – anyone who wants to give millionaires even more tax breaks is not reasonable – but she only needs to attract enough votes to tilt the election.
Those votes would probably come at the expense of the Democrats. (Conservative Republicans aren’t about to vote for an out bisexual person.) There are very few swing voters, but they tend to be disenchanted suburban Republicans unhappy with the party’s far-right drift. If Sinema makes the Democratic candidate out to be a Marxist, she could damage the candidate’s chances. She’ll certainly have plenty of money from fat cats pleased with the favors she’s been doing for them.
Of course, Sinema may decide to forego running for re-election and just go for the big bucks herself as a lobbyist. She’s likely to end up there anyway. But doing so would mean giving up all the attention she’d get in a campaign.
And as we know all too well by now, Sinema is never one to pass up a chance in the spotlight.