Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (Ariz.) decision to become an Independent has enraged progressives.
They’re describing her as self-interested, disloyal and happy to blunt valuable momentum from Democrats’ major Senate win in Georgia for her personal gain.
“It’s f***ed up, but also typical Sinema,” Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist and founder of the progressive communications firm Feldman Strategies, told The Hill on Friday shortly after the news broke.
In Sinema, the left sees a once-progressive firebrand who rose to prominence with Green Party ideology and a story of a scrappy upstart, only to tack rightward in the age of Trumpism, hampering large portions of President Biden’s agenda and working against her party’s own stated interests.
“If Sinema can’t decide between the party of Raphael Warnock and the party of Kari Lake and Donald Trump, then she is truly lost,” said Waleed Shahid, a veteran strategist and communications director for the Justice Democrats.
Progressives’ anger with Sinema has been simmering for several years. She was one of Democrats’ biggest headaches in the 50-50 Senate, where she had the power to stall legislation around everything from voting rights to social spending.
She failed to budge on demands to get rid of the legislative filibuster, a near party-wide push to make it easier to get Biden’s agenda through the narrow majority, and progressives accuse her of becoming cozier with corporate interests and Republicans than with her own Democratic colleagues.
The more she dug in, the more liberals resented her, leading to calls for a primary challenge and collective head scratching about her motivations – with few willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that her decision was based on genuine ideological differences and not political hubris.
“After seeing her horrifically low poll numbers with Democratic voters, Sinema is once again doing everything she can to protect herself and big corporate donors at the expense of multiracial democracy,” Shahid said.
Sinema, 46, shocked Democrats when she announced Friday that she is leaving the party and registering as an Independent just weeks after the November midterms.
“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,” Sinema said.
She elaborated in an op-ed for the Arizona Republic, writing: “In catering to the fringes, neither party has demonstrated much tolerance for diversity of thought. Bipartisan compromise is seen as a rarely acceptable last resort, rather than the best way to achieve lasting progress. Payback against the opposition party has replaced thoughtful legislating.”
“Americans are told that we have only two choices – Democrat or Republican – and that we must subscribe wholesale to policy views the parties hold, views that have been pulled further and further toward the extremes. Most Arizonans believe this is a false choice, and when I ran for the U.S. House and the Senate, I promised Arizonans something different,” she wrote.
Sinema on Friday pledged that little would change in terms of how she votes or operates in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Friday said she would keep her committee assignments and Democrats would keep the hard-fought advantages of a 51-seat majority.
While Sinema said to Politico she doesn’t intend on caucusing with the GOP senators, liberals still see her move as cynical and aligning closer with Republicans than Democrats, who need all the manpower they can get heading into the new year in the majority.
“The level of shamelessness that it takes to do something like this at this particular moment in history, it’s really mind boggling,” said Max Berger, a progressive strategist who worked for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“The White House and leadership have no choice but to treat her like a very important figure in the Senate, but they should be working to defeat her as quickly as possible,” Berger said. “No one should have the slightest amount of deference or respect for her because what she’s done is a betrayal of the voters of Arizona and of American democracy and it’s loathsome.”
Many Democrats are particularly galled that Sinema made her announcement before they’d had the chance to fully celebrate Sen. Raphael Warnock’s (D-Ga.) runoff win on Tuesday. That victory came with a sign of relief as many in the party finally saw a way to work around Sinema and her moderate colleague, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who often together create a blockade.
“Bye Felicia,” tweeted Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) a member of the Squad. “This isn’t about the party this is about your pharma donors! Stop lying!”
And further adding to their anxiety, Sinema has declined to give any assurances about her plans for the next two years, when both she and Biden are up for re-election.
Prior to her announcement, many on the left had called for a primary challenger like Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a pragmatic progressive, to try and oust her from her Senate seat. Now they fear her running as an Independent could split the Democratic vote and hand the Senate seat to a Republican.
“Either Kyrsten Sinema is actively helping the Republican Party by splitting the Democratic vote, or she is a fundamentally self-interested person who would rather throw lives under the bus than give up her political career,” said Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, who wants to see Sinema challenged from the left. “We’re wondering if she’s just trying to force the Democratic Party to not challenge her in 2024 because she knows her polling is incredibly unpopular.”
“There’s a whole question about her calculus here,” said Sciales. “One thing is really clear: she’s not thinking about the people of Arizona, she’s thinking about her own political career.”