Last fall, as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema proved to be a thorn in the side of Senate Democratic leaders, The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg wrote a memorable paragraph about the Arizonan’s ideological trajectory.
In 2003, Joe Lieberman, at the time one of the worst Democratic senators, traveled to Arizona to campaign for his party’s presidential nomination and was regularly greeted by antiwar demonstrators. “He’s a shame to Democrats,” said the organizer of a protest outside a Tucson hotel, a left-wing social worker named Kyrsten Sinema. “I don’t even know why he’s running. He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him — what kind of strategy is that?”
A year before Sinema made those comments, she ran for the state legislature as a Green Party nominee. She finished fifth — out of five.
This came to mind late last week as the Arizonan announced that she was switching her party affiliation again, this time leaving the Democratic Party to become an independent. As a strategic matter, the move made some sense: Sinema wants to keep her job; she can’t credibly run as a Republican; and she was facing a Democratic primary in 2024 that she was very likely to lose.
Running as an independent doesn’t guarantee success for the senator, but it’s almost certainly the best of the available options.
But as the political world digests her announcement, it’s also worth considering the decisions that led her to this point.
Sinema has long recognized her home state as a Republican stronghold — for good reason. Before her own Senate victory in 2018, Arizona had elected a grand total of one Democratic U.S. senator in her lifetime. What’s more, between 1976 and 2016, there were 11 presidential elections, and the GOP ticket carried the Grand Canyon State in 10 of them.
The lesson for the ambitious politician seemed obvious: Sinema wasn’t going to get ahead in Arizona as a progressive. She’d need to appeal to a broader electorate in the Land of Goldwater and McCain.
So, she followed what seemed like a sensible course, keeping her distance from the left, emphasizing bipartisanship, and cultivating a reputation as a relative centrist, even picking up some notable praise from the likes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
And that might very well have worked for the senator if she’d taken greater care to remember the voters and the values that got her elected her in the first place. Instead, Sinema decided to champion ineffective Republican tax breaks that she’d previously opposed. She was needlessly unconstructive on key priorities such as prescription drug costs, which she’d prioritized as a candidate. She pushed genuinely weird arguments in support of filibusters, going so far as to manufacture historical falsehoods.
With Arizona’s recent partisan history in mind, Sinema very likely thought she was doing what she had to do. After all, the theory went, red state Democrats can’t very well govern the same way blue state Democrats do. If she expected to remain effective while maintaining a base of statewide support, she had no choice but to occasionally impress Republicans and their corporate donors. If that meant breaking party ranks from time to time, and frustrating her ostensible allies, it was a price Sinema was willing to pay in order to remain in office in a state where Democrats tend to lose.
But how reliable were those assumptions? Arizona has gradually became bluer during her term, electing Sen. Mark Kelly in 2020, while simultaneously backing President Joe Biden’s ticket. Two years later, Kelly — running as a relatively conventional Democrat, to Sinema’s left — won by an even wider margin than two years earlier.
Simultaneously, other Arizona Democrats — none of whom felt the need to move to the right or abandon their party affiliation — won the state’s gubernatorial race, secretary of state race, and quite possibly the state attorney general race (which has gone to an automatic recount).
Sinema, in other words, went further than she needed to. She could’ve annoyed Democratic leaders and Democratic voters far less, and won re-election with relative ease anyway.
The point isn’t that Sinema made a mistake becoming an independent; the point is that Sinema made a mistake creating the conditions that made becoming an independent necessary.