The activists who approached Sen. Kyrsten Sinema last year to discuss her obstruction of key Democratic initiatives — like election, immigration and health care reform — were right all along. So were the Black and brown progressives who gathered outside her office to protest her support for the racist filibuster that summer.
Maybe you couldn’t hear them over the sounds of centrist pearl-clutching. (Or, perhaps, you were distracted by the sight of Sinema trying to escape accountability in a bathroom stall.)
But some "I told you so's" are in order.
On Friday, Sinema announced she's leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent, claiming the choice was a high-minded decision to lessen the vitriol in politics. Ultimately, though, she just confirmed what a lot of progressives have warned about for years: She’s cravenly self-interested and willing to placate an illiberal conservative movement — despite coming from an increasingly liberal state — if it ups her chances of maintaining power.
“Today, Kyrsten Sinema told us what we already knew for years: that she is not a Democrat and simply out for herself,” Alejandra Gomez, executive director of Latino community organizing group Living United for Change in Arizona, said in an interview on Friday.
In this case, leaving the Democratic Party could have some obvious advantages for Sinema in the short term. Rather than stay in a party where she’s largely loathed and has the potential to be ousted by a primary challenger in 2024, she can theoretically play spoiler for Democrats. That's assuming you believe she’s popular enough among liberals to siphon the party nominee’s votes in a potential re-election bid). The Arizona Democratic Party is skeptical of those chances (as am I, for reasons I’ll explain).
“Senator Sinema may now be registered as an independent, but she has shown she answered to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans,” Arizona Democrats said in a statement on Friday. “Senator Sinema’s party affiliation means nothing if she continues not to listen to her constituents.”
Those last lines are vital. Arizona is becoming more liberal, and its lurch to the left hasn’t been passive. It’s the product of people migrating from liberal states like Colorado, Washington, Illinois and California, and — importantly — progressive groups like LUCHA working hard to get Democrats like Sinema elected.
Becoming an independent is a cute party trick Sinema has used to her political benefit in the past. Arizona, after all, does have a large number of independent voters, but those voters have swung key elections in Democrats’ favor in recent elections.
Arizona is not the centrist utopia Sinema wishes it to be, and barring major voter suppression efforts, the leftward trend seems likely to continue. (This is why I’ve always found Sinema’s obstruction of voting rights legislation — and her silence about voter suppression in Arizona — quite sinister and blatantly self-interested.)
Arizona’s Legislature has trended toward Democrats in recent elections despite Republicans having a stranglehold on the Legislature a decade ago. In this year's midterm election cycle, voters in the state elected Democrats to three key offices: governor, U.S. Senate and secretary of state. (And the race for attorney general is too close to call, though Democrat Kris Mayes has about 500 more votes than her Republican opponent with 97% of the vote in. The results of a recount are expected to be announced Dec. 22.)
All things considered, I think Democrats can counteract Sinema’s chicanery by emphasizing voter registration in Arizona over the next two years. Formerly deep-red strongholds in the state, like Scottsdale, have shown signs of a leftward shift, even as Democrats have failed to capitalize on them.
Sinema defecting from the party, and the risk she could take voters with her, means Democrats’ margin for error is slim over the next two years. All eyes are on Arizona (if the party knows what’s good for it).