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Sinema's an independent because both Democrats and Republicans don't like her

The Arizona senator may consider herself a maverick, but she’s really a political player out of her depth and in search of a constituency.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14.Graeme Sloan / Sipa via AP file

A common refrain among Democrats during the midterm cycle was that Republicans selfishly put party over country. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s announcement Friday morning that she was abandoning the Democratic Party to become an independent may require Democrats to modify their catchphrase. For Sinema, it seems it’s always been self over party over country. 

Her desperate leap out of the Democratic Party will someday make a compelling story for her book. It’s also likely to end her political career.

Sinema’s announcement comes just days after Democrats won a hotly contested Senate race in Georgia that returned Sen. Raphael Warnock to Washington and gave Democrats a 51-49 majority. Sinema has been increasingly at odds with the Democratic Party, but her decision is still a kick in the shins to her political home when it was on the verge of ending 2022 with a string of high-profile wins

Now the Democrats need to brace themselves for what comes next. Sinema will continue to caucus with Democrats, giving them the majority in committees and on nominations that they lack in the current 50-50 split. And White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Democrats will “continue to work successfully with her.” But those rosy hopes are destined to clash with Sinema’s long-held desire to stand out as an ideological lone wolf.

Sinema made clear early on that she wants to claim the mantle of a different Arizona senator, the legendary John McCain. Nicknamed a “maverick,” the Vietnam War hero famously crafted an alternative approach to Republican politics during his 2000 presidential campaign, bucked the polls by supporting an unpopular Iraq War troop surge and ultimately cast the deciding vote to protect the Affordable Care Act when Republicans tried to dismantle it in 2017. 

McCain’s maverick status rested on the perception, accurate or not, that he put principle above politics and voted unpredictably as a result of his integrity. Sinema’s theatrics, however, have proved that she’s better at copying the image of the maverick than understanding the substance of one. 

McCain was also an expert at reading the political room, and he recognized when a politically defensible space existed to break from his party. Sinema shows no sign of understanding that McCain’s political independence was the product of a savvy and calculating political mind, let alone having one herself. 

Sinema’s fickleness hasn’t earned her the coveted title of maverick; political observers are more likely to describe Sinema as “mercurial” with “unclear” policy goals. Writing in The New York Times, columnist Michelle Goldberg pointedly asked “What’s Wrong With Kyrsten Sinema?” Those headlines will make for an interesting memoir with a fat advance from a publisher, but they hardly inspire confidence in Sinema as a member of the nation’s highest deliberative body. Even Sinema’s own allies reportedly struggle to understand her political strategy and core beliefs

Perhaps as a result, Sinema’s most notable moments of political independence are also her most widely reviled. After Sinema voted against raising the federal minimum wage — though she’d vocally supported raising the minimum wage in the past — Sinema’s own hometown expressed their displeasure by approving a $15 minimum wage themselves. 

Similarly, as debate over passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act reached a crescendo in 2022, Sinema voted against a temporary change to the Senate’s filibuster rules that was essential to the act’s passage. Republicans were then able to block the measure. Sinema’s decision was a slap in the face to Arizonans. In response, the Arizona Democratic Party took the serious step of censuring Sinema for her behavior

That’s quite the political and ideological collapse for a former member of the Green Party who had once proudly cheerleaded for a host of liberal causes. Now Sinema, who once called raising big-donor campaign cash “bribery,” is an eager recipient of corporate money. In 2021, Sinema took in a personal record fundraising haul thanks in large part to huge donations from pharmaceutical companies and financial interests. But all the Big Pharma money in America won’t be enough to save Sinema from her own unpopularity — nor will abandoning the Democratic Party to be an independent.

In September, a poll by Fabrizio Ward and Impact Research found that her favorable rating was just 37%, with an unfavorable rating of 54%. Without any clear idea of what Sinema believes or whose interests she serves, it seems that voters no longer trust her. And Sinema’s net favorability of -20 with Democrats isn’t an outlier: She posts an almost identical -18 with Republicans, -10 with independents, according to data posted by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver.

If Sinema seeks re-election in 2024, she’ll likely face a strong challenge on her left from Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego. She’ll almost certainly need to fend off that challenge without the institutional Democratic Party resources she would otherwise have enjoyed.

Sinema may consider herself a McCain-style maverick, but she’s increasingly looking like a political player out of her depth and in search of a constituency. Her desperate leap out of the Democratic Party will someday make a compelling story for her book. It’s also likely to end her political career.