Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema decided on Friday to shake up the political world by going independent. The former Democrat is still caucusing with the party in the Senate, so the Democratic caucus still has 51 members. Now, instead of 49 Democrats and two independents in their ranks, the caucus has 48 Democrats and three independents.
But that simple math hides a murkier picture for Democrats and for Sinema herself. Sinema’s interests are no longer necessarily the best interests of Democrats in the next Congress, and the 2024 Senate map has become even more complicated for Democrats with Sinema’s decision.
To be clear, Sinema has always been a thorn in the side of the Democrats during his tenure in Congress. Over the past two years, Democrats have almost always had to make sure any bill or nomination had Sinema’s backing to have a chance of passing. That’s the math when you only have 50 Senate seats in a 100-seat chamber. Many bills and nominations have never passed without the support of Sinema and Manchin.
From 2013 (Sinema’s first term in Congress) to 2020, Sinema has voted against his party more than almost any other member of Congress. She stayed with the party about 69% of the time on votes where at least half of Democrats voted differently than half of Republicans. The average Democrat voted with their party about 90% of the time on those votes.
It is quite possible that Sinema’s membership percentage in the party will decrease now that she is independent. Take the example of former senator Joe Lieberman. The longtime Democrat won re-election as a third-party candidate in 2006, after losing the Democratic primary to a left-wing challenger (the now fairly moderate Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont)
Compared to the average Senate Democrat, Lieberman voted with the party 10 points less time after becoming an independent than he did in his last term as a Democrat. If that happens with Sinema, she will become even more conservative than Joe Manchin of West Virginia (the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus).
This would make sense because the incentive structure is now very different for Sinema. Before a re-election campaign in 2024, she no longer has to worry about winning a Democratic primary. Sinema must be concerned with building a coalition of democrats, independents and republicans. It’s much harder to do if you’re considered too liberal.
Indeed, the big reason Sinema went independent was that it would have been very difficult to win a Democratic primary. His approval rating among Arizona Democrats in a fall 2022 CES poll was just 25%. A number of Democrats (e.g. Rep. Ruben Gallego and Rep. Greg Stanton) were already lining up to potentially challenge her in a primary.
The question now is whether Sinema’s decision to go independent will deter some of those Democrats from running. The idea being that Sinema still caucus with the Democrats, and the Democrats wouldn’t want to split the Democratic vote in a general election allowing a Republican to win in a purple state like Arizona.
It’s an interesting bet from Sinema. After all, Democrats don’t usually field a candidate against Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in Vermont. Democrats running against independent Sen. Angus King in Maine haven’t gained ground in the recent election. Remember the aforementioned Lieberman won as the third-party contender.
However, the electoral mathematical structure was and is totally different in these circumstances. Sanders wouldn’t attract a left-leaning Democratic challenger because he’s already so progressive. Lieberman declared his candidacy for a third party after the primary, so Republicans did not have time to find a well-known challenger. Republicans also knew that Lieberman, who was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, was probably the best they could hope for in the deeply Democratic state of Connecticut.
This leaves the example of the king. King, like Sinema, is a moderate state of deep blue or red pitch. There’s just one problem for Sinema in this analogy: King is popular. He had already won the governorship twice as an independent and almost always sported high favors.
Sinema is not popular at all. The CES poll had its approval rating below its disapproval rating with Democrats, Independents and Republicans in Arizona. Sinema’s overall approval rating was 25% for a disapproval rating of 58%. Other polls aren’t as dire for Sinema, but the average of it all makes her firmly more unpopular than popular.
In other words, Sinema’s current numbers are unlikely to scare off many challengers on the Democratic or Republican side. Moreover, there is no reason for the Democrats to cede the ground to Sinema, because that would prevent a Republican from winning. It is not at all clear that Sinema can win as an independent.
What Sinema’s decision accomplished was that it made electoral calculations much more complicated in Arizona and therefore nationally. Having two people in the race caucusing with the Democratic Party likely makes it harder for the Democrats to win.
A potentially worrying example for Democrats in a purple state (at least at the time) was the Florida Senate race in 2010. Then Republican Gov. Charlie Crist decided to run as an independent after it became clear that he would not beat the more conservative Republican Marco Rubio in a Republican primary. Crist, who said he caucus with Democrats, split the Democratic vote with then-Rep Kendrick Meek, and Rubio won.
I have to point out that the Democrats definitely have a chance. The 1968 Alaska Senate race, for example, featured two Democrats (Mike Gravel and then Senator Ernest Gruening as write-ins). Gravel won in this state, which Republican Richard Nixon also won by a few points.
In 2024, Arizona Republicans could nominate a fiery extreme candidate. They just lost every major statewide race in 2022 because of who they nominated.
Also, don’t discount the possibility that Sinema might win like Harry Byrd did in the 1970 Virginia Senate election when both parties nominated candidates. Maybe voters will like Sinema’s new independent recording.
Sinema could also find herself in flames when she runs in the general election without a major party backing her like Gruening did in 1968 or Senator Jacob Javits in the New York Senate race in 1980.
We just don’t know.
That said, the Democrats already have a tough map heading into 2024. Depending on whether or not the Democrats win the presidency (and have a Democratic vice president who can sever ties with the Senate), they can afford to lose. zero to one Senate seat and maintain a majority.
The vast majority, 23 of 34 senators, are eligible for re-election in the 2024 caucus with Democrats. An unusually high number (7) represents states that Republican Donald Trump has won at least once. This includes Arizona.
With Sinema’s break with the Democratic Party, the road is, if nothing else, a more twisty one for Democrats.