Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema decided Friday to shake up the political world by becoming an independent. The former Democrat is still part of the party's Senate caucus, so the Democratic caucus still has 51 members. Now, instead of 49 Democrats and two independents in its ranks, the caucus has 48 Democrats and three independents.
But this simple calculation hides a murkier picture for the 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 Democrats during her time in Congress. Over the past two years, Democrats have almost always had to ensure that any bill or nomination had Sinema's support to have a chance of passing. That's the math when you only have 50 Senate seats in a 100-seat chamber. Lots of bills and appointments have never been voted on without the support of Sinema and Manchin.
From 2013 (Sinema's first term in Congress) to 2020, Sinema voted against his party more than almost any other member of Congress. She stayed with the party about 69% of the time in 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 in these votes.
It is entirely possible that Sinema's party membership percentage will decline now that she is an independent. Take the example of former Senator Joe Lieberman. The longtime Democrat was re-elected as a third-party candidate in 2006, after losing the Democratic primary to a left-wing challenger (the now fairly moderate Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont).
Relative to the average Senate Democrat, Lieberman voted with the party 10 points fewer after becoming an independent than he did during his last term as a Democrat. If this happens with Sinema, she will become even more conservative than West Virginia's Joe Manchin (the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus).
This would make sense because the incentive structure is now very different for Sinema. With a 2024 re-election campaign approaching, she no longer has to worry about winning a Democratic primary. Sinema has to worry about building a coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans. This is much harder to do if you are seen as too liberal.
Indeed, the main reason Sinema became an independent was because it would have been very difficult to win a Democratic primary. His approval rating among Arizona Democrats in a CES fall 2022 the poll was only 25%. A number of Democrats (e.g. Reps. Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton) were already lining up to potentially challenge her in a primary.
The question now is whether Sinema's decision to become an independent will deter some of those Democrats from running. The idea being that Sinema continues to caucuse with Democrats, and that Democrats would not 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 gamble on Sinema's part. After all, Democrats don't typically run against independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in Vermont. Democrats running against independent Sen. Angus King in Maine did not gain ground in the last election. Remember, Lieberman won as a third-party candidate.
However, the electoral mathematical structure was and is entirely different under these circumstances. Sanders would not attract a left-wing Democratic challenger because he is already very progressive. Lieberman declared his third-party candidacy after the primaries, so Republicans did not have time to find a well-known challenger. Republicans also knew that Lieberman, who was an ardent supporter of the Iraq War, was probably the best they could hope for in the deeply Democratic state of Connecticut.
There remains the example of the king. King, like Sinema, is a moderate state and not deeply blue or red. There's only one problem for Sinema in this analogy: King is popular. He had previously won the governorship twice as an independent and almost always enjoyed strong favor.
Cinema is not popular at all. THE CES survey had his approval rating lower than his disapproval rating among Democrats, independents and Republicans in Arizona. Sinema's overall approval stood at 25% for a disapproval rating of 58%. Other polls aren't as dire for Sinema, but on average she's firmly more unpopular than popular.
In other words, Sinema's current numbers probably won't scare off many challengers, whether on the Democratic or Republican side. Additionally, there is no reason for Democrats to cede the field to Sinema, as that would prevent a Republican from winning. It is not at all certain that Sinema can win as an independent.
What Sinema's decision accomplished was that it made the electoral math much more complicated in Arizona and therefore nationally. Having two people in the race who are going to caucus with the Democratic Party probably makes it harder for 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 Governor 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 would caucus with Democrats, split the Democratic vote with then-Rep. Kendrick Meek, and Rubio was victorious.
I should point out that the Democrats certainly have a chance. The 1968 Alaska Senate race, for example, featured two Democrats (Mike Gravel, then Sen. Ernest Gruening, write-in). Gravel won in this state which Republican Richard Nixon also won by a few points.
In 2024, Arizona Republicans could nominate an extreme candidate who catches fire. They just lost every major statewide race in 2022 because of who they appointed.
Also don't rule out the possibility that Sinema could win like Harry Byrd did in the 1970 Virginia Senate election when both parties presented candidates. Perhaps voters will appreciate Sinema's new independent registration system.
Sinema could also flare up when she runs in the general election without the support of a major party, as Gruening did in 1968 or Sen. Jacob Javits in New York's 1980 Senate race.
We just don't know.
That said, Democrats already face a tough situation heading into 2024. Depending on whether they win the presidency (and whether they have a Democratic vice president capable of severing ties with the Senate ), they can afford to lose zero Senate seats and keep one Senate seat. majority.
The vast majority, 23 of the 34 senators, candidates for re-election in 2024, come together with the 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, at least, more winding for the Democrats.