The American political landscape – seemingly so settled only days ago when the Democrats solidified their hold on the Senate – was jolted when Kyrsten Sinema suddenly withdrew from the Democratic Party and declared herself an Independent.
The senator’s startling announcement could mean everything for politics in the United States – or nothing.
Everything: The Arizona lawmaker’s decision substantially enhances her role as a central figure on Capitol Hill, underlining her ability to assist the Democrats or to thwart them in pursuing progressive policies or to confirm key judicial nominees. Alternately, her new identity as an Independent could be a halfway house to becoming a Republican in a state that has a strong GOP tradition, a circumstance that could return the Senate to its 50-50 standoff where the Democrats have control only by virtue of the ability of Vice-President Kamala Harris to break a tie.
Nothing: Like the other two Independents in the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, Ms. Sinema has signalled that she still will caucus with the Democrats. That notion means more than simply attending the party’s Tuesday luncheon meetings and having the ability to find a few moments of solitude out of public view in the Democratic cloak room. It means that she lends her influence to the party in organizing the Senate, which translates into assuring that the Democrats have a numerical advantage in the Senate’s committees and control the flow of legislation to the floor.
Ms. Sinema’s decision has both national and local implications, which is why her announcement produced gasps in both Washington and Phoenix.
National: By bolting from the Democrats at a time when the party was celebrating a political trifecta – its surprising performance in the midterm congressional elections, the survival of Senator Raphael Warnock in the Georgia runoff, and the new (but, it turns out, temporary) clarity in the partisan divide in the Senate – Ms. Sinema’s defection undermines the Democratic narrative that the party is on the ascension as it prepares for the 2024 presidential election.
Local: By leaving the Democratic Party in a GOP-leaning state, Ms. Sinema – already considered vulnerable as she girds for her re-election battle in 2024 – sharpens her profile as a lawmaker independent of the Democrats. Indeed, in her statement, published in the Arizona Republic newspaper Friday, she said, “I have joined the growing numbers of Arizonans who reject party politics by declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”
In American politics, nothing ever is over
However, the move has peril for Ms. Sinema, who according to an AARP Arizona poll has an approval rating of 37 per cent. It potentially increases her danger in a re-election battle; she could find herself running against a true Democrat (likely Representative Ruben Gallego, who has been contemplating a primary challenge to her from the left) and a Republican.
The American Senate has both a long and short tradition of Independent lawmakers.
Long: As long ago as 1847, John P. Hale of New Hampshire served independent of party in the Senate. Perhaps the most famous Independent was George Norris of Nebraska (senator, 1913-1943). He was a Western agrarian populist so powerful and so revered that when the Senate in 1955 asked 160 scholars to identify the top former member of the body, Mr. Norris – not Daniel Webster nor John C. Calhoun nor Henry Clay – was the landslide winner. In more recent times, onetime GOP senator James Jeffords declared himself an Independent in 2001 and caucused with the Democrats, tumbling control of the chamber from a 50-50 deadlock (that permitted vice-president Dick Cheney to break ties for the Republicans) into the hands of the Democrats.
Short: The list of Independents is brief. Depending on how the label is defined, there could be fewer than a dozen true Independents in American history. Mr. Sanders and Mr. King are the only others in the Senate today.
Both of the northern New England Independents lean left, and their identity apart from the major parties is as much a statement of their temperament as it is of their politics.
One recent Independent, Dean Barkley of Minnesota, an appointed senator who served for only two months at the end of 2002 after the death of senator Paul Wellstone, did not caucus with either party but found his influence enhanced.
“As an Independent, you can become very popular, as everyone tries to get you to do what they want you to do,” Mr. Barkley said in an interview. “I found that getting along with both sides was not difficult. If you play your cards right, it can be a very liberating position to be in. You’re always in play.”