Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona says she is switching her party affiliation to independent after months of harassment from leftists demanding her ouster in a 2024 primary, stunning the Senate after Democrats secured a 51-seat majority with a big win in Georgia.
Ms. Sinema informed Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of her decision to leave the Democratic column Thursday night, though she said she has no plans to caucus with Republicans and the switch will not change how she votes on issues.
Democrats will retain enough votes to control the Senate and its committees, but Ms. Sinema’s decision alters power dynamics within the party and landed with a major thud early Friday, prompting a White House response.
“We understand that her decision to register as an independent in Arizona does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate, and we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, pointing to Ms. Sinema’s support for major pieces of President Biden’s agenda.
Ms. Sinema positioned herself as a leading centrist after assuming office in 2019. The role enraged liberals, particularly her reluctance to waive filibuster rules to bless parts of the Democrats’ agenda, leading to censures and calls for a primary.
The rift got so bad that hecklers followed her into the bathroom at Arizona State University to prod her over Mr. Biden’s big spending plans. The White House called the actions inappropriate but also “part of the process.”
In October 2021, a group of protesters heckled Ms. Sinema while she tried to officiate an outdoor wedding. And Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, applauded Arizona Democrats who censured Ms. Sinema for voting to keep the filibuster, dooming the Democrats’ voting rights bill.
Ms. Sinema pointed to inflexible ideology as the reason she‘s going independent.
“This Senate seat doesn’t belong to Democratic or Republican bosses in Washington. It doesn’t belong to one party or the other, and it doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to Arizona, which is far too special a place to be defined by extreme partisans and ideologues,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Arizona Republic on Friday.
The other senator from Arizona, Mark Kelly, is a Democrat who was reelected in November by a comfortable 5-point margin.
Ms. Sinema, however, was staring at a primary challenge from fellow Democrats in 2024. Liberals have spoken openly about Rep. Ruben Gallego as a potential challenger.
“Today, Kyrsten Sinema told us what we’ve already known for years: She‘s not a Democrat, and she‘s simply out for herself,” the Primary Sinema group said in a statement. “For the last year, we’ve been laying the groundwork to defeat Kyrsten Sinema because Arizonans deserve a senator who cares about them, and not special interests. In one way, Sinema just made our jobs easier by bowing out of a Democratic primary she knew she couldn’t win. Now we’ll beat her in the general election with a real Democrat.”
In an interview with Politico, Ms. Sinema declined to confirm whether she would seek a second term. She said she is not running for president.
“It’s fair to say that I’m not talking about it right now,” she said. “I keep my eye focused on what I’m doing right now. And registering as an independent is what I believe is right for my state. It’s right for me. I think it’s right for the country.”
Barrett Marson, an Arizona GOP strategist, said the announcement is both “earthshaking” and “at the same time wholly unsurprising.”
“She was going to have an impossible primary with Ruben Gallego who would run against her from the left,” Mr. Marson said. “Sinema has been persona non grata inside the Democratic Party for the better part of a year and this just reflects reality — both that she is not a Democrat anymore and Democrats don’t like her.”
Mr. Marson said the announcement shakes up the 2024 Senate race and puts more focus on the future plans of Gov. Doug Ducey, the popular Republican who can’t seek re-election because of term limits and is a proven statewide winner.
“Democratic activists far and wide hated Sinema,” Mr. Marson said. “I think they would rather lose the seat to a Republican than have Sinema.”
Mr. Gallego weighed in Friday on Ms. Sinema “abandoning” the party.
“Arizona deserves a voice that won’t back down in the face of struggle,” Mr. Gallego said. “Unfortunately, Senator Sinema is once again putting her own interests ahead of getting things done for Arizonans.”
Ms. Sinema’s op-ed insisted she became an independent because the two-party system pulls lawmakers into extremes with little room for debate or disagreement.
“Most Arizonans believe this is a false choice, and when I ran for the U.S. House and the Senate, I promised Arizonans something different. I pledged to be independent and work with anyone to achieve lasting results. I committed I would not demonize people I disagreed with, engage in name-calling or get distracted by political drama,” she wrote. “Arizonans — including many registered as Democrats or Republicans — are eager for leaders who focus on common-sense solutions rather than party doctrine.”
Ms. Sinema told voters that her Senate work and voting patterns would remain the same.
“Arizonans who’ve supported my work expanding jobs and economic opportunity, or my opposition to tax hikes that would harm our economic competitiveness, should know my focus on these areas will continue,” she wrote. “Arizonans who share my unwavering view that a woman’s health care decision should be between her, her doctor and her family should know that will always remain my position, as will my belief that LGBTQ Americans should not be denied any opportunity because of who they are or who they love.”
She pledged to work to secure the southern border while protecting Dreamers and will strive to make health care and prescription drugs more affordable.
Mr. Schumer said Ms. Sinema asked to retain her committee assignments and he agreed.
“Kyrsten is independent; that’s how she’s always been,” the New York Democrat said. “I believe she’s a good and effective senator and [I] am looking forward to a productive session in the new Democratic majority Senate. We will maintain our new majority on committees, exercise our subpoena power, and be able to clear nominees without discharge votes.”