Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D-Ariz.) decision to become an independent makes plenty of sense for Kyrsten Sinema. For her party, though, a member who has already delivered several headaches in the past has created what might be her biggest one to date.
The question is what the party does in 2024 if Sinema runs for reelection. Do national Democrats back the incumbent, who will apparently continue to caucus with them? Or will they line up behind a Democratic nominee who would be more in line with the base?
So far, Democratic leaders are straining to avoid answering that hypothetical. The Arizona Democratic Party has excoriated Sinema for the move, but the national party is taking a very different tack, clearly hoping to keep its powder dry until it has to make a choice.
If history is any guide, the answer is: They’ll back whoever is mostly likely to win. But while this current situation bears similarities to others from recent years, it carries with it some dynamics we simply haven’t seen.
There are two other independents who caucus with Democrats: Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. Both are more reliable votes for the blue side, and largely because of that, neither has run into a Democratic opponent like Sinema might.
Sanders routinely wins Democratic primaries but then opts to run as an independent. King did face a somewhat high-profile Democratic state lawmaker when he first ran for Senate in 2012, and there was some consternation about which candidate the party would back, given that King had declined to commit to caucusing with Democrats. But because the former governor was always the heavy favorite to win that race, the situation never really posed a difficult choice for national Democrats.
(It did occasion one of my favorite campaign headlines in recent years, via Politico’s Alex Burns: “Maine Dem reminds DSCC she exists.”)
About the best analogues to today involve two other incumbents who were effectively forced to run as independents because they lost their party’s primaries: Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in 2006 and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in 2010.
In both cases, the national party talked a good game about supporting the candidate who won their primary. But that soon gave way to the reality on the ground.
In Connecticut, Democratic leaders issued a series of statements backing Ned Lamont after he beat Lieberman in a primary. But when Lieberman ran as a third-party candidate and looked like he was about to win, the party did little about it — in large part because there was no real threat of the Republican shooting the gap. Lieberman wound up winning with the support of 7 in 10 Republicans. The national Democratic Party spent basically nothing on the race.
In Alaska, things were a little dicier, because there was some concern about a Democrat winning the race. So while national Republicans endorsed Republican nominee Joe Miller over Murkowski’s write-in bid — like Democrats did in Connecticut — they soon, and pretty publicly, backed away. That was in part because Miller proved a very flawed candidate, but also because Murkowski appeared to have a good shot at winning.
In the closing weeks of the race, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s advertising focused almost exclusively on attacking the Democrat, without addressing the choice between Miller and Murkowski. By the end, amid some pressure, it did provide some support for Miller’s effort litigating write-in votes for Murkowski, but it was clearly hedging its bets rather than going all-out for the GOP nominee — to the consternation of some on the right.
But even that is likely to pale in comparison to the difficult choices that a matchup between Sinema and a Democratic nominee would present. And that’s where the historical comparisons break down.
Sinema is one of the two most unpopular members of the Democratic caucus in Washington. And while some reserve more distaste for Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), at least he comes from a heavily conservative state where his voting record would seem easier to explain.
If there’s a parallel with any of the names above, it might be Lieberman, who was a Democrat in blue state. But the liberal hatred for Lieberman really took off after his 2006 primary; as of that summer, Democrats still generally liked Lieberman more than they disliked him.
Sinema doesn’t benefit from such goodwill from her now-former party. A September poll showed that 57 percent of Arizona Democrats had an unfavorable opinion of her, compared to 37 percent favorable.
And given the distaste for her from the activist and donor classes — combined the with increasing intolerance, from each party’s base, of alleged apostates — it might be very difficult for national Democrats to back her or even just sit the contest out. And that goes double given that Arizona is a swing state, unlike any of the other states mentioned above. This is not a situation where victory is a sure thing for one of the two candidates who would caucus on their side, allowing the party to punt on picking sides. There will be pressure to get involved, since a somewhat even split of Democratic votes could hand the race to Republicans.
The real problems creep in if it looks like Sinema has a better shot than the Democratic nominee, be it Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) or someone else. At that point, the party will surely want to back the most likely winner, as it almost always does — and especially in a year in which the party is expected to play extensive defense while defending its narrow 51-49 majority. But selling that decision to a base that feels like a West Virginia Democrat should be a loyal party line vote would be another matter entirely.
On the other hand, what if it’s looking close and the party backs the Democratic nominee? They risk further alienating a potentially reelected Sinema, to the point where they might have to worry about her leaving the caucus entirely.
There are no easy answers. And while Sinema remains in the fold of the Democratic caucus, it could be their most electorally problematic party switch in some time.