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The recent history of party-switching senators includes stories of moderates feeling abandoned, longtime politicians unwilling to face primary voters or thrown out in primaries, and secret campaigns by one party to pick the other’s pocket.
President Joe Biden knows this history, since as a senator and then vice president he was instrumental in drawing then-Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania across the aisle in 2009. Specter’s switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party briefly gave Democrats a filibuster-proof majority and allowed them to pass the Affordable Care Act. Specter left the GOP after realizing he wasn’t going to be able to win a primary.
Joe Lieberman, the moderate Democrat and former longtime senator, lost a Democratic primary in Connecticut in 2006, largely over his support for the Iraq war. He would go on to win reelection as an independent. The corollary to Lieberman is Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who lost a primary but won reelection, incredibly, as a write-in candidate, in 2010. She remained in the GOP.
Earlier, in 2001, Democrats executed what CNN at the time referred to as a Cold War era defection operation to turn then-Sen. Jim Jeffords, the Vermont Republican, into a Vermont independent and briefly give Democrats control of the Senate. Jeffords was angry that Republicans wouldn’t spend more money on education.
Other defections, like those of Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama and then-Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, had to do with Southern Democrats realizing they’d be more at home as Republicans. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire left the GOP only to quickly return for a plum committee chairmanship.
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema appears to be different as she becomes the 22nd senator to change party affiliation while in office.
She’s not leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent because of a pressure campaign, although she has faced fierce criticism from Democrats for opposing elements of Biden’s agenda. She’s not going to give Republicans a majority. She’s simply exerting independence, as she told CNN’s Jake Tapper in announcing her departure from the Democrats.
“When I come to work each day, it’ll be the same,” Sinema said. Read more about her decision.
She doesn’t want to change the balance of power – she dismissed Tapper’s question about such things as a Washington, DC, obsession – and it appears she will maintain the committee assignments she has as a Democrat.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer endorsed the arrangement and agreed to let Sinema keep her committee assignments. He said Democrats would maintain their functional majority.
Certainly a sure-thing primary challenge when she’s up for reelection in 2024 must have crossed Sinema’s mind.
But she argued that she’s making space in the middle.
“Removing myself from the partisan structure – not only is it true to who I am and how I operate, I also think it’ll provide a place of belonging for many folks across the state and the country, who also are tired of the partisanship,” she told Tapper.
The other lawmaker who has frequently frustrated the party is Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is the last Democrat standing in a state that during his lifetime was full of them.
Manchin has turned his moderating effect on national Democrats into a potent political brand in West Virginia.
Sinema’s political evolution has taken her from anti-war supporter of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to senator in the mold of the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what Sinema’s ideology is – she said it’s hard to put her in a box. She rejected Democrats’ attempts to raise the minimum wage and raise corporate tax rates. She opposed a voting rights bill. But she hasn’t exactly sided with Republicans on social issues.
Independence and bipartisanship are her entire brand at this point, and she’s used it to play pivotal roles in bipartisan efforts on infrastructure, guns and marriage.
Much of Nader’s politics in the early 2000s, when he arguably spoiled Democrat Al Gore’s presidential run, was about breaking up what he referred to as the two-party “duopoly.”
McCain tried to fashion himself as a “maverick” who could buck the party system. Some of his most awkward political moments came when he had to appeal to primary voters, such as in 2010 when the Arizona primary dragged him to the right. He stayed a Republican even after former President Donald Trump demonized and insulted him.
Sinema will be the first independent senator who isn’t from New England in more than a generation. Among sitting senators, she’ll join Sens. Angus King of Maine, a former Democrat, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a democratic socialist, as lawmakers who aren’t technically Democrats but give Democrats their majority.
Sanders and his influence in the party he doesn’t technically belong to, dragging Democrats to the left during successive presidential campaigns, is perhaps part of what makes Sinema seem out of place as a Democrat.
Sanders’ previous decision to run for president as a Democrat is evidence of how hard it is to be in national politics without a party. It will be interesting to see how and whether Sinema can maintain support in her state and how and whether she can mount a bid as an independent without help from the party that put her in office.
While Arizona is frequently referred to as the home of modern conservatism, it’s been a long time since Barry Goldwater, the former Republican senator, ran for president from there – and the state’s political makeup has changed at lightning speed.
Until Sinema was elected, Arizona had two Republican senators and a Republican governor.
Now it has two elected Democratic senators (Sinema was elected as a Democrat in 2018) and a governor-elect who is a Democrat.
But there are and more independents in Arizona.
In the recent midterm election, just 22% of Arizona voters described themselves as liberal and 36% said they were conservatives. The largest portion, 42%, said they were moderates.
About a third of voters said they were Republicans, 27% said they were Democrats and 40% said they were independents.
Four years ago when Sinema was elected, a smaller portion, 31%, described themselves as independents.
Nationwide, in 2022, voters had a similar ideological split to Arizona in the exit polls – 24% liberal, 40% moderate and 36% conservative.
But across the country, more identified with the two major parties and less than a third said they were independents, the same portion as in 2018.
It can be hard to maintain political shape-shifting. Charlie Crist, a moderate who felt out of place in the GOP, went from being a Republican governor in Florida to Democratic congressman. He recently lost a bid to rewin the governor’s mansion as a Democrat.
The most complete political evolution may be that of Lincoln Chafee, the Rhode Island politician who was a Republican senator, independent governor and failed Democratic and Libertarian presidential candidate.
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