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Kyrsten Sinema Leaves Democratic Party. Is It Enough to Save Unpopular Senator’s Reelection Plans?

StoryDecember 13, 2022
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What does Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s defection from the Democrats mean for the party, control of the Senate and President Biden’s policy agenda? Sinema said last week that she is registering as an independent, though she will keep her committee assignments. Her announcement came just as Democrats were celebrating Senator Raphael Warnock’s reelection in Georgia, which gave Democrats 51 seats in the upper chamber. Ryan Grim of The Intercept says that while Sinema’s change in party affiliation will have “no practical effect” in the Senate, it will head off a primary challenge in 2024. Alejandra Gomez, the executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA Arizona, says Sinema has betrayed the Democratic base that helped propel her to office in 2018. “She has sold her vote to the highest bidder, cozying up to special interests and Big Pharma,” says Gomez.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, We end today’s show looking at Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party, register as an independent. Her announcement came last week, just days after Democrats clinched a 51-seat majority in the Senate with Senator Raphael Warnock’s runoff victory in Georgia. Sinema spoke to CNN’s Jake Tapper Thursday.

JAKE TAPPER: You’re here to make a significant announcement.

SEN. KYRSTEN SINEMA: I have registered as an Arizona independent. And I know some people might be a little bit surprised by this, but, actually, I think it makes a lot of sense. You know, a growing number of Arizonans and people like me just don’t feel like we fit neatly into one party’s box or the other. And so, like many across the state and the nation, I’ve decided to leave that partisan process and really just focus on the work that I think matters to Arizona and to our country, which is solving problems and getting things done.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer confirmed Senator Sinema will be able to keep her committee assignments, after she said she would not caucus with the Republicans.

Still with us, Alejandra Gomez, executive director of LUCHA Arizona — that’s Living United for Change in Arizona. We’re also joined by Ryan Grim, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Intercept.

Ryan, let’s begin with you. This certainly was top news over the weekend, since Senator Sinema made this response right after the Democrats were certainly doing a victory lap. I mean, what, Raphael Warnock winning reelection, it was the first time in 90 years that Democrats won every seat they were running for in the Senate. Does this change what it means for a Democratic majority in the Senate?

RYAN GRIM: No, not at all. And it doesn’t matter if she, quote-unquote, “caucuses” with Democrats. Democrats meet on Tuesday. They’ll meet today for a caucus lunch. She won’t be there. But that’s nothing unusual. She very rarely showed up for these, quote-unquote, “caucus” meetings.

What matters is how you count yourself when you’re divvying up the committee assignments. And she is still going to count herself as a Democrat for purposes of committee assignments, which means that nominees can move through the committees based on a majority Democratic vote, and which means that committees will have subpoena power.

It actually reminds me back when Bernie Sanders first got to the House. There were a lot of Blue Dog Democrats who didn’t want a socialist to caucus with them, but they also wanted him on their committees, so they said, “OK, you can be in our committees. You just can’t meet with us.”

Sinema is sort of doing a reverse. She is welcome; she just doesn’t want to show up. But, no, it actually has no practical effect. The only effect is on her primary, or now her — I guess, her lack of a primary challenge in the Democratic contest coming up.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about what exactly that means in Arizona and what — and, yeah, overall.

RYAN GRIM: Sure. So, she was going to face a challenge from Ruben Gallego. He hasn’t made any secret that he was going to make this move. He hasn’t made a completely official announcement yet. But he’s a popular congressman, combat marine, relatively progressive, certainly relatively progressive compared to Sinema. And all indications were that he was going to — it would be bloody and expensive, but he was going to win that. He was going to win that primary. Sinema is extraordinarily unpopular with the Democratic base.

Now, her problem is that she also could not become a Republican, because, obviously, if a Republican — a Republican is glad to have Kyrsten Sinema causing problems for the Democrats. Like, that makes them happy. But if it’s between, say, Kari Lake and Kyrsten Sinema, a Republican voter is going to take the actual Republican.

So, what she’s doing is she’s daring Democrats to run a Democrat in the general election, saying, “I could be a spoiler in this three-way race, so don’t you dare throw the seat to a Republican.” But I think she underestimates the hostility toward her. I think Democrats in Arizona have made very clear they’re going to challenge her, no matter what.

AMY GOODMAN: Alejandra, you’re there in Phoenix. You’re in Arizona right now. You say that Senator Sinema has betrayed voters. In what way? What are your demands, as LUCHA Arizona, to the sitting senator? And has she ever met with your group?

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: Yes. Thank you so much for having me.

You know, since her election, she has not met with voters. She has not hosted one town hall. She has not had open meetings with her constituents. And, you know, time and time again, what we have seen — it’s interesting that she says that she wants to get things done. We have not seen her do or even lead with issues that matter to voters.

And so, for us, this comes as no surprise. And I do agree that she gravely underestimates how unpopular she is amongst her Democratic base. And it’s a betrayal to her voters that elected her in 2018, that turned out for her and had high expectations. And what we have seen now is that she has sold her vote to the highest bidder, cozying up to special interests and Big Pharma.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Bernie Sanders’ comments about Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party. It prompted this exchange between Senator Sanders and CNN’s State of the Union host Dana Bash.

DANA BASH: Does she have the guts to take on powerful special interests?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No, she doesn’t. She is a corporate Democrat who has, in fact, along with Senator Manchin, sabotaged enormously important legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, let’s talk about what she has done, and also this latest news of her brokering a deal with the Republican Senator Tillis for immigration reform, condemning both the Republican and Democratic parties for not coming up with immigration policy.

RYAN GRIM: Right. And so, early in 2021, Democrats made clear that they were going to push forward with a reconciliation package, which meant it didn’t need Republican votes in order to pass what they were calling Build Back Better, which had climate, it had affordable housing, it had the child and family agenda, and it had a jobs agenda. It had — you know, you remember, Bernie Sanders wanted $6 trillion; the Senate ended up constructing it as $3.5 trillion; it eventually got whittled down to less than $2 trillion.

But what happened then was that Kyrsten Sinema got together with a handful of Republicans and said, “If we can do a much smaller infrastructure bill and we can get bipartisan support for it, that will take all the popular things out of the Build Back Better agenda, and then that will kill the Build Back Better bill.” So, the idea that she was actually trying to get things done is a misnomer. What she was trying to do is stop a bigger thing from happening by delivering something much smaller, that she and people like Rob Portman said, very explicitly, that the only reason they got together to do that was to try to take the energy out of Build Back Better. Now, it ended up not working, because they passed the infrastructure bill, and then they still passed the nearly $2 trillion — they eventually called it the Inflation Reduction Act.

So, that has been kind of her role in the Senate, is trying to work with Republicans to do smaller things to prevent more progressive things from getting done. And that’s similar with what’s going on, but not exactly, with the immigration piece. Here, you know, she extracted a concession, I think, for about 2 million DREAMers to get some type of a path to citizenship in exchange for some draconian concessions to Republicans, although it’s not clear that even with that, she’ll be able to get enough Republicans to come along.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Alejandra Gomez, your response to this deal that she supposedly is brokering?

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: Twenty-five billion dollars to beef up border security, which there, you know, are numerous studies that demonstrate that the border is secure. And so, for us, again, it is this challenge that we face with Kyrsten Sinema, her primary role being an obstructionist and also doing the bidding of special interests rather than listening to her constituents. You know, Arizona passed one of the most important pieces of — it was a ballot referral this year, which was Prop 308. And that gives DREAMers in-state tuition. So, Arizonans are ready. It was a top vote-getter. And Arizonans are ready to see relief, real relief. And what we’re saying is that 2 million is not enough, and $25 billion to border security, again, is creating an issue that, for us, what we are saying is we actually need to see more investment in people, rather than targeting and deporting our immigrant communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Alejandra Gomez, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA. And I want to thank Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief for The Intercept.

Ryan, if you could stay with us, we’re going to do a post-show interview and post it online at on the big piece that you just released, “The Railroad Fight Was the Product of Eight Years of Militant Rank-and-File Organizing: Railroad unions haven’t been known for putting up a fight since the 19th century, but newly radicalized workers forced their way into the national conversation.” We’re going to talk about that, and folks can go to to see it.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. Our executive director, Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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