Editor’s Note: Jon Gabriel is editor-in-chief of Ricochet.com and an opinion contributor to The Arizona Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @ExJon. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has always defied labels. One day, she’s competing in an Ironman competition; another she’s giving a thumbs-down curtsy on the Senate floor. One weekend, she’s teaching a course at a university; the next she’s officiating a wedding.
From the wild deserts of her home state to the conformist cloakrooms of Capitol Hill, partisans are flummoxed by Arizona’s “manic pixie dream senator,” as some cartoonists have mocked her. Never more so than on Friday, when Sinema announced she was leaving the Democratic Party and becoming an independent.
“Americans are told that we have only two choices — Democrat or Republican — and that we must subscribe wholesale to policy views the parties hold, views that have been pulled further and further toward the extremes,” Sinema wrote in an op-ed for The Arizona Republic.
“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.”
Promise made, promise kept.
From Barry Goldwater to John McCain, and now to Sinema, Arizona has long been the home of the “maverick” senator. For decades, the state has rewarded politicians who stand up to party bosses and politics as usual.
Despite their complaints Friday, Arizona Democrats ran her out of their party.
Last year, while teaching her course at Arizona State University, progressive activists chased Sinema into a bathroom while filming. Other protesters showed up at the wedding that she officiated, demonstrating outside the venue.
And earlier this year, the Arizona Democratic Party voted to censure Sinema, with party Chair Raquel Terán insisting it was “a result of her failure to do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our democracy.”
Voto Latino, which call itself “a grassroots political organization focused on educating and empowering a new generation of Latinx voters,” had previously announced a six-figure investment to oust Sinema during the 2024 primary.
“Sinema’s actions directly undermine and suppress the right and wellbeing of Latinos that elected her into office,” Voto Latino said as it kicked off its “Adiós Sinema” campaign.
The organization’s effort began at the same time Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona reportedly met with some Sinema donors in New York, fueling speculation he might challenge her from the left.
The congressman has been a steady critic of the senior senator from Arizona. “We won’t shrink from protecting our democracy and the voting rights of all Americans,” Gallego said during a fight over changing filibuster rules in the Senate. “It’s past time for the US Senate and Sen. Sinema to do the same.”
With a 50-50 tie in the current Senate, the effort to oust her from the Democratic Party could have given the Senate to the GOP. After Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia, Democrats will maintain control but just barely.
Sinema responded politely to the constant attacks from her own party but finally gave them what they demanded: She left.
“Everyday Americans are increasingly left behind by national parties’ rigid partisanship, which has hardened in recent years,” Sinema wrote in her op-ed last week. “Pressures in both parties pull leaders to the edges, allowing the loudest, most extreme voices to determine their respective parties’ priorities and expecting the rest of us to fall in line.”
This applies to Arizona Republicans as well, with voters rejecting gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, whom they viewed as too extreme.
In Arizona, the GOP holds a party registration edge with nearly 35% of voters, but a full 34% are registered independents, a number that is growing all the time, according to the secretary of state’s office. (Democrats account for about 31%.)
When Sinema faces her constituents in 2024, the indies may have eclipsed both political parties, setting her up for success without the baggage of two increasingly extreme party bases.
Since her days in the Statehouse, Sinema cultivated moderate bona fides. Both in the House of Representatives and the Senate, her mailers and ads are seas of waving flags and smiling veterans. She barely mentions either party, instead stressing her “independence” and willingness to work with literally “anyone” on big issues.
She’s also well-liked on both sides, having built working relationships and personal friendships with political opponents for years. Sinema is a shrewd enough politician to know that voters back home want politicians who get things done, even if it means — shudder — working across the aisle.