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- Sinema’s departure from the party puts national Democrats in an awkward position in 2024.
- If she runs again, they’ll have to decide whether to back her, support a Democrat, or stay neutral.
- Insider asked Democratic senators what the party should do. Most didn’t have an answer.
Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s departure from the Democratic Party poses a conundrum for her erstwhile caucus-mates if she runs for re-election in Arizona in 2024: should they support her or a candidate nominated from their own party?
Insider asked a handful of Democratic senators on Monday how they think the party should handle their controversial colleague’s re-election. So far, they’re not ready to answer that question.
“I’m not surprised. She’s an independent person,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said of Sinema’s decision.
He, along with other Democratic senators, noted that little is likely to change at the Senate itself. “Overwhelmingly, her voting record matches up quite well with those of us on the Democratic side,” Kaine said.
“It doesn’t change my life one bit,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. “We’re still 51.”
Kaine declined to say whether the party should back her in 2024. “You are thinking way ahead of me,” he said. Whitehouse, meanwhile, said it would depend on “if she’s running with the party.”
Sinema, who in 2018 became the first Democrat to win a US Senate race in Arizona since 1988, has not yet said whether she’ll seek another six-year term in 2024. But if she does, the general election could come down to a three-way race between her, a Democrat, and a Republican.
“I don’t think anybody’s announcing anything,” Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona told reporters, saying he didn’t want to get into “hypotheticals.” He added: “I’ve worked very closely with her for a long period of time.”
Some have argued that Sinema’s independent turn is a calculated move, designed not only to avoid what would’ve been a bruising primary, but also to discourage Democrats from nominating a candidate, lest they split left-of-center votes and hand the seat back to the GOP.
There is some precedent for the party accommodating independents: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine caucus with Democrats, but are not formal members of the party. Sanders has accepted — then declined — his state party’s nomination in Vermont all three times he’s run for Senate, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the party’s Senate campaign arm, remained neutral between King and a Democratic candidate in 2012 and didn’t get involved in 2018.
But it’s unlikely that Arizona Democrats would simply yield to Sinema, despite her liberal positions on most issues. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego is now openly discussing a potential Senate campaign, and in a statement blasting her decision, the state party said Sinema “answers to corporations and billionaires, not Arizonans.”
Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the head of the DSCC for 2022, also declined to say whether the party should back Sinema.
“I’m going to keep working with Senator Sinema,” Peters told reporters, noting that they both sit on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “We’ll be working together.”
Aside from mere endorsements, support from the national party carries financial implications. The DSCC spends tens of millions of dollars in competitive races to boost Democrats and attack Republicans.
“She’s a very independent leader in the Senate and her new party affiliation matches that very nicely. She’ll still be part of our majority,” said Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who just worked with Sinema to shepherd a bill protecting same-sex and interracial marriage through the Senate.
But she too declined to say whether the party should back Sinema in 2024, waving as the elevator closed.
For now, Sinema’s decision appears to have little bearing on the Senate itself.
She has said that her work in the Senate won’t change, and in a statement on Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer indicated that she will continue to remain functionally a part of Democrats’ newly-expanded 51-seat majority in the chamber, granting them majorities on committees and the ability to issue subpoenas.
Asked by reporters what he made of Sinema’s announcement, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware dramatically shrugged.