Dec 12, 2022

Kyrsten Sinema leaves the Democratic party.

U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema speaking in 2019. Photo: Gage Skidmore
U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema speaking in 2019. Photo: Gage Skidmore 

Will this shake up the Senate, or just help Sinema?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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In today's edition, we're covering Kyrsten Sinema's decision to leave the Democratic party and a reader question about what is going to happen to the J6 committee. Plus, a reminder about what's in our merch store if you still need to do some holiday gift shopping!

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Quick hits.

  1. U.S. officials are in custody of the alleged bombmaker who took down a flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The attack killed 259 people in flight and 11 on the ground, and the detainment of the Libyan official who is suspected in the bombing is a major milestone in the decades-old investigation. (The detention)
  2. American journalist Grant Wahl died Saturday while covering the World Cup match between Argentina and the Netherlands. Wahl fell back in his seat before reporters called for assistance; he was treated on site before being taken to a hospital. (The death)
  3. Billionaire and pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai was sentenced to five years in prison over fraud charges stemming from his arrest in Hong Kong. (The sentence)
  4. The Keystone Pipeline suffered a leak that sent 14,000 barrels of oil into a rural Kansas creek, causing the entire pipeline to be shut down. (The leak)
  5. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has erected more than 3,000 double-stacked shipping containers along Arizona's border as an impromptu wall before he leaves office next month. (The wall)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Kyrsten Sinema. On Friday, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) announced that she is registering as an independent. Sinema made the announcement in an opinion piece in the Arizona Republic, writing that "everyday Americans are increasingly left behind by national parties’ rigid partisanship, which has hardened in recent years."

Sinema's announcement comes just days after Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) won reelection, securing Democrats their 51st seat in the Senate, giving them a one-seat gain from last Congress. She told reporters that she would not caucus with Republicans, meaning Democrats are likely to preserve a voting advantage in the upper chamber on major legislation.

"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," she wrote. "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. I pledged to be independent and work with anyone to achieve lasting results. I committed I would not demonize people I disagreed with, engage in name-calling, or get distracted by political drama."

There are already two other senators — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine — who are independents but caucus with Democrats. While unusual, other senators have switched parties while in office, too. Jim Jeffords left the GOP to join Democrats in 2001, which actually changed control of the Senate. Republican Arlen Specter decided to run as a Democrat in 2009 with a difficult re-election in front of him. And vice presidential candidate Joe Liberman went from Democrat to independent in 2006.

Sinema was first elected to the Senate in 2018 to replace Jeff Flake (R), who retired that year. She was the first openly bisexual and second openly LGBT woman to be elected to the House of Representantives, in 2012, and to the Senate, in 2018. She was also the first woman to ever win a Senate race in Arizona. Over the last two years, she and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) have repeatedly broken from Democratic party leaders and President Joe Biden on issues like abolishing the filibuster, increasing taxes on corporations, and lowering prescription drug prices. Despite that, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) said Sinema will keep her committee assignments even as an independent.

In office, Sinema has often harped on her independent attitude and ability to work above partisan party politics. She framed her decision as an extension of that promise, and a desire to step away from the partisanship that has ground Congress to a halt. Critics, however, have pointed to her upcoming election in 2024, saying the move is part of her plan to fend off a Democratic primary as she has repeatedly bucked the party while in office.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize Sinema, arguing that she is only protecting herself for 2024 and undermining a successful few weeks for Democrats.
  • Some say Sinema is doing what she always does: Acting selfishly.
  • Others argue the entire episode is much more show than substance.

In Arizona Republic, Elvia Díaz said Sinema's move was an act of self-preservation.

"She’s no victim. She’s ditching the Democratic Party because she either figured she can’t win a primary or she no longer needs the party’s money and infrastructure for her next move – or both. Her trajectory suggests she’s adept at ditching anyone or anything no longer useful to her. She began her public life as a Green Party activist. That went nowhere so she became an independent, which didn’t work either. Her big break came after she conveniently became a Democrat," Díaz wrote. “Perhaps leaving the party at this particular juncture is tacit acknowledgement that she has angered so many Democrats to the point she no longer feels she can win a primary – should she seeks reelection in 2024.

"Undoubtedly, she’s counting on independents and Republican support to retain her seat – whether those same Republicans who now profess their love for her would actually give her their spot is questionable at best," she wrote. "Sinema’s leaving the party changes the equation – again. Biden so far has confirmed about 90 of his judicial nominees. In comparison, Former President Trump placed about 230, according to the Wall Street Journal. No matter what, Arizonans are stuck with Sinema for the next two years. Let’s hope she keeps working with Democrats and Republicans to get things done. But make no mistake. Ditching the Democratic Party has nothing to do with ugly partisan games but everything to do with Sinema’s opportunism."

In The New York Times, Michelle Cottle said this is who Sinema has always been.

"Announcing her new independent status, Sinema wrote an essay in The Arizona Republic and gave interviews to outlets including Politico and CNN. Nowhere have I seen her articulate substantive differences with the Democrats, aside from her opposition to tax increases," Cottle wrote. "Instead, she spoke about not fitting into a box, being true to herself, and wanting to work, as she told Politico, without the 'pressures or the poles of a party structure.' Until recently, Sinema has seemed to delight in the power an evenly split Senate gave her, which she used to benefit the financial and pharmaceutical industries.

"Had Republicans won the Senate, Sinema could have become an independent who caucused with Republicans, preserving her place in the majority. A red wave might have seemed to vindicate her aggressive centrism, especially if Senator Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat far more loyal to his party, had lost," Cottle added. "But Kelly won and Democrats picked up a Senate seat. That meant Sinema could no longer hold the rest of the Democratic caucus hostage, or argue that only Democrats who defy their base are electable in her state. She was about to become a lot less relevant. Now she’s center stage again.

In CNN, David Axelrod said Sinema's departure is "more show than substance."

"If Sinema’s decision rained on the Democrats’ parade, it seems more a drizzle than a downpour. The practical effect in the next Congress is likely to be slight. She told CNN that she hopes to keep her committee assignments and continue business as usual. In an interview with Politico, Sinema added, 'I don’t anticipate that anything will change relative to the Senate structure.' And there’s good reason to believe her," Axelrod wrote. "With the exception of some notable dissents, she has backed President Joe Biden’s positions 93% of the time during his first two years in office.

"More than most of her colleagues, Sinema has worked easily across party lines in the Senate, helping to forge significant bipartisan legislation on a variety of issues, including infrastructure, gun control and most recently, same-sex marriage," he said. "But laudable as those compromises were, there are few political incentives for bipartisanship in today’s highly polarized party politics, in which the nominating processes are dominated by more ideologically-driven voters. Sinema’s announcement merely codifies that reality, as she acknowledged in an interview with CNN: 'I’ve never fit neatly into any party box. I’ve never really tried. I don’t want to.'"

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on Sinema's decision, with some celebrating the opportunity and others saying it's all a cynical political play.
  • Some say this is a chance for Republicans to retake her seat in 2024 if they play their cards right.
  • Others say Sinema is doing it only to preserve her seat, and criticize the hypocrisy of how the media treats politicians like her.

In the Arizona Republic, Laurie Roberts framed this as an opportunity for the GOP to take back her seat in 2024.

"In becoming an independent, Sinema has cleared the way for Republicans to retake a Senate seat they once owned. That is, if the Republicans have learned the lessons of 2018. And 2020. And 2022," Roberts wrote. "Sinema’s Friday announcement that she’s defecting from the Democrats shouldn’t come as any huge surprise. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has long despised her for doing exactly what she said she would do when she campaigned for the job. Not even a year ago, her own (now former) party censured her for refusing to get rid of the filibuster.

"Republicans have got to be thrilled with Sinema's defection. Coming off disastrous election losses in 2022, they now are presented with a chance to scoop up the golden egg in 2024 — if only they don’t prematurely lop off the head of the goose," Roberts wrote. "Which is entirely possible, should they continue to do as they did this year and nominate terrible candidates. Democrats like to portray their victory in all of the major state races this year as Arizona turning blue. Really, it was more about Arizona turning against Trump and his hand-picked slate of extremists. This is a come-to-Jesus moment for Arizona Republicans and it starts right now. Do they reject the fringe crowd that in recent years has transformed the party of the big tent into the party of the pup tent?"

In National Review, Philip Klein said Sinema is leaving the Democratic party because it'd be hard for her to win a primary.

"Outright switching parties didn’t make much sense. Sinema is still effectively a Democrat. She backed President Biden’s $1.9 trillion left-wing spending spree that helped fuel inflation, and his climate and Obamacare-expansion bill, and is radically pro-abortion. Overall, she has voted against her party just 3 percent of the time. She just hasn’t been willing to go whole hog in embracing radical actions to advance progressivism," he said. "Most notably, she has opposed ideas such as blowing up the filibuster and packing the courts, and her objections created roadblocks that contributed to the death of Biden’s $3.5 trillion progressive wish list branded as Build Back Better. That has made her a hate figure among the progressive activists who control the Democratic Party, who even took to following her into a bathroom to harass her.

"Sinema’s action appears to be a preemptive strike. By acting now, she avoids having to go through a tough Democratic primary she could very well lose, and then face the decision of having to leave the party in a position of weakness. This way she gets ahead of the story and has more time to make her case to voters," Klein said. "Sinema wanted to get a head start in branding herself as an independent to Arizonans. Assuming she decides to run, Democrats will have to make a difficult decision as to whether to run their own candidate, and risk splitting the vote and losing the seat to a Republican, or accepting somebody who will vote with Democrats on most issues. A situation in which there’s Sinema as an independent as well as a Democratic candidate on the November ballot is one in which you can see a Kari Lake get elected to the Senate."

In The New York Post, Eddie Scarry said renegade Republicans are "mavericks" to the media while Sinema is a "traitor."

"As part of the routine, liberals and Democrats are once again doubting her sincerity, belittling her competence and insulting her very presence as an elected senator. But only after attacking her in the most viciously sexist ways. Channeling the spirit of mean girls everywhere, GQ magazine writer Gabriella Paiella wrote on Twitter, 'It’s so crazy that Kyrsten Sinema is a senator when she would be soooo much happier running a burlesque-themed knitting store that also sells those retro signs of housewives saying things like ‘I’m not a bitch, I just play one in your life.’ ...  The title 'maverick' is apparently only reserved for Republicans who go against their own party, a la John McCain, who never missed an opportunity to show up on NBC to explain how principled he was for tanking the GOP’s legislative agenda.

"'Integrity' seems to only radiate when it’s a Republican who hates the head of his own party, in the vein of Mitt Romney," he added. "When Sinema, who identifies as bisexual, spent the better part of last year in headlines because she declined to buy into every item on the Democratic wish list, a slew of articles popped up to attack her in the most personal ways possible. An online piece for NBC asked, in earnest, 'Is Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema bad for bisexual Americans?' The author said Sinema’s unreliable vote for the party fed into supposed stereotypes about bisexual women being 'untrustworthy.' The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg diagnosed Sinema with 'pathologies' for having 'come to believe in bipartisanship for its own sake.' (Bipartisanship is only good if it means granting mass amnesty for illegal immigrants or joining Democrats in prosecuting their political opponents.)"

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • Sinema is probably looking ahead to 2024, and this is a smart political move.
  • I'd love to see more independents and independent-minded senators.
  • That being said, she really does seem like a committed progressive who just occasionally bucks the party.

For the last few years, Sinema and Manchin have been the major thorns in Democrats' side. But this move is just the latest reminder that, despite being lumped together so often by the media, the two really are quite different.

Manchin, for his part, is pretty consistent. He's a conservative Democrat from West Virginia who prioritizes his state and its energy needs over just about anything else. He's a smart politician who knows how to get reelected. He seems like a straightforward guy who got stuck in a changing party and genuinely struggles with major decisions on how to vote, even if he's probably influenced by big oil money and the spectacle of having so much sway in a divided Senate.

Sinema is not that. She's notoriously unclear about what she actually wants or stands for, and has successfully rebranded that ambiguity as independence. As David Graham put it, "She’s ideologically unpredictable and erratic; how else could someone go from being a radical anti-war activist to identifying John McCain as her political role model?" I follow the Senate for a living and aside from saying she wants to represent the spirit of Arizona — which is full of political independents and swing voters — I still don't really know what Sinema wants from her political legacy. The clearest lines of motive we have for her are that she has been heavily funded by Big Pharma and has gone out of her way to protect them.

And yet... look at her record. She voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill. She's unequivocally pro-choice. She's just finished fighting for a bill that advances marriage access for LGBTQ Americans. She has supported every single one of Biden's federal judicial appointments and voted with him more often than Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT), Bernie Sanders, (I-VT), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Catherine Cortes Masto (D-NV) and Joe Manchin. By that measure, her voting record is the same distance from Chuck Schumer’s as it is from Manchin’s. From a certain perspective, it seems as if she’s simply a diehard progressive who likes rocking the boat every now and then.

Taken together, it's not hard to be cynical about this move and view it — perhaps correctly — as little more than an act of electoral preservation. Sinema knows if she runs in 2024 as an independent, Democrats will face serious risk by putting up (and backing) a Democratic candidate like Rep. Ruben Gallego. If they do, they risk splitting their votes and handing the seat to a Republican in a year when the GOP is already at a huge advantage on the Senate map. There's a decent chance the party would opt not to challenge her, which is almost certainly what Sinema is banking on.

All of this is tough, for me, as someone who despises the political duopoly and wishes there were more independents in the Senate — not just in name but in voting and allegiances. I genuinely wish there were more unorthodox, occasional party-buckers in national politics, and I think it’s a good thing when principled idealists strike out against extreme partisanship. Reading Sinema’s op-ed, I found myself nodding along at her description of how this partisanship is destroying our country and hampering Congress.

At the same time, I don’t know if ‘principled idealist’ fits Kyrsten Sinema. And I can’t shake the sense that it’s a little unfair to Arizona voters that she is making this change in the middle of her term. If you want to be an independent, that’s fine, but make the switch in late 2024 and run as one.

Either way, I’m struggling to get too worked up over the news. I’ll be curious if any of this changes how she actually acts (or votes) in the Senate, but my strong suspicion is that it won’t.

Your questions, answered.

Q: With the Republicans taking the House, what is that going to mean for things like the January 6th Committee considering all the maneuvers that basically meant that the far Right (and more middle group between moderate and far-right GOP) were excluded? Do you think they will continue after the new House is seated or is this their one last shot? What about the court process for forcing those to testify with the subpoenas? Do they just need to hold things up in court until January and then not face any consequences for not testifying (or even testifying) or will they still be compelled to testify in front of someone (even if it's just taking the 5th)?

— Alia from Chicago, Illinois

Tangle: I think you can basically expect all those investigations to die, and then to be turned on Democrats.

For what it's worth, though, all those committees are basically prepared for that. This happens anytime Congress changes power, and Democrats were expecting to fare far worse than they did in these midterms — so it's not as if any of this is a surprise to them. The January 6 Committee is going to release their final report by the end of the year and at the moment they are basically working on how to frame their findings to the public — and what key issues to include or exclude.

As for folks who dodged subpoenas, the members of Congress involved are likely to be fine. Kevin McCarthy and other Republican lawmakers rejected requests to voluntarily cooperate and the committee resisted the option to take any legal action against them. When Republicans take over, I expect they will subpoena Democrats like Rep. Adam Schiff (CA) about their role in the investigations, and I expect Democrats like Schiff to similarly dodge or refuse to cooperate.

Some others, like Steve Bannon, have already been tried for contempt of Congress, and it's possible a few of those cases proceed in the federal court system outside of the committee's work. But the biggest legal threats to any Republicans are coming from the investigations into Trump, specifically in states like Georgia, where criminal charges are being considered.

Bringing charges against Republicans was never the goal of the January 6 Committee, though. It always prioritized putting together a report on that day and informing the public about what happened and how.

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Under the radar.

Congress is working to strike a last-minute immigration deal before Republicans take over the House, and it's possible it might advance. A handful of bipartisan senators, led by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), have outlined a proposal to provide a pathway to citizenship for two million undocumented immigrants known as dreamers in exchange for at least $25 billion of border security funding. The bill would also extend Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic measure that allowed for rapid expulsion for migrants, for at least a year. Meanwhile, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) are negotiating a narrower bill to provide citizenship for some undocumented farmworkers. The Washington Post has the story.


  • 87.9%. The percentage of the time Sen. Joe Manchin votes with Joe Biden.
  • 93.1%. The percentage of the time Sen. Kyrsten Sinema votes with Joe Biden.
  • 98.3%. The percentage of the time Chuck Schumer votes with Joe Biden.
  • 37%. The percentage of all Arizona voters who view Sinema favorably, according to a September poll.
  • 37%. The percentage of Democratic voters who view Sinema favorably, according to a September poll.
  • 41%. The percentage of independent voters who view Sinema favorably, according to a September poll.
  • 36%. The percentage of Republican voters who view Sinema favorably, according to a September poll.

Have a nice day.

NASA's Orion capsule successfully splashed down in the Pacific ocean after orbiting around the moon. The uncrewed capsule's landing marks the completion of the space agency's first Artemis mission: Testing the technology needed to one day send people back to the surface of the moon. NASA is hoping to get astronauts’ boots on the lunar ground again by 2025, and eventually to send astronauts from there to Mars. Critical to the Artemis mission was successfully testing a re-entry technique that will allow for consistent missions to and from space. The Wall Street Journal has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.