WASHINGTON — When Phil Gramm, a conservative House member from Texas, left the Democratic Party in 1983, he immediately quit Congress and forced a special election that he won as a newly minted Republican six weeks later. He called his leave-and-start-from-scratch approach the “only honorable course of action,” since voters had elected him as a Democrat.
Arlen Specter, a longtime centrist Republican senator from Pennsylvania, was blunt when he suddenly became a Democrat after backing some Obama administration initiatives in 2009. He said he had consulted his political strategist and been informed that polls showed he could not win a Republican primary; hence, he needed to switch parties if he was to have any hope of political survival. He lost anyway, suffering defeat in a Democratic primary the next year.
Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who left the Democratic Party and proclaimed herself an independent last week, was less transparent about her move. She dismissed any suggestion that she had made it to better position herself for a 2024 re-election bid after angering Arizona Democrats by regularly bucking her party, even though poll numbers in the state clearly indicate that she would have a difficult time winning a Democratic primary.
Though she asked Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, to allow her to keep her committee slots on the Democratic side of the aisle, she refused to say she would align with Democrats, like two other Senate independents, Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. She didn’t even want Democrats declaring that they still retained their new 51-to-49 majority, though that is clearly the result for Senate organizational purposes at the moment.
Mr. Schumer on Tuesday even dared to utter those numbers.
“Senator Sinema asked me to keep her committees and that keeps the Senate committees functioning in a 51-49 vein, and that’s what we want to do,” he said.
The switch was another drama-filled episode featuring the enigmatic first-term senator. Democrats are hoping that once the immediate moment passes, Ms. Sinema will continue to work with them for the next two years as she has on numerous major pieces of legislation over the past two years, and that little will change except the letter after her name signifying her partisan affiliation.
“She’s always been independent,” said Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who has teamed up with Ms. Sinema in multiple bipartisan “gangs” to strike deals on issues such as gun control and infrastructure. “She’s been an effective legislator, and I will continue working with her.”
A New U.S. Congress Takes Shape
Following the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats maintained control of the Senate while Republicans flipped the House.
- Divided Government: What does a split Congress mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to gridlock that could lead to government shutdowns and economic turmoil.
- Kyrsten Sinema: The Arizona senator said that she would leave the Democratic Party and register as an independent, just days after the Democrats secured an expanded majority in the Senate.
- A Looming Clash: Congressional leaders have all but abandoned the idea of acting to raise the debt ceiling before Democrats lose control of the House, punting the issue to a new Congress.
- First Gen Z Congressman: In the weeks after his election, Representative-elect Maxwell Frost of Florida, a Democrat, has learned just how different his perspective is from that of his older colleagues.
But Democrats are also keeping a wary eye. Any further move away from the party by Ms. Sinema could thrust them back into the 50-50 split they were so thrilled to escape with the re-election of Senator Raphael Warnock in Georgia last week, only to have Ms. Sinema rain on their victory parade days later.
Then there is Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, who has his own 2024 re-election difficulties ahead. Mr. Manchin assured reporters this week that he had no plans to join Ms. Sinema in the stripes-changing camp, but also said he could not predict the future — a comment no doubt duly noted by his Democratic colleagues.
While Mr. Warner is correct that Ms. Sinema has always been independent, her change of affiliation does offer her some distance from her old party if she wants to emphasize it. Both Republicans and Democrats will be watching to see if that translates into a new approach. She said in interviews, an op-ed and a video statement that she does not intend to operate any differently than she has to date.
“I’m going to keep doing exactly what I do, which is just stay focused on the work and ignore all the noise,” she told CNN.
But Republicans will no doubt try to capitalize on her new status. For instance, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, used Twitter to urge the new independent to insist that Senate committees be evenly divided instead of the one-seat advantage Democrats are expecting to have beginning in January.
“Now Sen Sinema is independent & she correctly states ppl tired of partisanship,” he said in a tweet. “One step she cld take even though she won’t caucus w Republicans is push to keep equal party numbers on committees like this congress. That wld result in more bipartisanship.”
Such a move by Ms. Sinema, suffice it to say, would be frowned on by Democrats.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, on Tuesday noted his own strong relationship with Ms. Sinema.
“She and I talk all the time,” he said. “She has a lot of friends on our side of the aisle, including me, and I think she’s decided she’s genuinely an independent and is charting her own course, and I wish her well.”
In her announcement, Ms. Sinema sought to emphasize her independent streak to diminish any criticism that she had played bait and switch with Arizona voters by running as a Democrat only to abandon the party label four years later when it appeared she might not fare well in a party primary.
“When I ran for the U.S. Senate, I pledged to be independent and work with anyone to achieve lasting results,” she said.
But she ran as a Democrat, benefiting from millions of dollars in party spending, and some Arizonans clearly feel cheated, judging by the swell of attacks on her emanating from the state. Mr. Schumer and other Democrats say it is way too early to weigh in on whether they would back her or a declared Democrat when 2024 rolls around.
Party-switching on Capitol Hill gained steam in the Reagan years as multiple congressional Democrats from the South moved to the Republican side, in line with the sweeping political realignment coursing through the region. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it did not.
Representative Bill Grant, a lifelong Democrat from Florida’s conservative Panhandle, was courted by President George H.W. Bush to jump the Democratic ship in 1989 by promising to campaign for him the next year.
“This action is not going to change the way I vote,” Mr. Grant promised in an appearance with the president.
It did change the way his constituents voted when it came to him. He was defeated by Democrat Pete Peterson the next year after Mr. Peterson, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, accused Mr. Grant of a breach of faith with voters by changing parties midstream.
Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, who is retiring this year after six terms, became an enthusiastic Republican after the party’s congressional election sweep in 1994, and has survived quite comfortably.
“I got the same amount of votes as a Republican as I did as a Democrat,” Mr. Shelby said this week. “I was elected twice as a Democrat and four times as a Republican. I had no compunction about it. I have no regrets.”
Ms. Sinema’s political fate is yet to be determined. Democrats just hope she sticks with them in the near future.
“I’m sure it was an important and maybe difficult decision for her to make personally,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat. “I am going to work with Kyrsten in her capacity as long as she’s working toward the same goals that I share.”