It’s odd that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s Friday announcement that she’s changing her party affiliation from Democratic to independent is getting as much attention as it is, while the fight over the top job in the House is not. The reality is that very little will change over the next six to 12 months in the Senate as a result of Sinema’s decision, but the consequences and implications of the fight over the House speaker’s post is far greater.
Once it became clear that she would continue to vote to organize with Democrats, providing them a 51-49 edge presumably in exchange for keeping her current committee assignments and seniority, nothing changed. The primary difference between the status of Sinema and Maine’s Angus King, long officially an independent, is that she would not attend the Senate Democratic luncheons held each week that the Senate is in session, while he will. (The catch is that reportedly she rarely attended them in the past.) So Democrats stay at 51, Republicans at 49, and nothing changes.
What isn’t known but is far more interesting to find out is if there is an agreement, explicit or not, between Sinema and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over what the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or its super PAC cousin, the Senate Majority PAC, will or won’t do on behalf of a Democrat running against her in 2024, assuming that she seeks another term. Is there an understanding that if the party were to begin to spend money to unseat her, her next stop would be in the offices of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell? If there is not some kind of understanding of that kind, why would she enter into this agreement? After all, did Democrats contemplate spending money against King the last time he sought reelection, or will they in 2024 when he comes up again? No, because he votes to organize with them, just as Sinema looks to do next month.
This is hardly hypothetical, given that progressive Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego has not made it a secret that he plans to run against Sinema in the 2024 primary—hence what would seem to be, at least from her standpoint, some kind of understanding that Gallego would have to do it without official party support.
Sinema is unlikely to shift to the Republicans. History tells us that when a senator moves from one party to the other, they often lose the very next primary election. In this case, Sinema would not be nearly conservative enough for a Republican primary electorate, just as Sen. Joe Manchin could probably not survive a Republican primary. One difference between Sinema and Manchin, however, is that Manchin is in little danger of losing a Democratic primary in West Virginia, where the number of true liberals is quite small, but Sinema clearly has plenty of detractors among the ranks of Arizona Democrats.
Looking at the situation for House Republicans, it is difficult to see how current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy or anyone else can navigate straits this narrow, with a very loud and belligerent Freedom Caucus to manage but the ranks of Republicans in the House too thin to spurn the few remaining moderates in the GOP Conference. Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi was able to do it on the Democratic side, but the number of members substantially to her left were fewer, and she went in with more strength among her membership than McCarthy has. As challenging as her job as speaker has been for the last two years, she had more weapons and more ammunition at her disposal.
On a different note, it’s worth keeping a close eye on the polling that has been conducted since the midterm election by CNN, as well as the new quarterly CNBC All America Economic Survey and the Gallup poll. For Democrats, these polls are fresh reminders that President Biden and Democrats have big problems coming out of this midterm election, that it wasn’t the win that many Democrats seem to have convinced themselves occurred. Meanwhile, it demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge Republicans face in dealing with the MAGA faction of the party that seems hell-bent on alienating independents and swing voters.
As Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock of the Global Strategy Group noted this week in a particularly smart analysis, Republicans minted more voters this past cycle, while Democratic turnout in blue districts and urban areas was down. Yet a combination of voters' reaction to the MAGA movement and the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, coupled with strong Democratic incumbents running on solid records, turned a referendum election into a choice.
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The article was originally published for the National Journal on December 12, 2022.
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