Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has announced that she is now registered as an independent – but she does not plan to caucus with Republicans, ensuring Democrats will retain their narrow voting majority in the US senate.
Ms Sinema has modelled her political approach on the renegade style of the late Republican senator John McCain of Arizona, and has frustrated Democratic colleagues at times with her overtures to Republicans and opposition to Democratic priorities.
But rather than assailing the Democratic Party in her statement, she said she was “declaring my independence from the broken partisan system in Washington.”
While it is unusual for a sitting senator to switch party affiliation, the move appears to hold more impact on Ms Sinema’s own political brand than the operations of the senate.
In a video explaining her decision, she said: “Registering as an independent and showing up to work with the title of independent is a reflection of who I’ve always been … Nothing’s going to change for me.”
The first-term senator wrote in The Arizona Republic that she came into office pledging “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. I promised I would never bend to party pressure”.
She wrote that her approach is “rare in Washington and has upset partisans in both parties”, but “has delivered lasting results for Arizona”.
Ms Sinema also said that she has “never fit perfectly in either national party”.
Before Ms Sinema’s announcement, Democrats were set to hold a 51-49 edge in the new senate come January after Democratic senator Raphael Warnock won in Georgia’s runoff election.
Until then, the US senate will remain even, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tiebreaking vote for Democrats.
Ms Sinema told Politico in an interview that she will not caucus with Republicans and that she plans to keep voting as she has since winning election to the senate in 2018 after three House terms.
She is expected to maintain her committee assignments through the Democratic majority, according to a senate Democratic aide.
Two current independents, senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, caucus with Democrats and gain their committee seniority through the Democrats.
She is facing re-election in 2024 and is likely to be matched against a well-funded primary challenger after angering much of the Democratic base by blocking or watering down progressive priorities such as a minimum wage increase and President Joe Biden’s big social spending initiatives. She has not said whether she plans to seek another term.
Ms Sinema’s most prominent potential challenger in the primaries is representative Ruben Gallego, who has a long history of feuding with her.