Kyrsten Sinema, Evan McMullin, and the Emergence of an Independent Caucus

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema Is Now an Independent

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, formerly a Democrat, announced recently that she is now an independent. She has vowed not to caucus with the Republican Party and expects to retain her committee assignments. I suspect she has an arrangement with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D), the Senate Majority Leader, that will allow her to retain her committee assignments in return for her support in giving the Democrats full control over the Senate. Even as a Democrat, she did not regularly attend the Democratic Caucus meetings to discuss party strategy. Whether one could say that she now “caucuses” with the Democratic Party is a matter of how one defines the term.

She has supported the Biden administration legislatively about 93% of the time. However, she broke with the Democratic Party on a number of key issues. As a self-described social liberal and fiscal conservative, she voted against the $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” bill. She opposed dispensing with the filibuster rule and believes it should be re-instituted for judicial appointments and approval of presidential nominees for other positions. She voted against a minimum wage bill, although she is on record supporting increasing the minimum wage. I suspect her opposition was about the magnitude of the increase in the minimum wage being proposed. She is also opposed to packing the Supreme Court. Sinema voted against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett and for Ketanji Brown Jackson. She is a strong supporter of abortion rights.

Her motivation for becoming an independent may be nothing more than the fact that the Democratic Party is now incapable of accepting her, sometimes, moderate views and she therefore expects to have a well-funded, far left opponent in the 2024 primary. The Democrats are irate. Twitter is awash with snarky criticism of Sen. Sinema from the progressive left. The progressives fear that their candidate will have to split the Democratic votes with Sinema and that a Republican will win the Senate seat from Arizona. The solution for the Democrats ought to be the one that Democrats in Utah adopted: don’t run a candidate and endorse the independent. Surely a Senator who votes with you 93% of the time is better than a Republican one, who will rarely side with Democrats.

Given the kind of candidates the Republican Party has offered up lately in Arizona, I have little doubt that the Centrist Independent Voter would endorse Sen. Kyrsten Sinema for another term in the U.S. Senate.

Evan McMullin’s Failed Bid as an Independent in Utah

The Centrist Independent Voter did endorse Evan McMullin in the U.S. Senate race in Utah in 2022. The Democratic Party in Utah also endorsed his candidacy rather than offer one of their own. McMullin is a conservative but he would count as a moderate in the current Republican Party. Mike Lee, who is an election denier and Trump supporter, defeated McMullin by casting doubt on McMullin’s ability to effectively represent Utah given McMullin’s pledge that he would not caucus with either party.

I thought that McMullin’s pledge not to caucus with either party was a mistake. Maybe it was a quid pro quo for the endorsement of the Democratic Party in Utah. I think he would have been better served by a more nuanced approach like the one Sinema is taking: agree to support the majority party on establishing control in the Senate, in return for getting your desired committee assignments, but otherwise remaining independent. I don’t think this is the strategy adopted by the other two independent Senators, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, who appear to actively participate in the strategy discussions within the Democratic Caucus.

The Emergence of an Independent Caucus

If McMullin had won, it would have been easy to imagine he and Sinema forming an Independent Caucus. There would have been 50 Democratic votes (including Sanders and King), 48 Republican votes, and 2 Independents. If the Democrats wanted full control of the Senate they would have to negotiate with the Independent Caucus on committee assignments. If the Republicans wanted to keep control of the Senate split, they, too, would have been forced to negotiate with the Independent Caucus. Perhaps Sinema and McMullin could have persuaded Angus King, the moderate independent from Maine to join them. In that case they would be the key to passing any legislation in the Senate. Sadly, McMullin’s failure to win in Utah precludes this scenario for the time being.

A Potential Role for Georgia in the Creation of a True Independent Caucus

Georgia played a dramatic role in this year’s Senate race. Perhaps it could be even more important. Georgia is unusual in that it requires that candidates in the general election receive a true majority in order to win. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two candidates participate in a runoff. This happened in 2020 and 2022 for the U.S. Senate seat now occupied by Raphael Warnock. During one of the debates in Georgia in 2022, the Libertarian Candidate noted that this means that voting for your true preference in the general election, in Georgia, never means wasting your vote. If some other candidate gets 50+% your vote would not have made a difference anyway. If your candidate fails to get 50+% you will have a chance to vote for one of the other, “lesser of two evils” candidates, in the run off. If your candidate makes it into the top two, you will have a chance to put them over the top in the run off. A serious, well-funded moderate, independent candidate could win in Georgia. This is particularly true if the Republican Party continues to listen to Trump and nominates another flawed candidate. While Herschel Walker garnered a significant number of votes, he did so only because so many Georgia Republicans cannot abide being represented by a progressive Democrat in the U.S. Senate.

You might say that they had that choice with the Libertarian candidate. While there are some appealing aspects to libertarianism, their embrace of isolationism in international affairs, opposition to progressive taxation, Social Security, and Medicare keep them out of the ideological mainstream in American politics. A moderate, socially liberal and fiscally conservative, independent candidate, unburdened by Libertarian ideology, could win in Georgia. Combine that candidate with Sinema and King and you have a powerful Independent Caucus. You also have a better alternative for Evan McMullin to offer the voters in Utah, if he choses to run again.

An Ideal Outcome

My personal wish list would be an Independent Caucus comprised of Sinema, King, McMullin and a moderate, center-right candidate from Georgia. Two moderate, left-of-center Senators matched with two moderate, right-of-center Senators sitting astride a 48-48 split between the Democrats and Republicans might rescue American politics from polarization.

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