Politics

Kyrsten Sinema Isn’t the Only Senator to Switch Parties Mid-Term

Several others have done so, and for remarkably similar reasons.

Sinema, wearing a pink sweater and red glasses, stands at a podium.
Sen. Kyrtsen Sinema of Arizona speaks at a news conference on Nov. 29. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s announcement Friday that she’s becoming an independent shrinks the Democratic Party’s expected advantage ahead the start of the new term. There are plenty of questions left to answer, including if Sinema’s departure will mark a shift in her voting patterns (she claims it won’t). But despite the uproar, this is not the first time a sitting senator has changed parties mid-term, nor is it close to the most dramatic instance of such a swap.

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If you include Sinema, 22 U.S. Senators have changed parties while in office. Some of these followed partisan shifts, such as South Carolina segregationist Strom Thurmond’s move to the Republican party in 1964, or Alabama’s Richard Shelby wrapping up the Southern exodus in 1994. Others were swept up by more historically bizarre political moments, such as Colorado’s Henry Teller’s defection to the Silver Republicans over the issue of silver monetization in 1896.

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But in more modern history, the moves have usually been recognizable as political maneuvers. Several were for campaign-related reasons. In 1999, New Hampshire’s Bob Smith left the Republican Party, frustrated that his presidential campaign never took off. He briefly joined the “Taxpayer’s Party,” then became an independent, and then dropped his presidential ambitions altogether. He rejoined the GOP less than a year after he’d left it, when the Committee on Environment and Public Works chair opened up, claiming he’d technically never changed his registration.

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In 2006, after Joe Lieberman lost his primary as a Democrat running for Senate in Connecticut, he ran in the general election as an independent and won. He was registered as an “Independent Democrat” and ultimately continued to caucus with the Democrats, though his relationship with the party grew more strained.

And in 2009, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter changed registration from Republican to Democrat ahead of a potential primary challenge from Pat Toomey. Specter had, admittedly, been a centrist who supported some Democratic efforts already (the New York Times described him as a “hard-edged and tenacious” man who “confounded fellow Republicans at every turn”), but he also admitted that his real motivations had been that Toomey was too much of a threat. He lost in the Democratic primary, and Toomey ultimately won the seat.

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Perhaps the most confounding person on the list is Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Coloradan who, according to the Times, would wear bolo ties and “roar… around town on a highly accessorized Harley-Davidson.” He left the Democratic Party in 1995, claiming he could “no longer represent the agenda that is put forth by the party,” while simultaneously asserting that he would vote largely with the Democrats. “I certainly agree with many of the things that Democrats stand for,” he said in his announcement. He joined the Republican Party just after it took control of the Senate, but the Times reported that the move “had more to do with growing personal antagonisms he had experienced within the Democratic Party in Colorado than with any ideological split.” According to the Times, Campbell had a temper and had fought publicly with his former chief of staff and others in the party.

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Campbell and Sinema, apart from being loud characters, have something else in common: their switch didn’t tip the control of the chamber. The sole Senator to have done that is Jim Jeffords of Vermont. In 2001, when the Senate was split 50-50 with a tie-breaking vote from Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, Jeffords defected, becoming an independent who caucused with Democrats. Immediately, the Senate switched hands.

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Democrats had courted Jeffords, offering him a committee spot among other incentives. But he also had a history of quarreling with Republican leaders, particularly over tax cuts and education funding. “Increasingly I find myself in disagreement in my party,” Jeffords had said. “I understand that many people are more conservative than I am, and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party it has become a struggle for our leaders to deal with me and for me to deal with them.”

The Democrats’ control didn’t last long, and Jeffords retired at the end of his term. It’s unclear what Sinema’s decision means for her political future—though it’s certainly intended to prolong it by getting her out of what would have been a tough Democratic primary. In that, at least, she’s not doing anything unprecedented.

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