Shortly before Republicans blocked the bipartisan border bill, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona lambasted her GOP colleagues.
“If you want to continue to use the southern border as a backdrop for your political campaign, that’s fine, good luck to you,” she said. “But I have a very clear message for anyone using the southern border for staged political events: Don't come to Arizona. Take your political theater to Texas. Do not bring it to my state.”
The words were particularly harsh for Sinema, the often mercurial Democrat-turned-Independent, and had the tone of a friend betrayed. Ever since she won her election in 2018 and, in doing so, became the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Arizona in 30 years, she has enjoyed a warm relationship with Republicans. And that tendency led to her being able to produce results.
But the collapse of the bill that she brokered with Republican Senator James Lankford and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy — one that would have put in place additional restrictions to immigration in exchange for aid to Israel and Ukraine, as well as support for Taiwan — saw many of her usual GOP negotiating partners oppose her legislation. For a senator like Sinema, who always sees a deal to be made or a compromise to be struck, this was devastating. It crystallised her impotence in the face of a Republican Party under the spell of Donald Trump.
Progressives have long disliked Sinema. A former Green Party activist who once protested against the Iraq war in a tutu, she changed her tune in the Senate. Most infamously, she voted down an attempt to raise the minimum wage in the early days of the Biden administration. Her support for the filibuster — even in the case of restoring the Voting Rights Act — and her attempt to sink the Inflation Reduction Act only further enraged her detractors. And she seemed to relish that.
At the same time, few people can deny that Sinema actually gets stuff done. Her friendships with Republicans helped her broker the bipartisan infrastructure bill, for one thing. And after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, she and Murphy — her negotiating partner on the immigration-Ukraine bill — brokered an agreement to curb gun violence that Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham supported. Republican Senator Thom Tillis likes her so much that one Halloween, he dressed up his dog Theodore as Sinema with a pink wig.
Sinema and Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — the first openly bisexual and gay Senators, respectively — partnered with Tillis and other Republicans again on the Respect for Marriage Act to codify protections for same-sex and interracial couples. The same week Sinema announced her exit from the Democratic Party, the House voted to pass that act.
But despite her negotiating prowess, all of those agreements had common traits. For one, they happened when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, meaning that Nancy Pelosi’s caucus would inevitably swallow whatever agreement she found with Republicans.
She also had a much pliable Republican counterparts like Rob Portman of Ohio, her partner on the marriage bill, and Roy Blunt of Missouri, who supported all three of her bipartisan agreements. During Senate votes, she often could be seen chatting with McConnell and Senate Majority Whip John Thune, who once hoped she would join the GOP.
Lastly, the gun bill and the marriage agreement effectively neutralized two losing issues for Republicans. She effectively did them a favour.
Everything changed when Republicans won the House of Representatives. With such a thin margin, the extremists in the House Republican conference made Sinema’s former workout buddy Kevin McCarthy their chew-toy until they torpedoed him. His successor, Mike Johnson, is far more ideological and has an even smaller majority.
Indeed, almost as soon as the renegotiated border bill text dropped this week, and even as Sinema held a press call explaining it to reporters, Republicans were coming out fiercely against it. When one reporter on her press call said that Republicans called it a “Senate amnesty bill,” Sinema laughed off the critique, as if incredulous that her congressional colleagues would reject something they had not even read.
Rapidly, the world she knew has changed. She has fewer Republican interlocutors: JD Vance, the Trump-critic-turned apologist, replaced the mild-mannered Portman. Eric Schmitt, who endorsed Trump even before the Iowa caucuses, replaced Blunt. Both opposed the bill and Vance has opposed assisting Ukraine. Sinema’s close friend Mitt Romney will leave the Senate later this year.
Similarly, unlike guns and same-sex marriage, polling shows the American public is on the side of the GOP when it comes to immigration. That means they want to keep it as a talking-point to beat up Democrats in an election year.
So far, Sinema has not announced whether she will seek re-election as an Independent in what will be one of the most bizarre Senate races in the country. But the farther right the GOP lurches, the fewer chances she has to do the work she wants.
After the failed vote on Wednesday, she milled the Senate floor and conversed with her only her Democratic colleagues, save for Republican Susan Collins of Maine.
Earlier in the day, Ruben Gallego, the Democratic congressman and Marine veteran who is running for her seat, walked back and forth talking to reporters. He was seen stopping to touch the door to the Senate that, if he replaces Sinema, he might very well call his office next year.