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Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema retires from Senate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Kyrsten Sinema will retire from the Senate. She is the former Democrat turned independent lawmaker from Arizona, and she's been a key player in bipartisan negotiations. But after months of speculation, she made an announcement in a video on social media today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYRSTEN SINEMA: I love Arizona, and I am so proud of what we've delivered. Because I choose civility, understanding, listening, working together to get stuff done, I will leave the Senate at the end of this year.

CHANG: Sinema's seat is seen as a key battleground for both parties in determining control of the Senate. Joining us now to talk about that is NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales. Hey, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, I mean, it feels like there's this growing list of moderate lawmakers leaving Congress, right? How does Sinema's announcement fit into that trend?

GRISALES: Well, she admits she's a casualty of the current political climate and part of this trend of more moderate members leaving as parties retreat further into partisan corners. And we're especially seeing that with Republicans who were key members of these bipartisan negotiations she was very much a part of. Sinema also said in this video statement that America had reached a crossroads. And America had chosen, quote, "anger and division," and therefore there's no longer room for lawmakers like her. But we should be clear, Sinema became increasingly controversial as she evolved this past decade from a liberal lawmaker to one of its more moderate members. And her poll numbers, for example, were underwater in her own state, and she was facing an uphill battle if she tried to run for reelection.

CHANG: Which is so interesting because Sinema - I mean, I remember when she came into Congress.

GRISALES: Yeah.

CHANG: She came with a bit of fanfare. Like, she was the first woman senator from Arizona. She was the first openly bisexual woman to serve in Congress, period. She rode this wave of popularity when she was elected to the House more than a decade ago. So how did we get from there to here?

GRISALES: Right. Her story, in some ways, parallels the journey of American politics today. Her loyalty to her party evolved to this bipartisan stance on lawmaking. And this was once a very successful approach in Congress, but that's a much less popular approach today. She was elected to the House in 2012 after serving in her state legislature. She was even once a member of the Green Party before she entered Congress. But when she came to Washington, she joined just about every moderate group she could, like the Problem Solvers Caucus or the Blue Dogs, who are fiscally conservative Democrats, and she became one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress. And that was how she ran for Senate, too.

CHANG: And how did that political evolution play out when she was in the Senate?

GRISALES: Well, she turned that shift into this successful run for the Senate, where she took over that seat for her first term in 2019. There, she increasingly became known for her bipartisan work and being a swing vote - something that didn't always make other Democrats happy. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer today lauded her role in some of these key bills that were passed in recent years - the Inflation Reduction Act, the Respect for Marriage Act and, more recently, she was one of the main negotiators on the bipartisan border security talks.

CHANG: Right. OK, so what's next for Kyrsten Sinema, you think?

GRISALES: Well, much like this announcement today, it appears she'll keep us in suspense for more time, as she didn't say if she'll leave politics for good or what her other plans could include. She has always been very prickly when it came to her...

CHANG: Oh, yes.

GRISALES: ...Future plans. You would know, right?

CHANG: Yeah.

GRISALES: She was known for yelling at reporters, including myself, when we asked in recent months what her recent plans were. But it's been a huge question, and now this clarity with her decision will mean that this Arizona Senate race will come down to a very key opposition between Democrat and Republican, and it will be closely watched this year.

CHANG: That is NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thank you so much, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.