Kyrsten Sinema was standing a few yards from the border wall with four Republican members of Congress. The men were staring balefully at a row of nearby portable toilets, wondering aloud if they could hold out for a proper bathroom on the way back to the airport. Sinema assured Representatives David Valadao of California and Tony Gonzales of Texas that they need not worry on her account.
“If you know anything about me,” she said, gesturing vaguely out into the desert, “you know that I’ll go anywhere.” The two men, who were just getting to know the Arizona senator, laughed. “I mean,” Sinema added as she pointed back to the porta-potties, “I come from humble beginnings. That there is some fancy [expletive].”
Valadao, Gonzales and the two other elected officials, Representative Juan Ciscomani of Arizona and Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, all wore jeans and nondescript shirts. Sinema, dressed in a black Western shirt with a white yoke and black jeans with matching spectacles and cowboy boots, exercised her full array of Republican-charming skills throughout the morning. Standing at the wall, she had a detailed exchange with a Border Patrol official for the benefit of the visitors about how Mexican drug cartels managed to ferry fentanyl into Arizona and beyond. At a round-table discussion in the Cochise County sheriff’s office, she moderated a brisk dialogue between her congressional colleagues and beleaguered local officials whose once-quiet communities were now plagued by cartel associates. When the four Republicans responded with harsh criticisms of the Biden administration, Sinema nodded sympathetically, saying: “That’s right. That’s right.”
Sinema — who four months earlier left the Democratic Party and declared herself an independent — had orchestrated this April visit for two reasons, one explicit and the other hinted at. The four men joining her at the border had been “carefully curated” by Sinema, she told me the day before. Tillis had partnered with her on important legislation in the past, and they were now collaborating on what they hoped would be the first major border-and-immigration-reform bill to become law in a generation. Sinema targeted Ciscomani, Gonzales and Valadao, all of whom served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, as potential recruits for this effort.
Like two other recent legislative accomplishments that Sinema had a major hand in crafting — the 2021 infrastructure bill and the 2022 gun-safety initiative — the Sinema-Tillis plan is decidedly half a loaf, for which Sinema offers no apologies. “The people who want no bread if they can’t get the entire loaf of bread,” she told me, “are people who’ve never been hungry.”
But even if less than a full meal, the plan would still be consequential — increasing funds and equipment for the Border Patrol, reforming the asylum process, addressing backlogs of employment-based visas and providing a path to citizenship for about two million young American residents (the so-called Dreamers) — and its passage would be an even more improbable achievement than finding common ground on guns last year. “Guns is a high-wire act,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who worked with Sinema on the 2022 law and is now doing the same on immigration, told me. “Immigration is a high-wire act while holding active sticks of dynamite.”
Unlike those earlier legislative tightrope walks, Sinema, who is known for avoiding the news media, was performing this one in public, accompanied by a half-dozen members of the Arizona press as well as myself. It was clear, if unstated, that this was the second reason for going to the border, which most Democrats have assiduously stayed away from amid growing Republican criticism: her 2024 re-election bid. She never once raised the subject during our four interviews over two months. When I did, a day before the border visit, she cheerfully replied: “I’m not going to answer that question. But I’m glad you started with it. Got it right out of the way!”
“Can you answer at least when you believe you’ll have to make up your mind?”
“When I’m ready,” she said.
“If you do not run, or if you run and are defeated, do you have a plan for what you would do next?”
“Yeah, not really thinking about that.”
In truth, her answer had been apparent for months. Why else would she have left the Democratic Party four years into her term, if not to avoid a primary in which the party’s progressive base was guaranteed to turn its wrath on her? Why else was she (as The Wall Street Journal first reported) furtively holding staff retreats to lay out a timetable for commissioning polls and opposition research? Nothing she said in our conversations left me with the impression that she was putting a few final touches on her senatorial legacy on her way out the door to the private sector. At the same time, Sinema — whom even her closest friends describe as calculated, and who described herself to me as “very intentional” and “a planner” — almost never telegraphs her strategy. It suited her ends to freeze the 2024 machinations by leaving everyone guessing.
Still, here she was, flanked by Republican legislators and border officials, blanketing the state’s airwaves 19 months before what is sure to be the most complicated race of her two decades in electoral politics. It will also be, aside from the presidential election itself, the most significant contest next year, and it may well decide which party controls the Senate. Over the past two years, the Democrats (with independents) have held the majority by no more than two votes, which has allowed Sinema and another centrist Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, to command extraordinary influence over the party’s legislative agenda.
If Arizona progressives have their way, Sinema will be ousted for repeated apostasies, from protecting the filibuster — the means by which, according to traditional Senate rules, a minority can block a vote that a frustrated majority would otherwise be able to move forward — to siding with private-equity donors. If Sinema has hers, Arizona voters across the political spectrum will reward her displays of discerning bipartisanship in an age of mindless party loyalty. It could also be the case that Sinema and her likely Democratic rival, Representative Ruben Gallego, will do sufficient damage to each other to ensure that the winner is a Republican, perhaps losing the Senate majority in the process.
But additional implications come into play should Sinema prevail as an independent. “These are very different times,” Tillis told me, “and from the polls I’ve seen, an increasing number of voters are saying, ‘I’m not buying what the far left and far right are selling.’ Now, whether that sentiment transfers to an electoral map is still unclear. But if voters really are saying, ‘Give me a viable alternative,’ then Sinema has a pretty solid argument to make.”
Her test case, if it succeeds, could in turn rattle the foundation of a two-party system that has held sway in America for a century. It’s still a big “if.” A survey conducted in January by the Democratic pollster Jill Normington shows Sinema coming in last in a three-way contest. With no affiliated party to support her — with two parties, rather than just one, actively working to defeat her — the incumbent is gambling that she can attract donors and elected surrogates who are willing to risk angering others in their partisan tribe by supporting her. Since announcing his candidacy in late January, Gallego has outraised Sinema, $3.7 million to $2.1 million, but she has almost four times as much money in the bank as he does.
Most of all, she is betting that her lawmaking acumen will attract a new coalition of Arizona voters. No one unaffiliated with either of the two parties has ever won statewide office there. For Sinema to do so, according to Chuck Coughlin, a prominent Republican consultant in Arizona, “she needs 20 to 25 percent of Democratic voters, 25 to 30 percent of Republicans and 50 to 60 percent of self-identified independents.”
In Coughlin’s view, Sinema’s easiest task will be to win over a majority of independents, who amount to 33.7 percent of Arizona’s overall electorate, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. A taller order will be to pick off at least one-quarter of the 34.5 percent of Arizonans who are registered Republicans. Accomplishing this would require her to outperform President Biden, who won nearly seven percent of the Republican electorate against Donald Trump in 2020, as well as Gov. Katie Hobbs, who received almost 11 percent of the Republican vote in her 2022 victory over the far-right Kari Lake.
Of course, those candidates also benefited from their party’s overwhelming support. Sinema, even before she left the party in December, had become the Democrat whom Democrats love to hate. After casting the deciding vote against a minimum-wage increase in March 2021 — and doing so theatrically, with a curtsy and a thumbs down — the progressive publication The Nation anointed her a “super villain.” (Sinema says she voted as she did because the minimum-wage provision did not belong in a reconciliation bill, which must be budgetary in nature to qualify for passage by a simple majority. A spokeswoman also says that she curtsied out of gratitude for the Senate clerk’s late-hour labors and that she was not the only senator that night who signified “no” using the thumbs-down gesture.)
In January 2022, after her refusal to pass voting rights legislation by discarding the Senate filibuster that stood in the way, Sinema was censured by Arizona’s Democratic Party. “The decision was really a no-brainer,” a former state party official told me, adding that the censure resolution was supported by more than 90 percent of Arizona’s Democratic precinct committee members. In a foreshadowing of her formal break from the party, Sinema endorsed but did not campaign for any of her fellow Arizona Democrats during the 2022 midterms, including two longtime friends, Katie Hobbs and the attorney general candidate Kris Mayes, both of whom won, but barely. Mayes in particular needed all the help she could get, prevailing by a mere 280 votes. Hobbs, on the other hand, relied heavily on the turnout of a progressive base that might have reacted poorly to Sinema’s presence on the stump. To campaign for one and not the other would have underscored just how problematic Sinema had become for her fellow Democrats.
All that said, by Coughlin’s calculation, Sinema will still have to garner the support of 20 to 25 percent of Arizona’s Democrats who are somehow unbothered by the spectacle of their former Democratic senator now chumming it up with Republicans while disparaging the Biden administration. The notion that wooing Democrats is likely to be Sinema’s most difficult task constitutes a striking reversal in the political career of a prominent Arizona progressive whose election to the Senate in 2018 was celebrated by the party as a historic breakthrough.
Since that high moment, their shared history has been like a marriage of convenience in which they shamelessly used the other until, perhaps inevitably, they came to have only distrust in common. By ending the charade, Sinema is gambling that she can manage the fallout and ultimately be rewarded for her declaration of independence. Whether that happens — whether she succeeds in making her case as America’s indispensable consensus builder in the Senate — depends in no small measure on whether the party Sinema left behind can remember more than just the bad times.
Earlier this year, Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, asked Sinema — with whom he is friendly — to drop by the Library of Congress and have tea with about 40 teenage girls from his state who had been named “Mardi Gras princesses.” She did so, taking a group photo with the princesses, all of whom were wearing crowns. One girl asked the 46-year-old senator for some tips on how to handle the negativity that came her way.
“Take the time to be OK with yourself,” Sinema answered. “If someone says something bad about you, it falls in a place that’s soft. But if you’re OK with yourself, you know that what they’re saying doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t land so hard.”
At times, Sinema employs the empathic language of the social worker she was straight out of college. Even in those moments, however, she is never one to mince words, or to linger. Sinema observes no religious faith, but she is worshipful of efficiency. She obtained advanced degrees — a J.D., a Ph.D. in justice studies and an M.B.A. — the same years, respectively, in which she won seats to the State House (2004), the U.S. House (2012) and the U.S. Senate (2018). Her former colleagues in the House recall with awe her punishing early-morning workout regimens — she has trained for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and running marathons — as well as the expediency with which she collected donor pledges.
During our second meeting, at a coffee shop in Southeast Washington in March, she was running five minutes behind. Her scheduler, she explained, had earlier calculated one of the day’s drives as 10 minutes when it was in fact 15.
“So, to a regular person, this probably sounds insane,” Sinema said. “But I need those five minutes. I have something planned for those five minutes. I don’t waste five minutes. I know that is unusual. That is how I’ve always been.”
The two young aides who accompanied her were scowling wordlessly at their smartphones nearby. The scheduling misstep, Sinema said, had been handled. “I don’t waste emotions,” she told me. “I don’t have guilt or regret, because those are useless emotions.” When I suggested that guilt could be a constructive force for change, Sinema corrected me. Remorse could be constructive, she said. Guilt could not: “It’s a useless emotion that hurts you, and nothing else.”
Sinema is not one for niceties, and whatever frailties she possesses are glimpsed by only a few friends, like the former Democratic congresswomen Kathleen Rice and Stephanie Murphy, who refer to her as Sin. She does not like to talk about her Mormon family, with whom she apparently seldom communicates other than her stepbrother, Paul Sheldon, a Tucson police officer who appeared in a 2018 campaign ad with Sinema. (None of them attended her 2013 congressional swearing-in ceremony, though her partner at the time did.)
Sinema is particularly drawn to fellow outliers, like the two Republican senators from Utah: Mike Lee, who, she says, “is not a joiner, and I respect that”; and 76-year-old Mitt Romney, whose latest act in a distinguished political career has revealed a freewheeling side. He was photographed in Sinema’s office — during the tense Build Back Better negotiations — dressed for Halloween as the lead character in the TV series “Ted Lasso,” offering a box of desserts to Sinema, who was costumed as Lasso’s formidable boss. “Biscuits with the boss” and “She’s one tough cookie,” Romney wrote on Twitter, sharing the pictures. “It was my team’s idea,” Romney told me, “and she was happy to play along.”
Much commentary ensued in February when Romney and Sinema were seen sitting together during Biden’s State of the Union address. What was not widely known was that a month earlier, Romney voted against confirming Roopali Desai, an Arizona lawyer, to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Desai, a prominent election-law attorney who represented Arizona’s secretary of state in 2020 election cases, once served as campaign counsel to Sinema, who had recommended her to Biden’s team. Sinema ran to catch Romney after his vote. She asked him to reconsider, adding that Desai was a personal friend. Romney told me: “She responded to my concerns and convinced me to go back and change my vote. And I wouldn’t do that for just anybody.” Desai would ultimately be confirmed by a vote of 67 to 29, with more bipartisan support than any federal judicial nominee had received in over 20 years.
Sinema told me that Biden’s chief of staff at the time, Ron Klain, had expressed doubts that she could find any Republican support for Desai. It was this lack of faith in Sinema’s abilities that compelled her to later — at a fund-raiser filled with wealthy donors disclosed by Politico — invoke Klain’s name while extending her middle finger. (Klain did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Though it has frequently been reported that the independent senator would “continue to caucus with the Democrats,” Sinema told me this was misleading: She almost never showed up to Democratic meetings to begin with, as they tended to be profligate time wasters. Nor does she adhere to the Beltway ritual of appearing on the Sunday talk shows. In her view, they produce only “noise,” though it’s also the case that Sinema’s sometimes cutting utterances do not come off well in such staid settings. Her aversion to publicly revealing her hand differentiates Sinema from Manchin, a voluble regular on the Sunday shows.
Some have inferred from her reticence that Sinema either is incapable of defending her positions or has no actual positions to defend — that she arrives at her decisions capriciously and only after drawing maximum attention to herself. To her friends, like Murphy, the former congresswoman, this view bears more than a whiff of sexism and misses the point: “The fact that she’s playing the inside game, rather than the media game, demonstrates that she’s a professional who shows respect for people, even the ones who’ve disrespected her. If you’re a real legislator and you want to get stuff done, you have to build trust. The minute you call the press or sic the activists on someone to try and apply pressure, you’ve lost that person’s trust.”
I asked Sinema if she found it surprising that someone of her unorthodox character would come to be regarded as a kind of throwback to a less-partisan era, even as a Senate institutionalist. “I think what you’re doing,” she evenly replied, “is you’re mistaking someone who’s not interested in marching to someone else’s drum or following their rules, which are petty and dumb, as being somehow incompatible with wanting to preserve and protect the fundamentals of our democracy.”
One day in 1990, Kyrsten Sinema — 14 years old at the time but considerably younger in appearance — stood before the school board in DeFuniak Springs, Fla., accompanied by her high school guidance counselor, Cynthia Jeselnik. The girl explained that she had already taken every required and honors class her school had to offer. Now she wished to take courses at Okaloosa-Walton Community College (now Northwest Florida State College), 31 miles away in Niceville. Her goal, as Jeselnik would recall to me, “was to graduate early, so that she could get on with her life and with the course she had laid out for herself.”
The young honors student did not have to state the obvious, which was that she saw no future for herself in a rural community with a poverty rate that was close to 25 percent. Nor did she share the particulars of her personal life, with either her counselor or the board: how she had been born into a comfortable middle-class family in Tucson, Ariz., and had nurtured ambitions since she was 6, when she proclaimed to her first-grade teacher that she intended one day to be a U.S. senator and an author; how her world caved in when her father, an attorney, was disbarred for “conduct involving dishonesty, deceit and misrepresentation” in 1983; how the family’s car was subsequently repossessed and her mother, a devout Mormon, left the marriage and became involved with a teacher in the girl’s elementary school; how she, her two siblings, her mother and her new stepfather abruptly left Arizona, driving cross-country to his family’s community in DeFuniak Springs; how the family, with the stepfather struggling to find work, lived for nearly three years in a former gas station, while she and her siblings wore hand-me-down clothes provided by the local Mormon church and ate meals provided by the church and federal food assistance.
What she did say, when the board members advised her simply to find some way to busy herself at her high school, was: “I don’t want to waste a year doing this. Why are you holding me back?”
The school board acquiesced, and the girl, now 15, then drove her parents’ car without a license to take night classes in Niceville. A year later, Sinema was ready to graduate as Walton High School’s co-valedictorian. When she learned that only a member of the senior class could qualify for that top distinction, she and Jeselnik again petitioned school officials. “These are dumb rules,” Sinema informed them, a preview of how she would later view Beltway mores.
“She ended up getting a couple of school-district policies changed,” her former counselor recalled. But other things the 16-year-old girl could not alter. Sinema had both the grades and the desire to apply to Harvard. Her parents, however, would not agree to this. Instead, she went to Brigham Young University, the Mormon institution in Provo, Utah, and her family moved to Utah with her. When she graduated from B.Y.U. just before her 19th birthday, she headed back to Arizona, leaving Utah, the Mormon Church and her family behind for good.
The tightly knit community of Phoenix progressives saw in Sinema a fellow idealist, perhaps not fully appreciating at the time how the emotional scar tissue from her earlier years had hardened her into a survivor. She spent her first years in the city as a social worker, learning Spanish as she handled rough cases involving domestic abuse and shootings in the north-side barrios. Frustrated by her inability to improve the lives of immigrants and low-income families in a more sweeping way, she was urged by a local environmental activist named Sandy Bahr to go to law school or seek elective office. “I suggested those two things,” Bahr recalled, “and she decided to do both at the same time.”
Sinema’s early years as an outspoken liberal voice in Arizona politics would later be used against her — first by Republicans who mocked her Green Party ties and the pink tutu she wore in an antiwar demonstration, then by progressives who called her a sellout. At a rally she helped organize in 2002 to protest the Patriot Act, Sinema insisted that anyone bringing a firearm be turned away, explaining later, “We believe in world disarmament.” That same year, she ran for the State House for the first time, without a party affiliation, declaring that among her chief priorities was “statewide responsible growth aimed at stopping sprawl.” She finished last among the five candidates.
By 2009, when she published a book titled “Unite and Conquer,” Sinema had settled on a tidy autobiographical summation that she promotes to this day — that of a lonely “bomb thrower” in the State Legislature who saw the light after a few months of misery and then became a happy consensus builder who “gets stuff done.” As with most political narratives, her distillation is more than a little reductive. Sinema did in fact get stuff done — notably leading the defeat of a ban on same-sex marriage — by reaching across the aisle. She did in fact, to the horror of her liberal friends, develop warm relations with Arizona conservatives like State Senator Russell Pearce, the author of the notoriously anti-immigration law known as S.B. 1070 (which allowed Arizona officers to arbitrarily demand a citizen’s immigration papers), and Andy Biggs, the future chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
But she remained an unambiguous progressive well after she abandoned her bomb-throwing ways. In 2006, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators nationwide marched to protest a House Republican bill aiming to crack down on illegal immigration; a photograph of State Representative Sinema locking arms with Representative Raúl M. Grijalva and other Arizona Democrats hung in her office for years afterward.
“I see interviews of A.O.C., and I’m always struck by how much she was like Kyrsten in those days,” recalled David Lujan, the Arizona Democrats’ minority leader during Sinema’s tenure, referring to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat. “She was the beloved progressive.” At the same time, Lujan went on, “she studied polls more than anybody I knew.”
In 2011, Steve Israel, then a New York congressman and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, received a phone call from an Arizona state senator. Israel knew nothing about Kyrsten Sinema, apart from the fact that she was considering running for a seat representing the newly created Ninth Congressional District. Come to Phoenix, she told him, and I’ll give you a rundown of all the likely Democratic candidates. (Sinema says she did not call to suggest the meeting; Israel maintains that she did.)
The two met at the posh Biltmore Hotel, where, as promised, Sinema went through the list of Democratic aspirants, explaining why each of them was unlikely to win the new swing district.
Israel asked, “Who’s left, then, other than you?”
“That’s my point,” she said with a smile.
Caught off-guard, Israel muttered, “We could’ve done this by phone.”
Holding his gaze, she replied: “I wanted to be in the same room with you. I wanted you to see who I am.”
Impressed but still skeptical, Israel did not put his thumb on the scale for Sinema, who went on to thrash her Democratic opponents in the 2012 primary anyway. After eking out a victory over a Republican Tea Party candidate in November, she was hailed in Washington Post and Elle profiles as the nation’s first openly bisexual member of Congress. Among a freshman class that included numerous Washington celebrities in the making — among them, Beto O’Rourke, Joe Kennedy III, Tulsi Gabbard, Hakeem Jeffries, Tammy Duckworth, Mark Meadows, Tom Cotton and Ron DeSantis — the Arizonan cut a memorable figure from the start. She organized dinner parties at her apartment and taught spinning classes in the House gym. Her flamboyant wardrobe stood out in a city where, she said in a speech to an L.G.B.T.Q. group back home, “they think that navy is like a fashion-forward choice.”
Having won a hotly contested district, Sinema was immediately designated a “front line” member by the D.C.C.C. whose seat was at risk for the 2014 cycle. Sinema joined the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats. She made good on her campaign pledge to vote against Nancy Pelosi for House minority leader. During votes on the House floor, the freshman could be seen staring up at the tally board, openly agonizing, often casting her ballot just as time elapsed. A colleague recalled Sinema’s wrestling with whether to leave the Ninth District and move to a safer one. A former aide remembered that she met with Israel to discuss the matter. He advised her that if she had any future interest in being a senator in a red state like Arizona, staying in a moderate district would improve her prospects. Sinema stayed.
She handily won a second House term, then a third in 2016. Her acumen had become evident to senior members like the minority whip Steny H. Hoyer, who made Sinema his assistant whip in 2014, and her Republican colleague on the Financial Services Committee, Patrick T. McHenry, who told me, “I viewed her as a student of power politics and how to be a meaningful player in the House.” It did not escape McHenry’s notice that Sinema acquired friendships on his side of the aisle — not just heavy hitters like Kevin McCarthy, the eventual House speaker, but also staunch ideologues like Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. As the Republicans’ chief deputy whip, McHenry found that whenever he needed Democratic votes, the Democratic assistant whip would be candid about what she could or could not deliver. Sinema, meanwhile, encouraged new moderate members to vote against the party line if it suited them politically — saying of Pelosi and Hoyer: “They’ll be mad at you, but they’ll get over it. Vote your district — it doesn’t help anyone if you lose.”
In September 2017, Sinema declared her candidacy for the Senate against Jeff Flake, the Republican incumbent whose criticisms of President Donald Trump had caused his approval rating to tank back home. Democratic leaders immediately threw their support behind the three-term congresswoman, recognizing that no one else in their party had a shot in a state that had not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988.
Three weeks after Sinema declared, Flake announced that he would not be seeking another term. While the Republican front-runner, Martha McSally, fought off a primary challenge by wedding herself to Trump, Sinema angled for Arizona’s growing suburban electorate. For the Republican chair of her campaign, she brought on Max Fose, a consultant who had worked with the state’s legendary self-declared maverick, John McCain. Her campaign slogan became “Independent, Like You.” She courted major Republican donors. She won endorsements from law-enforcement groups. She voted against repealing Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy (after having voted against the same tax cuts the previous year).
Sinema beat McSally by two percentage points. “Arizona is officially purple,” the longtime Senate analyst Jennifer Duffy proclaimed. Two days after her victory, the state’s first female senator-elect returned to Washington to participate in the Democratic caucus’s leadership vote. Though she had pledged not to vote for Senator Chuck Schumer as minority leader, when no challenger emerged, she joined her new colleagues to reinstall him in the role. Explaining her reversal, Sinema said in a statement, “Arizonans know I will work with anyone — in either party — to get things done for our state.”
“From the moment she got to the Senate,” Chris Murphy told me, “I could see her during votes spending at least as much time on the Republican side, if not more, chatting them up. At first, I didn’t know what she was doing over there. But then I figured it out. It was coldblooded. She was clearly setting herself up as someone who could bring the two sides together.”
Sinema first introduced herself to Senator Rob Portman, a conservative Republican from Ohio, and his wife back in 2015, while they and others were accompanying John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to commemorate the heroism of Lewis and other civil rights marchers who were brutally beaten by police officers a half-century earlier. “Kyrsten is not someone who is difficult to get to know,” Portman told me. Like Sinema, Portman, whose son is gay, was a supporter of same-sex marriage.
It turned out that the two senators had something else in common, which became evident in early 2021, when Sinema began to hold meetings to discuss bipartisan infrastructure legislation. Though several of her colleagues agreed on the worthiness of the endeavor, it was Portman who stayed behind at the first meeting and began working on a spreadsheet.
The new legislative partners began with three baselines. One was Biden’s stated preference that a federal investment in infrastructure be at least $600 billion in new spending. The second was that the bill be limited to only core infrastructure projects, including broadband. The third was Portman’s insistence that the money not come from raising taxes — a red line that was also to Sinema’s liking, but it was more effective to be able to tell her Democratic colleagues that a tax hike would be a nonstarter among Republicans.
For two months, Sinema and Porter pored over infrastructure frameworks that various Senate committees had previously drawn up. The working group then expanded from two senators to 10, then to 20. They met in various hideaways and Capitol conference rooms. “She set deadlines, and she asked for deliverables on certain dates,” said Romney, a key participant in the discussions. “I won’t mention names, but there were a few folks in our group, a couple in particular, who were inclined to spin out with various stories and experiences they’d had in the past that they thought were relevant. And she would cut them off, even though they were far senior to her. She would say: ‘Hey, let’s get back to the topic at hand. We need to get this resolved.’”
Romney went on: “And there were several times where we faced what we thought were dispositive roadblocks. A lot of us were inclined to say, ‘OK, we just can’t get there.’” At such moments, members often stormed out. But, Romney told me, “she would go get them and bring them back. She’d say: ‘We’ve got to get there. We don’t have a choice.’”
The Sinema-Portman infrastructure bill passed the Senate that August on an impressively bipartisan 69-to-30 vote. But its progress in the House was complicated by the multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better social-spending bill championed by Democratic progressives who threatened to hold the infrastructure bill hostage until Sinema and Manchin agreed to pass the bills in tandem. Neither of them would do so. Manchin’s public explanation was that Build Back Better’s cost was too high amid rising inflation, geopolitical instability and the pandemic. Sinema gave no public explanation at all. But she had already privately informed both Schumer and the Biden White House that the highest price tag she would agree to was $1.1 trillion — and that, as a friend of hers would say, “she wanted to be able to tell Arizonans that she didn’t raise their taxes.”
In September 2021, Sinema attended a meeting of House and Senate Democrats at the White House to discuss what Biden hoped would be a $2 trillion version of Build Back Better. According to two of the attendees, Biden first asked each of the senators to articulate their concerns. When it was her turn, Sinema demurred, saying she wanted to hear what the House members had to say first.
“Well, if you’re still at $1 trillion,” Biden interjected, “then you might as well get up and leave.”
“Mr. President,” Sinema said, standing up, “that was a private conversation. If you want me to leave, I will.”
Then, seeming to recognize that losing Sinema’s support would ensure defeat, Biden backed down, saying, “Please sit down.”
Sinema did so. Toward the end of the meeting, she said to the president: “I told you that in confidence. And if that ends up in the press, I’ll know it was someone from this room.” (The White House did not respond to requests for comment.)
The meeting concluded without further rancor. But the president did not direct House Democrats to let the bills be voted on separately. Sinema suspected that the White House was hoping she would relent. “I would never in my life crack under pressure,” Sinema told me. “Why would they think I’m going to do it?”
She got her way in the end. On Nov. 5, 2021, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in the House. Ten days later, Biden signed it into law. Sinema, meanwhile, continued to draw the ire of Democrats for opposing Build Back Better. In a rare interview with CNN, she refused to specify what it would take to change her mind, saying only, “I won’t support any legislation that increases burdens on Arizona or American businesses and reduces our ability to compete either globally or domestically.” The legislation lay dormant into the following year.
On May 24, 2022, a teenager armed with an AR-15-style rifle walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and massacred two teachers and 19 children. Sinema responded to the shooting with a tweet about being “horrified and heartbroken,” which was widely denounced as proof that she had no intention of responding with concrete action. A day later, Chris Murphy — who, after the shocking Sandy Hook school shooting a decade earlier in his state, emerged as the Democrats’ foremost advocate for gun reform — happened to read that Sinema had paused at an elevator in the Capitol to inform members of the news media that she would like to work with Republicans on the gun issue. The news initially struck Murphy as improbable: Sinema had effectively stopped talking to the Washington press.
Murphy texted her: “Are you serious?”
Sinema responded that she was. Within two hours, Murphy was sitting in her hideaway office in the basement of the Capitol. Later that day, Sinema walked onto the Senate floor and located the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. “Who should I work with on guns?” she asked him.
She and McConnell had been friendly for some time, and she met frequently with him during the infrastructure deliberations. Later in 2022, she would go to his state, Kentucky, to speak at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center, where she was praised by the minority leader as “the most effective first-term senator I’ve seen in my time in the Senate.” Now, responding to her question on the Senate floor, McConnell replied, “John Cornyn and Thom Tillis.” Sinema promptly texted them both. The next day, the two Republican senators and Sinema and Murphy were in her hideaway, devising a legislative framework. “There wasn’t a day when the four of us weren’t talking multiple times,” Tillis told me.
That June, Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Against the wishes of the powerful National Rifle Association, an astonishing 14 Senate Republicans voted for the bill, including the minority leader; as Murphy would tell me, “We knew we couldn’t pass it without McConnell’s support, and Kyrsten was in ongoing conversations with him.” The bill did not address military-style rifles like the ones used by the Uvalde shooter or extend background checks to internet and gun-show sales, measures that were guaranteed to be blocked by a Republican filibuster. It did, however, provide enhanced penalties for straw purchases, add extra steps to background checks for purchasers who are 18 to 21 and close the so-called boyfriend loophole, which allowed abusive partners to own a gun even with an order of protection against them.
“Senator Sinema stepped up and played a critical role in passing what happened to be the most substantive and lifesaving gun legislation in a generation,” Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, the nation’s most influential gun-control group, told me. Still, though Watts, Murphy and other gun-safety advocates continue to press for a ban on military-style rifles, Sinema told me that she was unlikely to take up the cause. “The reason is pretty simple,” she said. “It’s not realistic. I don’t spend my time in the world of fantasy. I spend my time in the world of the possible.”
Two months after the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was enacted, the path to the possible was found once again: Sinema and the Biden administration had reached a deal on the social-spending bill formerly known as Build Back Better. Now rechristened the Inflation Reduction Act, the initiative would spend roughly $500 billion to fund clean-energy programs and extend the Affordable Care Act. The accord with Sinema broke the deadlock, allowing for swift passage — and a win for the Biden White House.
Still, progressives were not of the mind to applaud the Arizona senator, who had extracted a significant price in exchange for her support: The bill would no longer be paid for in part by closing the carried-interest loophole, which allowed wealthy private-equity executives to claim much of their compensation as investment gains rather than as taxable income. As reporters were quick to note, Sinema had received over $2 million in campaign donations from the investment sector over the previous decade. (And hundreds of thousands more since the Inflation Reduction Act was passed.)
Sinema’s rationale for supporting private-equity firms is rooted in the economic growth of Arizona, which, she claims, depends on affordable-housing construction that is underwritten by such firms. “So to me, it makes no sense to disincentivize the supply side of creating that affordable housing in multifamily units,” Sinema told me.
Her solution was to finance the Inflation Reduction Act by increasing the corporate minimum tax, ensuring that all businesses would pay at least 15 percent. This, Sinema said, made more sense than increasing the overall corporate tax — “if your goal is tax fairness, which is mine.”
If that was her goal, I asked, then was she actually saying that the carried-interest loophole for the ultrawealthy was fair?
“What I think it is,” she said, “is an important tool to incentivize investment.”
An earlier version of Kyrsten Sinema — for example, the 2012 congressional candidate whose opening campaign ad promised that she would be a voice for “the powerless” — would most likely have labeled her argument a defense of “trickle-down economics.” It was also a shaky position on its own terms.
I asked Arthur C. Nelson, emeritus professor of urban planning and real estate development at the University of Arizona, whether the carried-interest loophole was crucial to his state’s real estate economy. Nelson sent me a set of numbers showing that the annual population growth rate in the three-decade period before the carried-interest provision was formalized in 1993 was 3.3 percent. In the three decades after the loophole was codified, annual growth was 2.1 percent. Assuming, as Nelson did, that population and real estate investment growth were correlated, then the carried-interest loophole had not spawned a housing boom. “The logic is nonsense,” he said. Closing the loophole and using the revenue on homeowner and builder subsidies “would generate more housing than simply reducing taxes.”
He added, “In full disclosure, I indeed benefit from the carried-interest loophole. But I personally oppose it for its lack of fairness. I worry that Senator Sinema’s financial thinking is being led by self-styled ‘masters of the finance universe,’ instead of the masses who voted for her — me included.”
In early March, there was snow on the ground in the town of Whiteriver on the Fort Apache Reservation in northeastern Arizona, which the senator treaded through gingerly in the same boots she would wear at the border a month later. She was here to meet with members of the White Mountain Apache tribe at their invitation.
For the next hour, Sinema sat in a crowded conference room, asking questions and taking notes as the tribal leaders discussed their need for more housing, more police cars and a jail with a roof that wouldn’t collapse. Other than myself, only a couple of members from the tribal community media were present. Private security accompanied her. (Sinema has received death threats; at one point, her stepbrother, Paul Sheldon, told me, he and Sinema’s father were informed by F.B.I. officials that threats had been made against them as well.)
After hosting a few town halls with constituents during her first two years in the Senate, Sinema had since abandoned the practice, except for regular “tele town halls” on a virtual basis. Events like this one — small and restricted — have become the norm. To some friends, her reclusiveness is as inevitable as her break from the Democratic Party. “I’ve never in my life seen someone treated as poorly as they treated Sinema,” the former Democratic congresswoman Kathleen Rice told me. “To me, it made all the sense in the world that she rejected the label of being a Democrat.” Still, it seems impossible for her to continue to avoid openly engaging with Arizonans and somehow manage to win their votes in 2024.
There was one additional item on the agenda that morning at the Fort Apache Reservation. The tribal leaders wanted to thank Sinema for ensuring that the community had at last gained access to clean drinking water. “I worked with Republicans and Democrats in both chambers in the waning days of December to overcome the obstacles,” Sinema told them. She then singled out three partners, all Republicans: Senators Tillis and Lee, and the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Bruce Westerman.
These efforts have not been previously reported. When it came time to dole out favors in the 2021 infrastructure bill, among Sinema’s requests was that all five Arizona tribes be guaranteed clean water. Tillis told her that he had an issue. He and his fellow North Carolina Republican, Senator Richard Burr, had put a hold on all tribal bills for the past three years. When she asked why they had done so, Tillis explained that the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina had yet to be federally recognized. Sinema pledged to help. “Kyrsten became the first legislator to invest time in what we were trying to accomplish for the Lumbees,” Tillis told me. “And that’s why Burr and I agreed to remove the holds.”
Then Sinema learned that Lee, because of his longstanding view that tribal economic development should not require federal approval, had put holds on all tribal bills. She proceeded to work Lee as well. To Lee’s aide who works on the issue, Sinema described the merits of what were now five individual Arizona tribal water bills. One day in mid-December, she received a text from the Utah senator. “Merry Christmas,” it said. Lee had pulled the holds.
Finally, Sinema spoke with Westerman, a congressman from Arkansas whom she befriended back when she served in the House. He, too, had concerns: that the bills as written did not provide accounting for the expenditures. Sinema added language that did so. She called Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader for whom she had once been assistant whip, who now agreed to put the bills on the suspension calendar, making them eligible to pass by a voice vote. The amendments to the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act became law on Jan. 5, 2023.
As I watched the tribal leaders present Sinema with an Apache blanket and a ceremonial basket, I remembered her friend Stephanie Murphy saying of her, “I’ve never met a person more focused or strategic.” What was the strategic aim here? I recalled our conversation in February about her being five minutes late because of a driving-distance miscalculation that was immediately remedied. “Everything is like a puzzle,” she had said. “And so if there’s a problem, we should solve it.”
“Do you approach legislation as a puzzle?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said emphatically. “Yes.” She then went on: “I think one of the big problems in negotiations is that often some — not exclusively men, but often men — are so busy talking about what they need, they’re not spending any time hearing what someone else needs. But the key to solving a problem is to listen carefully and find out what someone needs and then figure out how to get it for them. If you give them what they need, you can get what you want.”
Was simply delivering clean water to the Apaches what Sinema wanted, or was there some electoral angle on the distant horizon? Maybe she needed Democrats to see her tending to the needs of the “powerless,” as she had pledged to do when she first ran for Congress in 2011. Maybe an independent like Sinema needed to find votes wherever she could get them. Or perhaps it was satisfying enough simply to solve a puzzle that others couldn’t. Making the system work was her greatest value, Portman told me: “By resolving disputes over amendments, over nominees, she helps the Senate operate.”
Sinema’s role in the operation of the Senate during one of the most polarized periods in American political history has contributed to a remarkably successful legislative record for Democrats to showcase next year. “Here’s a woman who’s delivered them major victories,” Stephanie Murphy told me, “and they campaign on this, after vilifying her.”
As strange as this eventuality might be, Sinema is not entirely blameless for it. An unnamed Democratic legislator told Politico that Sinema was “the biggest egomaniac in the Senate,” which, if it were true, would be quite a distinction. None of her admiring colleagues — including Portman, Tillis and Romney — would deny Sinema’s high estimation of her own abilities. But they described her to me as a uniquely skilled workhorse who deserved at least as much credit as she had been given, if not more. “Everyone’s out there campaigning on what she and a few of us did,” Representative Scott Peters, a Democratic moderate from California and an ally of Sinema’s, told me, referring to her stewardship of the infrastructure bill. “It’s amazing to me, sort of funny in a way. I guess the legislation has to be its own reward sometimes.”
Peters entered Congress with Sinema in 2013. Together they worked on bills ranging from wildfire prevention to mental health care for veterans. He remembered meeting her at a restaurant, where he found her poring over a spreadsheet that was color-coded with infrastructure revenue options. It saddened him to think about her leaving the Democratic Party. When I asked Peters whether he would support her or Ruben Gallego in 2024, he paused before saying: “It may be awkward. I’ll just say that Kyrsten Sinema has been my friend, and if she asked for my support, it would be hard to turn her down.”
He laughed ruefully. “I mean, it’s hard to find friends in D.C. Just ask Kyrsten.”
Robert Draper is a domestic correspondent for The Times and a staff writer for the magazine. He is the author of, most recently, “Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind.” Ashley Gilbertson is an Australian photographer and writer living in New York. His work will be showcased in a new book of photography, ‘‘NYNY 2020.’