Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Sinema's Switch Reminds Us: Independent Senators Have Been a Colorful Bunch

Dec 18, 2022

Sinema's Switch Reminds Us: Independent Senators Have Been a Colorful Bunch

tags: Senate,political history,Kyrsten Sinema,Parties

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.

Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema announced on December 9 that she is leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent. It’s unclear what the move will mean for control of the Senate—Sinema seems to be planning to organize with the Democrats which would allow the party to keep a majority and Sinema to continue to sit on Senate committees. But it does bring to mind the group of colorful and significant independents and third party senators that have graced the chamber in the years since the 17th Amendment allowed the direct election of senators by voters, not party leaders, in 1913.

The list of independent or third party senators in the past century has been a significant one, and it is worth examining the impact of these “mavericks.”  In total, we have seen ten senators become independents for a substantial period of time before Sinema’s announcement.

In the period from the 1920s through World War II, there were three independent senators, all of whom had been originally Republicans, who strayed from the more conservative base of their party, and had an impact on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the battle over isolationism before entrance into World War II.  This author examined these three mavericks in his book Twilight of Progressivism: The Western Republican senators and the New Deal (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota was elected as a Farmer-Labor Party member of the senate, serving from 1923-1947. He switched to the Republican Party from 1941 onward, becoming noted for his vehement isolationism and opposition to American engagement in World War II before Pearl Harbor.  He opposed membership in the League of Nations and the World Court in the 1920s and the Selective Service Act in 1940, and also voted against the United Nations Charter after World War II.  He was also known as an antisemite, joining with Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh in promoting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.  His career ended when he was defeated in the Republican primary in 1946, after intervention by internationalist former Republican Governor Harold Stassen, who had been in vehement disagreement with Shipstead throughout World War II.

Robert M. LaFollette, Jr. of Wisconsin, the son of “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, who had run for President as a Progressive in 1924, was elected as a Republican to replace his father after his death the following year, and served until he was defeated in the Republican primary in 1946, by of all people, future Senator Joseph McCarthy.  In 1934, “Young Bob” joined his younger brother Philip LaFollette in forming the Wisconsin Progressive Party. Philip angled to run for President by forming the National Progressives of America in 1938 as a vehicle for national office, but he was defeated that year for another two-year term as Governor of the Badger State.  Bob LaFollette stayed a third party Progressive until he ran in the Republican primary in an attempt to retain his seat after World War II.  While he had been a loyal supporter of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal domestic agenda, his strong isolationism until Pearl Harbor, and his continuing suspicion of international engagements after World War II caused his defeat and retirement in 1946, alongside Shipstead.

George Norris of Nebraska was elected to the Senate as a Republican with progressive credentials, and served for five terms from 1913-1943, but switched to independent status in 1936.  A man who had led the fight in the House of Representatives against the power of Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon in 1910, revolutionizing the office of Speaker, was a consistent progressive in his views. He was a loyal supporter of most of the New Deal.  He promoted the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a crucial New Deal agency, but opposed FDR on his court packing plan in 1937.  He maintained an isolationist reputation in foreign affairs from World War I through the late 1930s, but changed his views after seeing the destruction in China by Japanese military forces, and  became a backer of US intervention in World War II, which caused his defeat in Nebraska in 1942 by Republican Kenneth Wherry.  He was later judged one of the most outstanding senators in American history, and had been called by FDR “the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals.” John F. Kennedy in his book Profiles in Courage selected him as one of eight political leaders meriting that description.

Wayne Morse of Oregon, brought up near Madison, Wisconsin in the traditions of Robert LaFollette Sr., was elected to four terms, serving from 1945-1969, first as a Republican, but became an independent in 1953 in response to Dwight D. Eisenhower selecting Richard Nixon as his running mate.   Then, he switched to the Democratic Party in 1955 and remained there until his defeat by Bob Packwood in 1968, after serving four terms.  He was the epitome of an insurgent maverick, alienating members of both major political parties during his career.  His opposition to the Vietnam War, including his delaying a vote on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964 made him a hero to many, and an annoyance to others. He led many filibusters in his career, alienating both parties, and was constantly involved in controversies.  Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson convinced Morse to become a Democrat in 1955, but their relationship was always tempestuous, and made worse by Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.  Morse made many enemies in his political career, but was always front page news.

Harry F. Byrd, Jr., son of Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., served in the senate from Virginia from 1965 to 1983, originally as a Democrat, but an independent since 1970. An inheritor of the Byrd Organization’s influence in Virginia, and its vehement opposition to the civil rights movement and racial integration, he chose to become an independent, and continued his very conservative voting record.  But, he was able to retain his committee memberships on the Finance and Armed Services Committees, still caucusing with the Democratic Party.  He was the first senator to win election and reelection as an independent, and the first senator to win election as an independent by a majority of the popular vote.  Upon his death in 2013 at the advanced age of 98, Byrd became the eighth oldest U.S. Senator to have served.

James L. Buckley of New York served in the Senate from 1971 to 1977 as a member of the New York State Conservative Party, losing reelection as a Republican in 1976 to Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  The older brother of famed conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., he was elected in 1970 against sitting Republican Senator Charles Goodell and Democrat Richard Ottinger in a three-way race,  winning about 39 percent of the popular vote. He was listed with a Conservative-Republican affiliation during his one term in the Senate.  He was the first conservative to call for Richard Nixon to resign in the Watergate scandal, promoted the Family Educational Rights and  Privacy Act (FERPA), and was the lead petitioner in the 1976Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court case on campaign finance. Buckley was a forerunner of the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision lifting limits on contributions to campaigns by corporations. Later, he served on the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, by appointment of President Ronald Reagan from 1985 to 1996, and has been a Senior Judge on that Court since then.  He will reach the age of 100 on March 9, 2023.

Jim Jeffords of Vermont served in the Senate from 1989 to 2007 as a Republican until he left the party in 2001, became an independent, and caucused with the Democrats for his last term, due to his opposition to the George W. Bush tax cuts in the early months of 2001.  His switch gave control of the Senate to the Democrats, the first time a switch has ever changed party control.  Jeffords served as Vermont’s congressman from 1975 to 1989 before his senate service. He served as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (1997-2001) and then for 19 months as Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (2001-2003).  He was a more liberal Republican through most of his career, and supported abortion rights, gay rights, expanded health care, environmental reform, and disabilities legislation.  Often, he supported President Bill Clinton across party lines, and was one of five Republican senators to vote to acquit him in his impeachment trial in 1999. During his time as an independent, Jeffords voted against the use of force in Iraq in 2002, and against the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security.

Bernie Sanders of Vermont was elected to succeed Jeffords in 2006, after having the longest term of service for an independent congressman in American history—16 years from 1991 to 2007.  His 16 years so far in the senate is also a record for independents. He has had a close relationship with the Democratic Party throughout his career, having caucused with them most of the time.  He is seen as a leader of the democratic socialist movement in America, and has campaigned as a presidential candidate in 2016 and 2020, ending up second in both campaigns.  He was Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 2013 to 2015, and became Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee in 2021.  His social democratic and progressive policies have been compared to left wing populism and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies.  He has supported labor, education, and health care reforms more advanced than most Democrats, and is a promoter of the “Green New Deal” to deal with climate change.  He has been a strong critic of much of American foreign policy over the years he has served in Congress since 1991, but has a very supportive relationship with President Joe Biden despite frequently prodding him from the left wing perspective. Sanders has had a strong connection with millennials and Generation Z Americans.

Joe Lieberman of Connecticut served in the senate from 1989 to 2013, the first three terms as a Democrat and the last as an “Independent Democrat,” caucusing with and chairing the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee for the Democratic Party.  Also, he was the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party alongside Al Gore in 2000, making him the first Jewish candidate for the vice presidency.  He won his original senate election in 1988 against Republican Senator Lowell Weicker, who was perceived as more liberal than Lieberman. Conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. termed Lieberman his “favorite Democrat,” due to his more conservative stands on issues in comparison to Weicker. Lieberman lost the Democratic Party nomination for the Senate race of 2006 to a more leftist candidate, Ned Lamont. He then ran as an independent, but remained allied with the Democrats, although he supported Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona for president in 2008, and was considered for the vice presidency before McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.  In a three-way race in 2006, when he lost the primary, Lieberman won 50 percent of the vote, with national Democrats divided about his candidacy against the establishment.  He had a reputation of being a more conservative Democrat on fiscal matters, and a hawk on foreign policy, being strongly supportive of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush.  He led the fight for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and was also a major promoter of environmental legislation.  Compared to Bernie Sanders, he is clearly a political figure much more to the right in the Democratic Party.

Angus King of Maine has served in the senate since 2013, after earlier having served as Governor of Maine from 1995 to 2003.  He was a Democrat until 1993, but has been an independent ever since, caucusing with the Democrats during his Senate service.  He won a three-way race in 2012 with 53 percent of the vote, and has continued to caucus with the Democrats even when they did not control the Senate from 2015 to 2019.  He has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as the Select Committee on Intelligence.  He is best described as a moderate, but receives higher approval ratings from liberal groups than conservative groups.  He is considered near the ideological center of the Senate.  He is a strong supporter of abortion rights and gay rights, as well as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  King was a critic of much of American foreign policy under President Donald Trump, and condemned the immigration restrictions promoted by Trump, who was harshly critical of King.  He supports action to combat climate change, and believes in the need for gun regulation and safety measures as a result of so many gun massacres nationally.  He has supported normalization of US relations with Cuba, and was in favor of the Iran nuclear deal under President Barack Obama. Also, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, King participated in its probe of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections. He was also critical of Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID 19 pandemic. 

Now Kyrsten Sinema has announced that she is becoming an independent, while still caucusing with the Democratic Party.  This means the US Senate will now have three independents, all allied with the Democratic Party, giving them a majority of 51 senators. Sinema was elected to the senate in 2018, and is likely to face a three-way race for reelection in 2024, with the likelihood that Arizona’s 7th District Congressman, Democrat Ruben Gallego, will seek the Senate seat, making it possible, strategically, for Sinema, with her moderate centrist perspective on multiple issues, to have a better chance of retaining her seat in the general election than in the primary.  She has often been a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party, particularly during the past two years, when there has been a 50-50 Senate.

Sinema began her political career as a Green Party advocate, a strong progressive and promoter of gay rights and opposition to the War on Terror under George W. Bush.  But once she joined the Democratic Party and was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012, she joined the New Democrat Coalition, the Blue Dog Coalition, and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, making her one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus.  She has become an unpredictable centrist, hard to fathom, but a key swing vote in the Senate. She is seen as generally socially liberal, but fiscally moderate to conservative. In summary, she is totally unpredictable, and has enraged many party colleagues who see her as uncooperative and not a team player.

That characteristic—a lack of interest in being a team player and a preference for being mavericks—unites the eleven independent senators since the 17th Amendment in 1913.

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