Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is pouring fuel onto talk of a 2024 Democratic primary challenge by digging into her opposition to changing the filibuster.
Sinema in a Friday speech on the Senate floor roughly an hour before President Biden met with Senate Democrats ruled out a filibuster carveout for voting rights legislation, enraging voices on the left.
Her position wasn’t new, but the timing of the speech angered national progressives, civil rights groups and activists back in her home state.
“I don’t know what she gains from doing what she did. … Either she delivers on the policies that we’re asking for or she’s out,” said Luis Avila, a progressive organizer aligned with the Primary Sinema Project, which is fundraising in support of a 2024 challenge.
Sinema also found herself at odds with Arizona Democratic Party Chair Raquel Terán, who said that, “We are disappointed to say the least that she has chosen to protect an antiquated rule over her constituents.”
Though Sinema isn’t on the ballot again until 2024, frustration with her has already spawned multiple groups fundraising for her ousting.
The Primary Sinema Project said it had its best fundraising day on Thursday since launching on Sept. 30, and its second-best on Friday, the day after her speech. It is focused on helping finance groups in Arizona to lay the groundwork for unseating Sinema in 2024.
The group released a memo in the wake of Sinema’s speech accusing her of “defying the will of the people of Arizona, shifting power to Mitch McConnell, and significantly weakening Democrats’ chances of retaining their majorities in the House and Senate.”
Another group, the Primary Sinema Pledge, is collecting pledges through Crowdpac for donations it plans to give to a 2024 primary challenger if Sinema votes against changing the filibuster.
With the election more than two years away, Sinema doesn’t have a formal primary challenger yet. But some Democrats are urging Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine veteran, to do so.
Gallego made headlines when he name-checked Sinema in a speech on the House floor shortly after she spoke on the opposite side of the Capitol.
“Today the House showed where it stands. We won’t shrink from protecting our democracy and the voting rights of all Americans. It’s past time for the U.S. Senate and Sen. Sinema to do the same,” Gallego said.
He didn’t stop there.
Gallego, in an interview with Politico, called Sinema’s stance “disappointing.” And in an interview with CNN, he launched a broadside against his fellow Arizona Democrat while not ruling out a primary challenge against her.
“A lot of Arizonans … are very unhappy with the fact that she is blocking voting rights legislation, so I’ll keep my ears open, I’ll continue to have my public meetings, something that she should try to do once and a while and then I’ll make a determination after 2022,” he said.
Gallego added that he believed Sinema’s view on the filibuster was “naive” and “very problematic for a lot of Arizonans of all political persuasions.” He also accused Sinema of having “looser principles” on the filibuster “when it’s convenient to Wall Street.”
Gallego was referencing a one-time exemption to the filibuster that the Senate greenlit last month to raise the debt ceiling. But legislation setting up the procedural loophole had to overcome a filibuster, meaning it got GOP votes and was part of a deal worked out between Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
This week is hardly the first time Sinema has found herself at the center of a progressive firestorm.
Stories about her irking the left have cropped up like clockwork. Progressives grumbled, even as they largely supported her, in 2018, and she got on-the-record warnings from other Arizona Democrats in 2019 about underestimating the state’s changing demographics.
But those tensions have since boiled over after Democrats took back control of the Senate and the White House. The no-room-for-error dynamic of a 50-50 Senate puts Sinema under a microscope on any of the party’s big priorities, including last year’s coronavirus relief bill, any hope for a revived Build Back Better Act and, more recently, a push by Biden and Schumer to change the 60-vote legislative filibuster in order to pass election-related legislation.
Progressives, and Sinema’s own Senate colleagues, have led a months-long pressure campaign to sway her. Schumer recently urged activists to call Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to try to pressure them; Sinema has met with a group of Democrats leading the reform talks and civil rights activists are gathering in Phoenix over the weekend.
Sinema supports the two proposals that have been included in the bill that the Senate will vote on next week: The Freedom to Vote Act, which would overhaul federal elections and campaign finance laws, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
She’s also disavowed new state-level voting restrictions, including in Arizona, enacted in the wake of the 2020 election, which former President Trump and his allies falsely claimed was stolen.
But Sinema, echoing stances she’s outlined over the past year in statements and op-eds, made clear during her floor speech that despite her support for the bills she wouldn’t vote to change the 60-vote filibuster. Republicans have used the filibuster to block three election-related bills and without changes to the rules, which Democrats could enact with total unity from their 50 members, voting rights legislation has hit a dead end in the Senate.
“These bills help treat the symptoms of the disease — but they do not fully address the disease itself. And while I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” Sinema said.
Sinema also used her speech to call for bipartisanship, saying that the “mandate” was to “work together and get stuff done for America.”
“We must address the disease itself — the disease of division — to protect our democracy. It cannot be achieved by one party alone,” she said.
But Sinema’s call for bipartisanship sparked criticism from Democrats, who noted that they tried to get GOP votes on the voting bills, but 10 Republican senators didn’t bite.
Avila said that Sinema presenting her position on the filibuster as tied to bipartisanship “is so naive.”
“We know that the Republicans are not interested in bipartisanship,” he said. “We progressives believe that Democrats are not even meeting us in the middle.”