Schumer faces brewing war and progressives ramp up primary threats

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has a brewing civil war on his hands as Democratic activists turn up the volume on talk about challenging Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) in future Democratic primaries.  

More centrist members of Schumer’s caucus want to move past the messy internal battles over President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and filibuster reform, two high-priority issues where Manchin and Sinema stood apart from the rest of the caucus.   

But liberal lawmakers and many Democratic activists are still fuming over the failures to pass a sweeping climate and social spending bill or voting rights legislation — and the roles Manchin and Sinema played.   

Schumer surprised some colleagues last week when he declined to say whether he would support Sinema or Manchin in a future primary and instead sidestepped the question.  

“I am focused on 2022, getting things done, and winning the election on 2022,” Schumer told CNN. “I’m not at all focused on 2024 right now, and neither should anyone else be. That’s just how you lose in 2022.” 

It was a remarkable answer. Senate incumbents can almost always count on the support of their own leadership in a primary, and they got it in many previous election cycles.

One Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to discuss the internal dynamics of the caucus, said that Schumer’s reluctance to say he would support either Manchin or Sinema in a future primary “shows how disgruntled he is” with his centrist colleagues.  

The senator said Schumer also doesn’t want to divide Democrats in his home state ahead of his own reelection campaign this year. A second Democratic senator also speculated that Schumer’s decision is driven by a desire to avoid a fight with progressive activists.  

Any expression of support for Manchin or Sinema could fuel calls for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to challenge him in the primary or — more likely — merely erode his margin of victory in the primary or general election by dampening enthusiasm among Democratic voters.  

Ocasio-Cortez has talked openly about supporting a primary to Sinema, and she is a rising political star who hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a Senate campaign.  

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a leader of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, says he’s open to supporting a challenge against Sinema or Manchin and other members of the Democratic caucus may join him.   

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said last month that other Senate Democrats have called to pitch him on running against Sinema in 2024.  

“To be honest, I have gotten a lot of encouragement from elected officials, from senators, from unions, from your traditional Democratic groups, big donors,” Gallego told CNN last month. 

Faiz Shakir, a political adviser to Sanders and a former Senate Democratic leadership aide, said there’s a brewing battle over the future of the Democratic Party between centrists such as Manchin and Sinema and progressives like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).  

“There’s an ongoing battle for the soul of Democratic Party, the future of it, whether we are a corporate-driven party or a party of the people and Joe Manchin and Sinema represent the leading faction of the push to be friendly to corporate power,” he said.  

He said Sinema and Manchin “are the symbol of that fight because they have so brazenly leaned into corporate donations and the willingness to fight Biden’s agenda.” 

“They tarnish any Democrat who wants to work with them,” he added.   

Manchin saw corporate donations to his political action committee, Country Roads PAC, surge during the fall, when he emerged as the biggest obstacle to Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better agenda.  

His PAC received contributions in October and November from American Express, Goldman Sachs, Lockheed Martin, UnitedHealth Group, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Verizon, Union Pacific and Wells Fargo.    

Manchin raised more than $4.8 million in 2021, setting a non-election year personal fundraising record.  

Sinema, meanwhile, raised more than $1.5 million at the end of 2021 and accepted contributions from billionaire investors Ken Langone and Nelson Peltz, who supported former President Trump in the past. 

So far, Sanders is the only member of the Senate Democratic Conference willing to say publicly that they are open to backing primary challenges to Sinema or Manchin.  

Warren dodged the question during an interview last month on “CBS Mornings.” 

“We’ll address that when we get past this week,” she said Jan. 18 as the Senate was preparing to debate voting rights legislation and filibuster reform.   

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading proponent of the climate provisions in Build Back Better that stalled when Manchin announced on Fox News on Dec. 19 that he could not support the package, said he and many Democratic voters are frustrated with the outcome of the negotiations.   

But he wouldn’t go anywhere near the subject of primary challenges against Manchin or Sinema.   

“I don’t talk about colleagues,” he said.   

But just as progressives such as Warren and Whitehouse are leery about supporting challenges to Manchin and Sinema, senators who are closer to the two centrists philosophically aren’t eager to express their support, either.  

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who is up for reelection this year and says he works well with Sinema, nonetheless declined to say whether he would support her in a 2024 primary.  

“I’m not even focused on an election that’s happening this November,” he said, reprising his line that he’s more focused on the legislative work before the Senate than even his own upcoming race.   

“We got to focus on solving problems for Arizonans and the American people. I work very closely with Sen. Sinema on a lot of this stuff, especially the infrastructure bill and she was so critical to getting that done,” he said.  

Kelly noted that he did not support the censure of Sinema by Arizona Democrats after she refused to vote for filibuster reform.  

Republicans, meanwhile, are happy to watch the turmoil within the Democratic caucus from the sidelines.  

Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who talks often with Sinema, said he was shocked that Schumer didn’t say he would back her and Manchin against future primary challengers.  

“It seemed weird to me. I think it’s a mistake. They’re going to need them on a lot of stuff. They got a big Supreme Court nominee coming up here,” he said.  

He said “it’s very unusual” for a Senate leader to withhold expressing support for a colleague facing a possible primary challenge.  

“If I were him, I would figure out how to work with them because they’re the difference right now whether they’re in the majority or not,” he added, referring to the 50-50 split Senate.  

Thune has spoken to Sinema multiple times about the possibility of switching parties but Sinema has rebuffed the offers.   

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has a policy of supporting all Senate GOP incumbents in primaries.  

And NRSC Chairman Rick Scott (Fla.) has pressed Trump to support all of the Senate GOP’s incumbents, even though Trump has supported primary challenges against Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Thune, who are both running for reelection this year.  

Schumer, however, is keeping his distance from any speculation about whether the Democratic leadership back Manchin and Sinema in their future primaries.  

He bristled at a question about whether he would back primary challengers to either centrist  before they voted against a proposed reform to the Senate’s filibuster rule, which could have helped pass election reform and voting rights legislation.  

“I’m not getting into the politics, this is a substantive, serious issue,” he said with annoyance when asked before the historic vote, in which Sinema and Manchin sided with their Republican colleagues.   

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Thune Kyrsten Sinema Lisa Murkowski Mark Kelly Ruben Gallego Sheldon Whitehouse

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