Democratic anger with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is beginning to reach a boil in Arizona over her opposition to Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, fueling speculation that a primary challenger could be awaiting her when she runs for a second term in 2024.
A handful of Democratic groups critical of Sinema popped up this week, with some looking to fund a potential primary challenger and at least one looking to specifically recruit Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) to run against her in the Democratic nominating contest. At the same time, the Arizona Democratic Party is threatening to hold a no-confidence vote on Sinema unless she falls in line with the rest of her caucus.
Frustration within the Democratic base with Sinema had been bubbling up since the start of the Biden presidency due to her opposition to raising the minimum wage, abolishing the Senate filibuster and more. But her central role in helping stop the reconciliation bill from moving forward is getting activists particularly energized to take down a lawmaker they vigorously sought to elect three years ago.
“She’s practically laying out a red carpet for” a primary challenge, said state Sen. Martin Quezada (D). “I think that’s the next step that people here in Arizona, activists and members of the party are going to take, is to start building that war chest to fund a possible primary challenge against her.”
Sinema has emerged as an enigma for Democrats both in Washington and Arizona since joining the Senate in 2019.
The Arizona Democrat, a former Green Party activist, has vexed party officials and activists by staking out a fiercely centrist lane. Votes cast against raising the minimum wage and opposition to abolishing the filibuster and significant tax increases have led to head-scratching in the Grand Canyon State, where party enthusiasts thought electing a Democrat in 2018 would help deliver them significant wins.
That confusion burst into frustration this week as Sinema, along with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D), stands in the way of passing Democrats’ sprawling social spending bill.
Arizona Democrats this week launched the Primary Sinema PAC, with the expressed goal of “[laying] the foundation for a successful primary campaign when a strong challenger emerges.” That group was started with the backing of Way to Win, a network of donors that injected $110 million in the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, Nuestro PAC, a prominent outside group, rolled out a draft campaign called “Run Ruben Run” to push Gallego to take on Sinema in 2024.
“We were willing to elect a more moderate Democrat to that seat. But what we weren’t willing to do was to elect someone who was going to completely leave us high and dry on all of these issues, and she’s crossed that line at this point,” said Quezada. “We thought we would get an independent thinker, we thought we would get a moderate Democrat, but a Democrat, a strong Democrat nonetheless. And we don’t feel like we have that.”
Sinema’s opposition to the $3.5 trillion price tag on Democrats’ sweeping social policy and climate change bill has particularly rankled progressives, who see her not only as obstructing their agenda, but actively promoting what they believe are bad political and economic ideas, namely that the country is facing a debt and deficit crisis.
“Sinema reflects a problem for the party going back decades — having this notion that high taxes are bad, big government is bad and there’s some nonexistent crisis with the deficit,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and former national surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign.
“The notion that you wouldn’t be going out and selling this reconciliation bill — it drives me nuts,” he added. “She is dooming the Democratic Party to defeat by regurgitating false economic ideas. That’s what drives me to drink.”
To be sure, Sinema has previously said that she will not support a bill costing $3.5 trillion. Her office said on Thursday that she has voiced her concerns and priorities to both the White House and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and is engaging in talks with both.
“While we do not negotiate through the press — because Sen. Sinema respects the integrity of those direct negotiations — she continues to engage directly in good-faith discussions with both President Biden and Sen. Schumer to find common ground,” John LaBombard, Sinema’s communications director, said in a statement.
Sinema’s office did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment on the criticism she has faced from her own party.
Early polling shows that Sinema could be vulnerable in 2024 if unrest among the base lingers for another three years.
A poll from OH Predictive Insights released this week found that only 56 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of Sinema. That’s a far cry from the 80 percent Democratic approval Sen. Mark Kelly (D), her Arizona seatmate, enjoys.
“That’s probably not enough right now because it puts her just barely over the 50 percent threshold,” said Mike Noble, the chief of research at OH Predictive Insights.
“I think she would have a serious challenge,” he added. “Could she win? Absolutely. However, would she be vulnerable? Yes.”
Sinema isn’t a stranger to political backlash from the left. For months, protesters have staged various demonstrations outside her office in Phoenix. Those protests have focused on everything from Sinema’s opposition to ending the filibuster to her vote against a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
But the latest round of criticism is different in that it’s now coming from some of the very Democrats that helped elect her to the Senate in 2018.
Frustrated with Sinema’s opposition to filibuster reform, the Arizona Democratic Party’s State Committee put her on notice late last month, approving a resolution threatening to give her a vote of no confidence if she doesn’t change her stance on key Democratic priorities.
To be sure, it’s unclear if the base’s animus against Sinema would be sustainable for three years. The 2024 cycle is a political eternity away, and a Republican takeover of either or both chambers of Congress next year would surely rejigger Democrats’ calculus three years from now.
“The thing about this is I’m all in favor of primaries. But it’s 25 political lifetimes between now and 2024,” Tasini said. I don’t ascribe too much to those types of claims. It’s just too hard to tell.”
Still, Sinema’s critics say that the desire to primary her out of office will linger unless she becomes more supportive of the White House’s top priorities.
“Nobody in politics is untouchable,” Arizona community organizer Luis Avila said. “I actually believe that if she continues on course, it would be almost a no-brainer for voters to vote for whoever they think has their best interests in mind, and she’s showing over and over and over again that that’s not her.”
Yet even if Sinema continues to rankle the base, the Arizona lawmaker would certainly not be dead in the water.
Sinema’s defenders describe her as a savvy political operator who is willing to buck her own party if it means preserving her reputation as an unapologetic bipartisan — a quality that could go a long way in a former red state that has only recently opened up for Democrats.
“[Arizona] Democrats don’t have another Kyrsten Sinema. She’s a uniquely remarkable candidate for them,” one Republican consultant with deep roots in Arizona politics said. “Arizona isn’t as blue as the Democrats want to believe it is, and I think Sinema is mindful of that.”
With that in mind, observers say that if Sinema can survive a primary, she would likely make a strong general election candidate in 2024.
“It’s folks that have run center, center-right or center-left have been the ones that have been the most successful in general elections due to that independent streak that we have here in Arizona,” said Noble.
“At the end of the day, you peel off a few Republicans, great, and you win independents by 5, 10 points, you’re good to go,” he added. “I think she’s not in a bad spot at all with that group.”
Via The Hill