Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s filibuster speech has reenergized progressive efforts to find someone to primary and oust the Arizona Democrat

Senator Kyrsten Sinema
Arizona Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks to Sen. James Lankford, a Republican of Oklahoma before the start of a Senate Finance Committee hearing on October 19, 2021. Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images
  • Her reelection isn’t until 2024, but Sen. Sinema’s critics are looking for a challenger to oust her.
  • The Arizona Democrat renewed critics’ anger with a speech saying she would never nix the filibuster.
  • But the grassroots efforts to oust her are a risky bid in a state that still is heavily Republican.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s declaration on the Senate floor that she’ll never vote to end the filibuster ignited “white-hot rage” from progressives in her home state of Arizona where grassroots efforts to find someone to challenge her are gaining steam.

“People feel betrayed and absolutely fed up with her actions with her obstruction,” Arizona-based activist Kai Newkirk told Insider on Thursday, shortly after Sinema’s speech.

Newkirk is one of the founders of the Sinema Primary Pledge, one of at least three homegrown operations that are seeking to draft or support a Democratic primary challenger for Sinema in 2024. The efforts indicate a growing and well-funded determination by Sinema’s critics within the Democratic Party to punish her for what they see as an unnecessary and harmful obstruction to President Joe Biden’s agenda, and could portend trouble for the swing state senator in two years.

 

Democrats have sought to end the Senate filibuster, which allows the minority party to block a vote on legislation, in the face of Republican opposition to Biden’s big-ticket agenda items. But Sinema, along with fellow conservative Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has refused to go along with her party. 

The latest furor centers on the Democrats’ push to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Neither has any chance of passage in the Senate while the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote minimum, remains in place.

“I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” Sinema declared in her speech on the Senate floor, even as she said she supports both bills.

Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona speaks as Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine stand by on Capitol Hill on July 28, 2021.
Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona speaks as Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine stand by on Capitol Hill on July 28, 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

‘I fear that she’s wrong’

Sinema’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the furor that followed her speech and the primary efforts. But some of her colleagues expressed frustration with her choice. “Well, it looks like the path forward is very difficult, particularly based upon Senator Sinema’s statement today,” Senator Angus King, a Maine Independent who caucuses with Democrats, told reporters at the Capitol a few hours after her speech. “She believes that the risk of changing the filibuster is greater than the risk of what’s going on in the states. I hope profoundly that she’s right. I fear that she’s wrong.”

After Sinema’s speech, progressives on Twitter lit into her and drew attention to the primary efforts and their corresponding donation pages.

One campaign, The Primary Sinema Pledge,  has raised $108,746 on CrowdPAC so far, and counts Arizona progressives like Belén Sisa, a former spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Brianna Westbrook, a candidate for the Arizona legislature, as backers.

“Either Sinema votes to end the filibuster OR we fund a primary challenger,” the campaign says on its website.

A separate but similar-sounding effort, the Primary Sinema Project, was founded in September 2021 by the progressive organization Way to Lead, and saw a spike in fundraising on January 13. In its short existence, the group says it has raised more than $250,000 from 10,000 grassroots donors, with $28,000 of the money coming in after Sinema’s speech.

“Arizonans and Democrats across the country are damn angry — and they should be,” said Luis Avila, a spokesperson for the Primary Sinema Project. 

The Primary Sinema Project was bankrolled by an initial investment of $400,000 from progressive organization Way to Lead, a spokesperson said, and it raises money through an entity called Change for Arizona 2024 PAC. With no actual primary challenger, however, the Project says its “money will go to support grassroots groups on the ground in Arizona.” A group called Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) is the only named recipient, but the project says it will name future beneficiaries.

The group also blasted out a lengthy memo to reporters on Thursday, taking Sinema to task for her policy positions. “Unfortunately, instead of getting things done, Senator Kyrsten Sinema has decided to use her power in the Senate to obstruct much of Biden’s agenda—including on the crucial issue of voting rights, which she claims to support,” the Primary Sinema Project memo read.

Jana Morgan Hunger Strike for Democracy
Jana Morgan of Declaration for American Democracy joins hunger strikers and activists at a press conference in front of the U.S. Capitol Building to demand that the Senate pass the Freedom To Vote: John Lewis Act on January 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Un-PAC

 A risky effort for Democrats

A third, more specific drive led by Sanders alumnus and Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, aims to draft Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona to challenge Sinema in 2024.

“Many of us felt it was time to bring an explicit electoral threat into the fight and to make it clear that Sinema has not just a moral choice to make, but a political one between the filibuster and her political future,” said Newkirk of the Primary Sinema Pledge. “We wanted to draw a line and say, this far and no further. If she won’t vote to end the filibuster…we will replace her with someone who will.”

Sinema has faced outrage from Democrats before over her votes against party initiatives. She drew scorn for voting not to include a $15 minimum wage provision in a March 2021 coronavirus relief bill. Seven other Democrats voted with her, but Sinema’s thumbs-down gesture went viral for all the wrong reasons.

The senator has maintained a more conservative stance than her Democratic counterparts since she was elected to the Senate from Arizona in 2018, claiming the late Republican Sen. John McCain’s old seat from his temporary replacement, Sen. Martha McSally. Sinema has electoral realities to contend with; Arizona remains very much a swing state, with a strong base of Republican voters and a powerful Republican Party that sided with Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election despite Biden’s win. While both of its US Senators are currently Democrats, its governor, Doug Ducey, is a Republican. Until 2018, both Senate seats were held by Republicans.

It makes intra-party warfare in 2024 a risky proposition, as Democrats defend a seat that could determine their power in Washington. But it’s a risk that Newkirk said Sinema’s critics were willing to take in order to enact Democrat’s priorities on voting rights.

Not all Democrats, however, are convinced that spending time, energy, and money primarying a sitting senator from their own party is worth the effort when they face a tough electoral landscape in 2022. 

“It can’t hurt,” one Democratic operative focused on state-level contests said. “Do I think it’s the most effective use of money today? No.”