Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is facing a series of rebukes from elected Democrats, progressive organizations, and members of her own state party after her refusal last week to support an exception to the filibuster to advance a major voting rights bill.
Sinema, along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), spurned a Democratic effort to restore the talking filibuster for voting rights legislation in order to pass the Freedom To Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement acts, and the effort ultimately failed by a vote of 48 to 52 on Wednesday.
Now, however, her vote could cost her politically: Donors and progressive organizations have announced they are pulling their support this week, and Sinema could also face a serious primary challenge in 2024, should she run for reelection to the Senate.
Notably, Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice — both national political organizations focused on electing pro-choice women to political office — withdrew their support for Sinema on Thursday.
“We believe the decision by Sen. Sinema is not only a blow to voting rights and our electoral system but also to the work of all the partners who supported her victory and her constituents who tried to communicate the importance of this bill,” Emily’s List president Laphonza Butler said in a statement Thursday, formally withdrawing the organization’s support for Sinema.
That announcement, notes Ben Giles, a reporter for NPR affiliate KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona, is significant for multiple reasons. First, it’s unusual for pro-choice organizations to come out against the filibuster, because it’s historically been a tool used to protect abortion rights. Additionally — and perhaps more importantly for Sinema’s political future — Emily’s List was by far the largest donor to Sinema’s 2018 campaign, according to OpenSecrets, contributing nearly half a million dollars.
NARAL, which also backed Sinema during her successful 2018 Senate race, tweeted Thursday that “there’s no reproductive freedom without the freedom to vote” and said the organization would change its endorsement criteria to only endorse “senators who support changing the Senate rules to pass the critical legislation that will protect voting rights.”
“The freedom to vote underpins our fight for reproductive freedom and every other freedom we hold dear,” the group said in a statement following the vote on Wednesday. “Absolutely nothing should stand in the way of urgent action to ensure every voter has the freedom to participate in safe and accessible elections.”
According to Politico, 70 major donors to Sinema’s 2018 campaign also wrote Sinema a letter prior to Wednesday night’s vote, saying they would ask for their donations to be returned should she vote against filibuster reform, as she ultimately did.
“We must draw a line,” the donors wrote. “We cannot in good conscience support you if you refuse to use your office to protect our fundamental rights to vote, and we will be obliged to back alternatives for your seat who will do the right thing for our country.”
While we take no pleasure in this announcement, the @azdemparty Executive Board has decided to formally censure Senator Sinema as a result of her failure to do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our democracy. Read full statement: https://t.co/rxeLVdydOD— Raquel Terán #BlackLivesMatter (@RaquelTeran) January 22, 2022
According to one Arizona Democratic operative who spoke with Vox on the condition of anonymity, the state party isn’t likely to take that step — but Sinema’s political future in the state could still be in trouble.
“I really don’t see a path for her to win the Democratic primary right now,” the operative told Vox, and even if she does, it’s not a sure thing the party will choose to support her in 2024. “I really do feel like we were forced into this position,” they said. “This isn’t about, ‘she isn’t progressive enough,’ it’s a pattern.”
Sinema has been frustrating Democratic leadership all year, particularly with her refusal to back elements of President Joe Biden’s proposed social spending and climate change bill, the Build Back Better Act. The senator initially opposed the bill’s $3.5 trillion price tag, which was whittled down to around $1.75 trillion by the time Congress took its holiday break, and she has also said she opposes an increase to the corporate minimum tax rate to help pay for the bill’s proposals.
Sinema’s continued defense of the filibuster, however — even at the cost of major Democratic legislation which Sinema herself supports — proved to be a step too far for many Democrats. As Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, explained in conversation with Vox’s Li Zhou earlier in January, Sinema’s filibuster rhetoric bears little resemblance to the rule’s actual function.
“We’re finally seeing, I think, a level of frustration, over the misuse of the filibuster, not as an infrequently applied tool by a minority on an issue about which they feel very, very strongly, but as a cynical weapon of mass obstruction,” Ornstein explained. “Certainly there was a time when we had well-established norms in the Senate that fostered problem-solving and bipartisanship. That time is long gone.”
Is Sinema really at risk in 2024?
In addition to the immediate backlash to her stance on the filibuster, Sinema’s long-term political prospects could be in jeopardy. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has already voiced support for a potential primary challenge against Sinema, and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who is considered a likely candidate to challenge Sinema in 2024, says he has spoken with multiple Senate Democrats about doing so.
Gallego also called out Sinema by name in a floor speech earlier this month, following Sinema’s announcement that she would not support an exception to the filibuster for voting rights. “We won’t shrink from protecting our democracy and the voting rights of all Americans,” Gallego said. “It’s past time for the US Senate and Senator Sinema to do the same.”
Democracy is under attack, and Congress must respond. pic.twitter.com/0gLtja6srL— Ruben Gallego (@RepRubenGallego) January 13, 2022
On Sunday, Sanders also told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that he supports the Arizona Democratic Party’s decision to censure Sinema. “That was a terrible, terrible vote,” Sanders said. “And I think what the Arizona Democratic Party did was exactly right.”
WATCH: It was "exactly right" to censure Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, @SenSanders says on #MTP.— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) January 23, 2022
"That was a terrible, terrible vote. And I think what the Arizona Democratic Party did was exactly right." pic.twitter.com/dDngBxZn24
In an emailed statement to Vox, Sinema press secretary Hannah Hurley defended Sinema’s record and reiterated her support for voting rights legislation, despite Sinema’s decision to oppose changes to the filibuster.
“Kyrsten has always promised Arizonans she would be an independent voice for the state — not for either political party,” Hurley said. “She’s delivered for Arizonans and has always been honest about where she stands.”
The Arizona Democratic operative, though, told Vox that Sinema’s stance is particularly out-of-step with the reality of Arizona’s political climate when it comes to voting rights.
“The stakes are incredibly high,” they said. “We are ground zero for voter suppression.”
Sinema’s support among Arizona Democrats has already begun to flag in recent months in some polls. In September, 56 percent of Democrats viewed her favorably, according to a poll from OH Predictive Insights with a sample size of 882 Arizona voters, but a January 18 poll from Public Policy Polling of 554 Arizona voters found only 15 percent of Democrats viewed her favorably.
“All I’ll say is that she created the circumstances she now finds herself in,” Tré Easton, the deputy director of Battle Born Collective, a progressive advocacy group, told Vox via text message regarding a potential primary challenge to Sinema. “The people of Arizona deserve better — either from her or another Democrat.”
And while Sinema hasn’t lost all of her backing — she still has substantial support from big donors in the pharmaceutical and financial industries — it may not be enough to keep her seat come 2024. In addition to a potential primary challenge, Arizona is a purple state where the eventual Democratic Senate nominee will likely find themselves in a close general election race, and the state has been home to aggressive voter suppression efforts by Republican state officials.
It makes for a puzzling stance from “one of the smartest people in Arizona politics” and someone who’s previously been seen as a long-term thinker, the Arizona Democratic operative told Vox.
“A lot of folks are really struggling to answer the question of, ‘What is the strategy here?’” they said.
Update, January 23, 9:10 pm ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s office.