While national Democrats, including President Joe Biden, struggle with Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s positions in an evenly-divided Senate, progressives at home are launching campaigns to pressure the state’s senior senator, threatening a primary challenger in 2024.
But Arizona is far from a blue state, and some argue that Sinema’s opposition to parts of the Biden agenda are in line with what she campaigned on being: an independent, moderate voice to represent the often-quirky political leanings of Arizonans.
The former Green Party activist, who once criticized a presidential candidate for attempting to get Republican support, is now a moderate thorn in the president’s side.
Progressives are expressing frustration with Sinema, who they say is working against an already moderate president and making Democratic priorities more difficult to enact. And activists are ramping up the pressure on her with crowdfunding campaigns and protests, even following her into a bathroom while she was home in Arizona last week, an action widely condemned by leaders on both sides of the aisle.
Sinema also faced protesters at the airport last weekend, asking her why she is opposing Biden’s agenda in the Senate. On her flight, she was approached by a DACA recipient, who asked for a commitment from her to support a pathway to citizenship. Protestors say they have a difficult time getting meetings with Sinema, so they are turning to the airwaves and larger fundraising campaigns to up the pressure.
Common Defense, an organization run by progressive veterans, is placing a seven-figure ad buy to target Sinema and pressure her to help pass Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda.
“I do feel like she’s failing to deliver with us when part of her campaign was about lowering prescription drug costs, and that’s something that the Build Back Better Act does. And she has come out against it, and again, no real good reason why,” Naveed Shah of Common Defense told ABC News.
The opposition to Sinema did not begin with infrastructure. At least two new political action committees have launched in response to Sinema’s positions since Biden came into office, both seeking to bankroll a primary challenger if Sinema doesn’t change her mind on the filibuster.
Kai Newkirk, a progressive organizer who helped elect Sinema in 2018, is a part of the effort to pressure Sinema to fall in line with Biden’s agenda in the Senate by using one of the new political action committees to send a clear message: Move out of the way so Biden’s agenda can pass, or else Democrats will look elsewhere for a 2024 Senate nominee. He and other activists started a conditional crowd-sourcing campaign to fund a primary challenger to Sinema, which raised $100,000 in a week.
Arizona Democrats recently threatened a vote of no confidence if Sinema continued to stand in the way of filibuster reform that would help ensure passage of Biden’s agenda, an issue they single out as the biggest blockade to Democratic success in Washington.
“We are at a point where we need federal action and there is nothing happening there,” state Sen. Martín Quezada told a progressive news outlet. “I was expecting the Kyrsten Sinema that I had seen in the legislature. I was always impressed by her intelligence, her aggressiveness and her commitment to values that we supported. That’s what I was hoping we would get, but she hasn’t done that. She’s been the exact opposite of what we thought we were electing.”
Some of the dissatisfaction with Sinema comes from a lack of clarity on what exactly she wants. She initially ran for the state House in the 2000s as an independent and pushed for progressive agendas. As her political career developed and she gained larger constituencies, she’s continued to move to the center. Now, in the Senate majority for the first time, she’s been in and out of meetings with the White House and, along with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, is one of two Democrats blocking movement on Biden’s infrastructure package.
Even her colleagues are unclear on what exactly she and Manchin are angling for.
“Now it’s time, I would say for both senators, make your mark and close the deal,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said last week. “What is it that you want? What is your final goal? It’s time to stop talking around it and speak directly to it.”
Aside from her lack of support on some aspects of Biden’s agenda, some Democrats argue her actions could harm freshman Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, when he is up for reelection next year.
“I think the risk is that it’s going to be harder to reelect Kelly, for Democrats to keep their majorities in general, because we haven’t been able to deliver on what we were elected to do, if Sinema keeps doing what she is now,” Newkirk said. “You have to keep your promises, and make a difference in voters’ lives for them to put you back in office.
Groups that organized for her argue it is difficult to get a meeting with her or her office, and that when they do, they’re often met with nonanswers.
“She’s not explaining what she’s doing or where she really stands to her constituents. And it’s absurd and insulting….feeling that she doesn’t even have to explain to the people who elected her — that she’s there to represent — where she stands on these specific issues,” Newkirk said.
But all of that may not matter. While Arizona opted for Democrats at the top of their ballot in 2020 — in both the presidential and Senate races — only former President Bill Clinton and President Joe Biden have broken Arizona’s tendency to vote red for its presidential nominees. Biden only won the state by .3%, a reminder that some Democrats’ fantasy of a deep-blue Arizona could still be far off.
Samara Klar, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s school of government and public policy, said that despite the fact that many Democrats are angry with Sinema, Arizona voters historically love a candidate who is willing to stick with their convictions, even if they aren’t popular within their own party at the time.
“Sinema and Mark Kelly both ran and won on this centrism thing. That’s who they are, they’re not going to be typical partisan politicians,” she said.
“Even among the Democrats, we tend to see a little more right-leaning issue positions and preferences for centrism and moderate candidates than what we tend to see nationally. In fact, I would say Kyrsten Sinema largely was elected thanks to that,” she added.
Sinema, who only won her 2018 election by just under three points, would still, however, need to win a Democratic primary, Newkirk argues.
“If she runs as an independent, she’s not some institution like John McCain. The votes are not there. She has to win the Democratic primary, and if she continues on this path, she’s not going to be able to, but she continues to dig in her heels,” Newkirk said.
Sinema has often said she sees Sen. John McCain as an inspiration, and is sometimes branded as a politician cut from the same cloth. But Chuck Coughlin, a GOP strategist in Arizona who has watched Sinema’s rise into national politics, told ABC News that those comparisons fall short.
“People knew who John McCain was — it’s not something that needed to be defined by anybody else,” Coughlin said. “And she does not have those types of depth of roots in the public consciousness. She’s being defined right now. This is a moment in her life that will define her going forward.”