Sen. Kyrsten Sinema faces backlash from liberal supporters, state party over filibuster vote

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., walks to the chamber after a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s liberal donors, congressional colleagues and left-leaning Arizona constituents say she crossed a line this week that will cost President Joe Biden’s agenda, American democracy and her own electoral prospects for years to come.

Her votes siding with Republicans and one other centrist Democrat to maintain the U.S. Senate’s legislative filibuster rule helped kill Democrats’ push for voting rights legislation late Wednesday night. 

It came a week after she reiterated on the Senate floor she wouldn’t change the filibuster rule before President Joe Biden scheduled another in-person appeal to Senate Democrats on creating an exception to it for voting rights. 

Sinema, D-Ariz., has said she supports both the social spending and the voting rights bills, but that is of little consequence to a growing sliver of her support base, who view her support for a 60-vote filibuster as halting Democratic plans.

Sinema, who isn’t up for reelection until 2024, is already a top concern for people like Benée Hilton-Spiegel, a self-described moderate Democrat from north-central Phoenix who has donated to Sinema in the past. 

“I am just very, very frustrated,” she told The Arizona Republic on Thursday.

She acknowledged she is unsure about backing Sinema in the future after the Wednesday votes, which were intended to nullify a host of GOP-led state laws that Democrats and civil rights advocates cast as efforts to suppress voter turnout among minorities ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

Others are already considering their alternatives.

Fundraisers say they won't donate to future Sinema campaign 

This week, EMILY's List, an organization that helps raise campaign funds for Democratic women who support abortion rights, said it would not direct more money to Sinema.

Seventy people who have supported Sinema or other Democrats recently signed onto a letter saying they would support a primary campaign against her in 2024 and asked for refunds on their previous contributions.

A political action committee raising funds to give to someone who will challenge Sinema in the Democratic primary in 2024 said it has raised at least $300,000 for that effort. Sinema’s votes only escalated efforts by the Primary Sinema PAC to lay the groundwork in Arizona “hold her accountable in 2024 for what she did.”

There is growing pushback from the political left against Sinema, but that effort likely will need much more to create significant financial pressure on her.

Consider the letter from some of her past donors. The maneuver, first reported in Politico, was eye-catching, but had little financial gravity without many more joining their effort.

The 70 signatories to the letter to Sinema clearly gave her campaign only about $66,000 over the years, according to an Arizona Republic review of Sinema’s campaign contributions. 

Because the signatories didn’t include complete identifying information, such as their city of residence, their contributions are likely somewhat higher. Those who contribute less than $200 in a year are not publicly disclosed, but such individual small-dollar donors also have less financial impact on a Senate campaign.

Almost none of the money clearly tied to the people on the donor letter came from Arizona residents.

Contributions to Sinema’s campaign routed through EMILY's List account for about $462,000 since her 2012 election to Congress, according to campaign finance records. 

That’s sizable, but relatively small by Sinema’s campaign standards. Money routed to her through ActBlue, another organization that supports Democrats, totaled more than $11.7 million in the same span.

All the efforts to rein in or remove Sinema are in their early stages. Those involved say they are picking up momentum.

The Primary Sinema PAC said it had its largest fundraising haul over the past week, intensified by Sinema’s speech last week in defense of the filibuster and ending with her votes Wednesday. 

“She just proved exactly what we’ve been saying: she prioritizes her own self image as a ‘maverick’ trying to suck up to Republicans over delivering for her constituents,” said T.J. Helmstetter, a spokesperson for the PAC that he said has 30,000 members from around the nation and 12,000 individual donors, 1,100 of whom are Arizonans.

EMILY's List said before Wednesday’s vote Sinema would “find herself standing alone in the next election.”

Abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America announced it would not endorse or support any senator who would not help pass the voting-rights legislation. 

And the League of Conservation Voters, Black Voters Matter Fund, Latino Victory Fund and other groups announced jointly they would only consider future endorsements for senators “who take all necessary measures to pass” the voting rights bills. 

What do Sinema supporters say? 

Sinema has not weighed in on each announcement individually but said in a written statement earlier in the week that “people of good faith can have honest disagreements about policy and strategy.” She has said she respects those who have different opinions on how to address voter suppression and election subversion. 

On Thursday, her spokesperson Hannah Hurley said Sinema, throughout her congressional career "has always promised Arizonans she would be an independent voice for the state — not for either political party. She’s delivered for Arizonans and has always been honest about where she stands."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made clear she was “very disappointed” Sinema and Manchin didn’t allow the voting-rights bill to proceed by changing the filibuster rule, but she urged Democrats to resist attacking each other.

“I have discouraged it because we are a giant kaleidoscope here, Democrats and Republicans,” she told reporters in Washington on Thursday. “We have to be respectful. But I’ve discouraged people from making comments about them.”

Pelosi said she saw no “upside in Democrats criticizing Democrats.”

In Sinema’s home state, Republican officials and activists continue to question the results of the 2020 election, where Biden narrowly defeated former President Donald Trump and launched a review of 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County as part of a gaffe-prone exercise that election experts have said fell well below auditing standards. The review prompted Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is running for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate this year, to launch an investigation into the 2020 election. 

Republican state lawmakers, meanwhile, have introduced dozens of bills this legislative session with the intent of making major changes in the state’s voting system

Around the nation, as of early December, lawmakers from 19 states have enacted at least 34 laws with restrictive provisions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The restrictions followed a 2020 federal election that saw the highest voter turnout in more than a century and amid Trump’s continued unfounded claims of a “rigged” and “stolen” election. 

Sinema said in a floor speech reiterating her support for the filibuster and bipartisanship that those laws “have no place” in the U.S. and characterized them as the outgrowth of a deeper, broken democracy. 

“Threats to American democracy are real,” she said at the time. “I share the concerns of civil rights advocates and others I've heard from in recent months about these state laws. I strongly support those efforts to contest these laws in court and to invest significant resources into these states to better organize and stop efforts to restrict access at the ballot box.”

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In recent weeks, Sinema and her team has held virtual and in-person meetings with Arizona civil rights leaders, student groups, tribal leaders, military leaders, and progressive leaders about the voting-rights legislation, filibuster, and state-level laws, Hurley said.

Those meetings did not move Sinema on her position that the filibuster is a necessary tool to encourage broad bipartisan support for new federal policy. 

In a news conference hosted by Arizona Democrats to tout Biden’s first year in office — from COVID relief money to the physical infrastructure law Sinema co-brokered — officials would not weigh in on Sinema’s votes or how members of the party may respond Saturday at the Arizona Democratic Party’s state committee meeting.

“I would really like to focus today’s coverage on the highlights of the Biden administration,” said Robert Miguel, chairperson of the Ak-Chin Indian Community. 

Ahead of Saturday's meeting, state party chair Raquel Terán is scheduled to meet with the party's executive board to discuss Sinema's filibuster position. Party officials will discuss a resolution that proposes to deem "no confidence" in Sinema and proposes to withhold support of her in 2024. 

The resolution could result in a formal letter of censure. Such censures are non-binding but reflect the will of the party's most loyal activists. 

One high-profile Democrat urged Democrats to not give up the fight to get rid of the filibuster and pass the voting rights laws: Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a more left-leaning Democrat who has not ruled out a challenge to Sinema in 2024.

“Let’s work hard to elect good Democrats who support voting rights and defeat the ones who don’t - in (2022) and beyond,” he wrote on Twitter.

Other Arizona Democrats are sticking with Sinema. 

Jim Pederson, a longtime Arizona Democrat who ran for the Senate in 2006, said Thursday he was disappointed the senator helped scuttle the voting-rights legislation. But, he said, he would not pull future financial backing over it. 

“I mean, she's right on a lot of other issues,” Pederson said. “I think she's good for the state of Arizona on a number of those issues so that's not going to affect my support for her. But I am hopeful that me, along with others, can convince her that voting rights are so sacred and that she needs to really think about the filibuster aspect of this and how that might really get in the way of disenfranchising a lot of our folks.”

Carrie Aaron, a moderate Democrat from Phoenix and a Sinema donor, said the senator’s votes only reinforced her support for her. 

"She’s so committed to protecting the future of our country that she's willing to depart from a party that has been pressuring her now for, you know, many, many months,” Aaron said. “She’s taking so much pressure and so much heat for this, but actually when you really think through it, it's the right long-term decision.”

Have news to share about Arizona politics? Reach the reporter on Twitter and Facebook. Contact her at yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com and 602-444-4712.

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