For months, progressives have blanketed the airwaves in Arizona in hopes of pressuring Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) to back down from her contrarian positions. In response, she’s just dug in further.
But now, as Sinema becomes perhaps the lead Democratic objector to President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, some progressives are no longer trying to move the stubborn senator—they’re just trying to replace her.
While the PAC would not disclose more information about the ads, the Facebook ad library shows the group has bought more than $7,000 in anti-Sinema posts since Sept. 30. The ads link out to the group’s ActBlue donation page.
The ads paint Sinema as a major roadblock to Biden’s agenda and ask for donations to help build out a political Democratic operation to topple her, even though she isn’t up for re-election for three years.
“It’s clear that Senator Sinema needs to be replaced by another Democrat,” one of the ads says. “We’ve just launched the Primary Sinema PAC. With your help, we are raising funds to build infrastructure with grassroots organizing groups in Arizona. That way, when a primary challenger comes along, they’ll have the infrastructure already built to win.”
While this group may look a little like a “scam PAC” at the moment, Primary Sinema isn’t a shoestring operation. The group got its initial backing from a band of wealthy progressive donors behind an influential grassroots group, the women-led Way to Win, whose investment in the Primary Sinema effort was first reported by NBC News. Those donors ponied up $400,000 in PAC seed money, according to PAC spokesperson Kolby Lee. And according to the Way to Win website, the organization poured a staggering $110 million into the 2020 elections.
As for that primary candidate, however, Lee said the PAC is currently agnostic, and doesn’t support any specific person or any platform beyond Biden’s stated objectives.
The shot across the bow comes as liberal Democrats in Arizona and nationwide voice a deep frustration bordering on rage over Sinema’s opposition to a number of goals embraced by the party at large.
The freshman senator, who styles herself a “maverick” after the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, has shown resistance this year to raising the minimum wage, cracking down on prescription drug prices, hiking corporate tax rates, nuking the filibuster in order to pass voting rights and immigration reform bills, and, most critically today, enacting a sprawling legislative package to advance Biden’s economic and social agenda.
Progressive groups have already spent significantly on ads attacking Sinema in Arizona over these issues, in hopes of generating grassroots pressure on her to change course. For example, The Daily Beast reported in July that Just Democracy Coalition, a coalition of activist groups, was spending six figures on a blistering set of ads highlighting the senator’s record, after dropping $1.5 million on a similar campaign earlier in the year.
But it’s a notable shift that progressives are now embracing explicit primary threats in their pressure campaign, particularly because Sinema is not up for re-election until 2024, having flipped this seat from GOP control in 2018. With most of their tactics having so far failed to move Sinema, many progressive activists now feel that their only remaining move is to ratchet up the primary saber-rattling.
“We’ve tried everything in Arizona,” said Matthew Marquez, an organizer for the Arizona Working Families Party, a left-wing third party often aligned with Democrats. “The next step is, what other option do we have, and that is setting up and being involved in a primary.”
“The feeling right now is, we have a few years to plan and get everything ready and have the right candidate who will do their job,” Marquez said.
Some activist groups are already trying to recruit candidates to unseat her in the 2024 primary. One such group, “Run Ruben Run,” has dedicated itself to recruiting Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) for the task. The four-term Democrat has rebuffed those calls but has not ruled out running.
But other Arizona progressives believe that threatening Sinema over an election three years away could yield the short-term impact on her positions that they’ve so far struggled to achieve.
Another group of Arizona activists recently launched a separate effort that explicitly leverages the threat of a primary to try to push Sinema left. They’re currently soliciting campaign cash that will go to a Democratic challenger to Sinema—unless she supports ending the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule. It’s similar to a ploy Maine Democrats used in 2018 to raise $4 million for a 2020 challenger to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) if she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Kai Newkirk, an Arizona-based leader of the effort, said that the primary threats are intended to have an immediate impact. “She hasn’t moved yet, the clock is ticking, and we’re coming down to multiple inflection points of just tremendous significance for the country,” Newkirk told The Daily Beast. “We have to move her now. 2024 is too late.”
Asked if he felt stockpiling money for 2024 through the Primary Sinema PAC would help with the immediate fights, Newkirk said he welcomed the national interest but emphasized that it’s “really important” that “efforts to take on Sinema are grassroots and really led from on the ground in Arizona.”
These activists also sense Sinema is politically weak at this moment, and have drawn encouragement from her declining popularity within the party.
On Monday, a new Morning Consult poll found that her net approval rating among Arizona Democrats had nosedived by over 40 points since the beginning of the year. And last week, state Democrats passed a resolution threatening to rebuke Sinema with a vote of “no confidence.”
Lee told The Daily Beast that Primary Sinema chose to launch such a broad effort now, three years out, because, with Democratic majorities in both chambers and control of the White House, “it’s a consequential turning point for Biden’s agenda and the party as a whole.”
At the moment, the most spirited criticism of Sinema stems from her resistance to the Democrats’ marquee social welfare bill—a vast, multi-trillion-dollar package that aims to achieve almost all of the party’s recent campaign promises, from instituting universal pre-K and free community college to expanding Medicaid and tackling climate change.
Along with fellow holdout Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and a small team of centrist House Democrats, Sinema has expressed serious reservations about key aspects of the legislation, including its size and scope and tax increases that would pay for the new programs. Many Democrats in the Capitol privately question whether she wants to pass any version of the bill, and simply enact only a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package she helped broker.
Unlike Manchin, Sinema spurns interviews, and has not publicly indicated what she would support. Though she has maintained her opposition to the package since negotiations began in earnest this summer, she has provided the public little in the way of specifics about her objections and solutions, citing an unwillingness to “negotiate through the press.”
The ambiguity has so exasperated her colleagues that some have complained about it on cable news; her camp has stressed that Sinema has made her positions on the details privately clear to Biden and to congressional leaders hammering out the deal.
Without that open communication, the combination of standoffishness and secrecy has pushed some liberals to a breaking point, and for a few, their exasperation has given way to anger. Over the weekend, a group of youth activists followed the Senator into a restroom on the campus of Arizona State University, where she teaches some courses in between legislative sessions.
“It’s not too late for her to start listening to voters, to get on board with filibuster reform and stop obstructing Biden’s agenda,” said Lee. “If she continues on this path it will make the party more vulnerable, and that’s when it will be beyond time to support someone else who’s going to represent voters’ interests.”
The Daily Beast reached out to Sinema’s office for comment, but did not receive a reply.