Arizona activists have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a potential 2024 Democratic primary challenger to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema if she does not vote to end the filibuster or continues to obstruct President Joe Biden's agenda.
A committee of Arizona organizers who have helped turn the state blue since 2018, when Sinema narrowly won her seat, launched the conditional fundraiser to pressure the senator to stop undermining her party's agenda. Sinema opposes the Democrats' $3.5 trillion spending bill, balking at both the price tag and key measures like drug pricing reform and tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations. She has also vehemently defended the filibuster, which has prevented any progress on the Democrats' voting rights legislation as well as a minimum wage increase, immigration reform, gun violence measures, police reform, LGBTQ protections, protections for workers' right to unionize and other bills that have already passed the Democratic-led House.
"It's time to send a message that she can't ignore," the group's CrowdPAC page says. "Either Sen. Sinema votes to end or reform the Jim Crow filibuster this year or we fund a primary challenge to replace her with someone who will."
State Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat who is backing the effort, told Salon that for sitting lawmakers, "the only thing that really gets you motivated to start seriously considering changing your views on things is if you are facing a threat to your seat."
Quezada stressed that he hopes "we wouldn't ever have to actually fulfill a primary threat and that she will ultimately take the steps that are needed to protect our state from the many threats we're facing right now."
Belén Sisa, one of the organizers behind the campaign and the former national Latino press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, said she hopes the primary threat will serve as a "wakeup call." Sisa, who in 2018 worked for NextGen America, the largest youth vote mobilization organization in the country, said she expected Sinema to "be more of an ally" but instead the senator is acting more like a Republican.
What the CrowdPAC is meant to do, said Kai Newkirk, a lead organizer in building the Arizona Coalition to End the Filibuster, is to "paint the picture of the threat to [Sinema's] political future if she stays on this course" and show clearly "that Democrats and left-leaning independents in Arizona and across the country will provide the resources necessary for a competitive and successful primary challenger."
Supporters can now pledge donations to back the effort. The campaign is not endorsing a specific potential challenger for a primary that is still almost three years away. But if Sinema does not vote to end or reform the filibuster or continues to obstruct Biden's agenda, pledges will be converted to donations and the money split between a "credible Democratic primary challenger" who opposes the filibuster and "has a strong record of accountability to all of the communities that make up Arizona" and organizations in the state that "will provide the independent grassroots organizing to power a successful primary challenge and a general election victory."
The entire progressive agenda is being held "hostage" and Sinema has the opportunity to advance it, said Karina Ruiz, one of the CrowdPAC organizers and an immigrant rights leader. "We can't continue to support a candidate that is not going to deliver for the people."
The crowdfunding effort comes amid widespread scrutiny of Sinema's corporate ties. The senator reportedly told colleagues that she would not support a Democratic plan to lower prescription drug costs, even though she campaigned in 2018 on doing just that. Sinema has received more than $750,000 from pharmaceutical and medical firms. She has also balked at the Democratic proposal for tax increases on big corporations and wealthy individuals after taking more than $900,000 from industry groups and companies who are leading a massive lobbying blitz to defeat the bill. On Tuesday, Sinema held a pricey fundraiser with five business lobbying groups that largely back Republicans and have opposed the tax increases.
Ruiz, who helped register thousands of voters ahead of Sinema's 2018 election, said it was "disappointing" and "saddening" to see a candidate who campaigned on helping the middle class and people who are economically unstable reverse positions "because they're getting money from corporations."
Sisa said that if "fundraising and campaign fundraisers are what [Sinema] cares about, then that is what we will use to hold her accountable.
"If you don't do what the people are asking you to do, then we are going to hit you where it hurts," she said. "And that is bankrolling your opponent."
Progressive activists have tried for months to pressure Sinema to support elimination or reform of the filibuster in hopes of advancing legislation that Republicans are blocking from receiving a floor vote. But Sinema's opposition to Biden's spending agenda, which includes an expansion of health care benefits, child care, family care and measures to combat climate change, has led to widespread frustration with the senator among mainstream Democrats.
"The general public is starting to see that we're not making progress on a number of issues and those issues are getting so broad that there's an issue for everybody to be upset about," Quezada said. "There's no excuse for not making progress if Democrats have the House, Senate, and the White House. So that frustration is going to continue to build the more that we see progress failing to be made on all these important issues."
Newkirk argued that the issue has been "misrepresented" as a break between progressives and Sinema when it's "actually about essentially the entire Democratic Party" feeling alienated from Arizona's senior senator.
"Biden was elected as a moderate, he's pushing a moderate compromise agenda that's been shaped by progressives and all parts of the party and it's very popular. Sinema is standing in the way of that," he said. "It doesn't represent any part of the voters who elected her, it doesn't represent any part of what the Democratic Party has been fighting for. If anything, it appears to represent the interests of corporate donors that are backing her."
Last Saturday, the Arizona Democratic Party overwhelmingly voted to back a resolution threatening a vote of no confidence against Sinema if she does not reverse her support for the filibuster or "continues to delay, disrupt, or votes to gut" the Democrats' spending plan. More than 90% of the Arizona Democratic Party State Committee previously voted in the spring to back ending the filibuster.
"This is an official public expression that the positions she's taking are not in line with the party that she represents in the state of Arizona and the people who are a part of that party," said Quezada, one of the members who introduced the resolution.
The party vote and the CrowdPAC are part of a "multi-pronged effort," he said. "We're not just putting all our eggs in one basket. We want to continue to pressure her. We want to continue the public displays of pressure. We want to continue the financial displays of pressure."
Sinema did not respond to a request for comment from Salon. Her spokesman has said that she is committed to "working directly in good faith with her colleagues and President Biden on the proposed budget reconciliation package."
Sinema defended her filibuster stance in a July Washington Post op-ed, arguing that Democrats have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster.
"I'm not impressed by that argument," Quezada said. "I think it's an argument that we've seen often from politicians who are comfortable with the status quo."
Sinema argued in the Post op-ed that if Democrats eliminate the filibuster, Republicans could later use a simple majority to pass voting restrictions, attack women's health and gut popular aid programs.
"She seems to be blind to the fact that all those things that aren't happening at the federal level are happening at the state level," Quezada said after Republican legislators rolled out an extreme agenda including new voting restrictions and an illegitimate election audit. "They are not hesitating for one second to pass radically extreme legislation that hurts us on each and every one of these issues," he said.
The CrowdPAC is modeled in part after a similar effort led by activist Ady Barkan to fund a 2020 challenge against Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, over her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. That campaign ultimately raised $4 million that helped fund Collins challenger Sara Gideon, a Democrat and the former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. Collins ultimately defeated Gideon by nearly 10 points but organizers say their campaign is different and built on the lessons learned from the 2020 effort.
"We're raising money for a potential primary challenge, not a general election one," said Newkirk. "It's over the question of whether someone will vote with their party rather than against it."
Organizers say they hope that they won't have to back a Democratic challenger to Sinema, but point to polling data showing that about two-thirds of likely Democratic primary voters in Arizona would support a challenge if Sinema continues to preserve the filibuster. A July poll from Data for Progress showed that Sinema has a net approval rating of +23 among Democrats, compared to +89 for Biden and +76 for Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.
Kelly "has been a lot smarter in his calculations in how he's dealt with all of these issues," said Quezada. "He's setting the example for how perhaps Sinema could be playing this if she were a little smarter about it."
Kelly, a former astronaut and the husband of former Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords, has supported the party's agenda, which explains why he is "more popular than Sinema among Democrats and is in a much better position in his upcoming reelection campaign," Newkirk said. But the biggest issue in 2022 and 2024 will be what the Democrats have done for the American people under Biden, he argued. "And right now, Sinema is a threat to Kelly's re-election if she doesn't change course."
Arizona is undeniably a purple state, however, and it's unclear how a more progressive Democrat would fare in a general election. Sinema is "playing the long game" since she's not up for re-election until 2024 and is betting that a progressive candidate would have a tougher time winning her seat, Kim Fridkin, a political science professor at Arizona State University, told Salon.
"In my opinion, Sinema's position on the filibuster is strategic," Fridkin said. "However, I am not sure whether the strategic decision is a wise move electorally. What I do know is that Sinema was not always the moderate that she is displaying right now. Her earlier record in the legislature was much more progressive than moderate. Her movement to the middle, I believe, is more strategic than authentic. I think it's the same with her position on the filibuster."
Quezada said there was some validity to Sinema's political strategy but "she's way, way overplaying that calculation."
"Arizona is trending bluer and I think the reality is that it's going to be hard for her to hold on to that seat no matter what," he said. "So why not do some good things while you have that opportunity? And she's not acting with urgency to hold on to it."
Sisa argued that the CrowdPAC is "ultimately an opportunity to get a better candidate, which will give us better chances ultimately in the general election."
"The demographics in our state are consistently changing, and throughout the past 10 years we've seen a consistent progression towards Arizonans wanting more progressive candidates," she said. "We're going to continue to see that: The voting bloc is younger, more brown and Black, and more diverse. Right now, I don't see Sinema really catering to those people or listening to their concerns, which is a huge mistake."
Alhough Sinema has tried to appeal to independents and conservatives, the July poll showed that her favorable rating was just 38% among independents and 34% among Republicans. Organizers say that while an unprecedented surge of activism helped power Sinema to a narrow victory over then-Rep. Martha McSally in 2018, that same coalition will not be eager to knock on doors again if she stays the course.
"Turning Arizona blue didn't happen out of nowhere," Ruiz said. "That progress happened because there's organizations on the ground that are walking the streets, under 100-plus degrees, to talk to voters, to make sure that new voters have all the information they need to participate in the process. And I think Sen. Sinema is underestimating this power.
"Our goal may sound ambitious," she added. "We believe that the power of the people is going to beat the power of corporations, because there's more of us."