Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is in trouble. Along with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), she has consistently opposed her own party to stop extreme partisan legislation from squeaking by without any GOP support. The two of them even voted against the rule change when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) forced everyone to “go on the record” in an attempt to do away with the filibuster. Manchin appears to be sitting safe with a solidly Republican electorate, but Sinema’s former campaign contributors now say it’s time to pay the piper. Is she really in a tougher spot than her West Virginia colleague?
A Political Dear John
In a letter to the Arizona lawmaker, 70 donors threatened to cut ties should she fail to support the rule change that would have allowed Senate Democrats to pass two voting rights bills by simple majority. What’s more, they want a refund.
“We must draw a line. 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,” the writers warned. “Further, we are in agreement that, should your ultimate decision be to prioritize the veneer of bipartisanship, in the form of an arcane Senate rule, over the voting rights that John Lewis put his life on the line to defend, your campaign should return each of our 2018 Senate campaign donations.”
Of course, along with Machin and all 50 Republican senators, Sinema voted to preserve the filibuster. Does this mean she’ll have to break out the checkbook and start sending back money? Market Watch raised a similar question in 2019 when some of Pete Buttigieg’s donors wanted a refund, and they asked Erin Chlopak, who had worked in the FEC’s Office of General Counsel and was at the time the director of campaign finance strategy for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “In general, political contributions are legally required to be refunded when the contributions violate applicable legal requirements,” she said. But, while campaigns are certainly free to send it back if they want, “there’s nothing under the law that requires a candidate to give money back because someone says, ‘I don’t like you anymore,’” she explained.
While the dissatisfied donors are unlikely to get their money back, the loss of their future funding likely stings. That said, both Manchin and Sinema have, according to a recent NYT report citing FEC filings, started receiving contributions from conservative sources.
Making the List
The most brutal blow, however, is likely the loss of two massive abortion advocacies formerly on her side. A look at opensecrets.org shows that EMILY’s List invested over $400,000 in direct contributions to get Sinema elected. NARAL Pro-Choice America isn’t listed as a financial donor, but it did officially endorse the lawmaker in 2018. Both organizations cut ties with her. Planned Parenthood has yet to take any action against Sinema, but they sent a warning of their own. “Any Senator who chooses to protect arcane Senate rules over the freedom to vote is betraying their constituents & harming the fight for reproductive rights. They will have to live with the political consequences,” said President and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson in a series of tweets after the vote.
The right to abort is tied directly to the ability to vote, they say. That makes some sense, from the perspective of their narrative – but it doesn’t change how odd a decision this seems to be after a brief look at the history of the abortion issue. Despite all the posturing about the right to vote, these organizations are punishing Sinema for helping to save the filibuster – an “arcane Senate rule” they’ve often championed. In 2018, it was the filibuster alone that prevented Republicans from passing federal abortion restrictions.
The loss of her abortion allies likely does sting. While Manchin has portrayed himself as pro-life, even running as a Democrats for Life of America candidate, Sinema is and has always been his polar opposite on the issue. And, perhaps more importantly, the Arizona electorate that sent her to the Swamp – and who she must face once again in 2024 – did so knowing her passionately pro-choice stance. While she has not wavered in her resolve, that the biggest advocacies in the nation will likely push for her primary challenger may prove devastating.
The Great Symbolic Censure
The Arizona Democratic Party formally censured Sinema on Saturday, Jan. 11. While it’s largely symbolic and comes with no direct practical effect, the official scolding does raise the question of whether she could count on official support for a re-election bid in 2024. State Sen. Raquel Teran, the party’s chairwoman, chided Sinema for “her failure to do whatever it takes to ensure the health of our democracy.” These words she said with absolutely no sense of irony, despite the fact that 52 out of 100 senators defeating the opposing 48 is the very definition of democracy functioning perfectly.
Still, while certainly not a positive development, it’s unclear just how hard it would be for Sinema to win re-election running as a Democrat without the party’s official endorsement – or, for that matter, even as an independent. She began her career as a progressive, but in more recent years, the legislator has taken great pains to be seen as an independent voice rather than a party mouthpiece.
We the People
Ultimately, whether Sinema returns in 2025 for another six years is up to the people. A September 2021 poll from OH Predictive Insights showed that 56% of Democrats in Arizona viewed her favorably, but according to a more recent survey from Public Policy Polling, she has lost all but 15% of them.
These are two polls featured in many articles foretelling Sinema’s political doom, but they had sample sizes of just 882 and 554, respectively. A quick look at the Arizona Secretary of State’s website shows there were just over 1.37 million registered Democrats in October 2021. There were also 1.5 million Republicans and 1.4 million who fell under the “other” category – those numbers might be more indicative of her chances.
Much like Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema is a Democrat representing a historically Republican population. In 2018, she was the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate by Arizona in 30 years, though it could be argued she owed her win to the fact the GOP split its ticket that year. Sinema’s 1,191,100 votes beat out Republican Martha McSally by just shy of 56,000, or about 2.4%. In the primary, however, only about half a million participated – and she beat out her competitor, Deedra Abboud, by more than 298,000 of them.
Sens. Sinema and Manchin both must face the people once again in 2024. But that means nearly three years for the average voter to forget all about their defense of the filibuster – especially if the GOP controls both chambers of Congress and the Dems need the lifeline once again. As for the party bigwigs – in West Virginia and Arizona – they must know that whoever replaces either of these senators is likely to be a Republican. As mad as they are now, they likely can’t afford to abandon their only tickets to the Senate entirely. Sinema may be a little worse off than Manchin – but if either is ousted in 2024, it’s unlikely to be by a primary challenger.
~Read more from James Fite.