WASHINGTON — Ro Khanna is fed up. The typically mild-mannered congressman from California isn’t trying to hide his frustration with the state of play in Congress over two key pieces of legislation, a trillion-dollar roads-and-bridges infrastructure bill and a far more sweeping $3.5 trillion package that contains most of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
The focus of Khanna’s irritation is a member of his own party, the centrist Senate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. It is Sinema whom Khanna and many other Democrats believe is dragging out the negotiations over President Biden’s sweeping domestic policy without any end in sight, and with no clear reason or demands.
“This is the U.S. Congress and she’s not demonstrating the basic competence or good faith of a member of Congress,” Khanna tells me. “I’m just totally perplexed by her. As is every colleague I’ve talked to, moderates, progressives, you name it.”
Khanna says he doesn’t have quite the same problem with the other centrist Senate Democrat standing in the way of Biden’s agenda, Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin’s demands are at least clear — slashing the bill’s spending down to $1.5 trillion, adding means testing and work requirements to social-safety net programs — and there’s little confusion about his negotiating position vis a vis the Build Back Better Act.
Sinema’s motivations are much harder to parse. Khanna and other Democrats call her opposition “inauthentic” and a ploy for garnering media attention as much as passing major legislation. Only fueling the animosity toward Sinema are reports that she left Washington on Friday while the negotiations over Biden’s legislative agenda were still ongoing. Her office said she flew back to Arizona for a doctor’s appointment; according to the New York Times, she was also scheduled to attend a political fundraiser over the weekend.
Her spoiler role in the ongoing reconciliation negotiations is just the latest affront is a series of actions that have frustrated progressives in Washington and Arizona. They rattle off her opposition to reforming or abolishing the filibuster, her coziness with corporate campaign donors, and her record of voting with former President Trump more than any other Senate Democrat in 2019 and 2020, her first two years in the Senate. Recently, Sinema has faced criticism for opposing a provision in Biden’s reconciliation bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies, which looks bad considering she has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money from Big Pharma throughout her career. It’s the little things, too, Arizona activists say, like the performative curtsy she gave when she voted no on a measure to increase the minimum wage to $15.
The anger and frustration with Sinema is now coalescing into something more serious: A plan to primary her right out of Congress — or at least to make her spend the next few years worried about rising discontent from the party base. And now, with the fate of Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act still uncertain as negotiations grind on, the anger at Sinema is “boiling over,” says Tomas Robles, executive director of the grassroots group Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA). “What we’ve seen every year, every legislative session at the federal level, is her move more and more to the right in terms of votes, while at the same time getting better at completely alienating her voting bloc and her party and the progressive voters that voted for her.”
National political groups are already fundraising for a primary challenger to Sinema even though she doesn’t stand for reelection until 2024. This week alone, at least two groups, Way to Win and Nuestro PAC, announced they were raising money to fund a “Primary Sinema” effort.
Leah Hunt-Hendrix, the cofounder and vice president of Way to Win, a well-funded political group, says Sinema’s pro-corporate stances and refusal to reform the filibuster and swiftly pass new voting-rights protections was endangering her Democratic colleagues in the Senate. “There have to be consequences and she has to know that,” Hunt-Hendrix says.
Chuck Rocha of Nuestro PAC says he’s hoping to raise enough money with his primary-Sinema campaign to convince Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a progressive and military veteran, to challenge Sinema in 2024. Rocha, who considers Gallego a friend, says he hasn’t approached Gallego about running against Sinema, but believes Gallego could win in a primary and the general election. “It’s what I would call a boiling pot situation and the lid’s starting to come off of it now,” Rocha says of progressives’ anger with Sinema. “We have to act. I’d rather not be doing this, but she’s forcing us to do this.”
A spokesman for Sinema did not respond to a request for comment. But the spokesman recently told the New York Times in a statement that “Kyrsten has always promised Arizonans she would be an independent voice for the state — not for either political party. She’s delivered on that promise and has always been honest about where she stands.”
Sinema came up through Arizona politics as a progressive, volunteering with the local Green Party and making a name for herself as a hardcore anti-war activist who wore a pink tutu and used a bullhorn during demonstrations against the Iraq war. In her rowdy activist days, Sinema had no use for centrist Democrats who tried to win over Republican voters. She once said of Sen. Joe Lieberman, the centrist Democrat from Connecticut who ran for president in 2004: “He’s a shame to Democrats. I don’t even know why he’s running. He seems to want to get Republicans voting for him—what kind of strategy is that?”
But over time, she embraced the inside game of electoral politics as she got elected first to the state legislature in 2004, where she eagerly worked alongside Republican members to the horror of her former activist pals, and then to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. She won her race for the U.S. Senate in 2018 by 56,000 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast.
Robles, the head of the Arizona grassroots group LUCHA, says his organization was one of many on the left that helped get out the vote for Sinema in 2018. He says he’d followed Sinema’s evolution from lefty firebrand to moderate Democrat closely enough to know that she wasn’t going to be a progressive stalwart in the Senate. He did, however, expect that LUCHA would have an open line of communication with Sinema and her office “to meet at the table and have discussions on what’s possible and what’s not.”
Sinema has “never provided that opportunity,” Robles says. “She refuses to meet with us. She asks groups trying to meet with her if LUCHA will be on (the call), and if we’re on, she won’t meet with them.” On at least one call, he said Sinema’s office used the free version of Zoom and the meeting cut out after 40 minutes, limiting access to the senator or her staff for questions. “Building a relationship is hard when only one entity is trying,” he says.
David Lucier is another activist who’s backed Sinema for years but is now losing faith in her. Lucier is an Army veteran with the Special Operations Forces who fought in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Lucier tells the story of how he turned 21 on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam and wasn’t able to cast a ballot in a presidential election for three years after he became eligible to vote.
For that reason, among others, voting rights are a cherished issue for Lucier, which has made Sinema’s obstruction to reforming the filibuster and passing new voting laws so frustrating for him. “Here we are in this country, with Republicans passing these laws that restrict people from voting, and she’s using the filibuster as an excuse not to act — it’s painful for me,” Lucier says.
Lucier has supported Sinema for many years, and is a longtime member of a volunteer council that advises Sinema on veterans issues, he says. In light of Sinema’s refusal to change the filibuster and her holding up Biden’s reconciliation bill, Lucier says he’s thinking about resigning from Sinema’s veterans council. He hasn’t gotten entirely behind the idea of supporting a primary challenger but he’s warming up to the idea.
“Nobody feels good that it’s turning out this way with Kyrsten,” he says. “We’re just shaking our heads. The level of disappointment and fatigue is just palpable.”
Leah Hunt-Hendrix of Way to Win insists her group’s new campaign to raise money for primarying Sinema isn’t a short-lived political stunt given how much Sinema has been in the news lately with the reconciliation fight in Congress. Hunt-Hendrix believes Arizona is a purple state trending to the left, and that a more progressive Democrat could indeed win statewide there — and defeat Sinema in the process.
“There are a handful of good candidates who could beat her in a primary and hold the seat in a general,” she says. “I just think Kyrsten Sinema should know that she will not continue to be a senator in 2024.”