Democrats: Push to pressure Sinema won’t distract from Kelly’s 2022 Senate race

Budget showdown spurs effort to challenge Sinema in 2024

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has angered progressive Democrats back home over her role in the negotiations over the $3.5 trillion sweeping reconciliation bill.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has angered progressive Democrats back home over her role in the negotiations over the $3.5 trillion sweeping reconciliation bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 7, 2021 at 5:30am

Liberal activists in Arizona are gearing up to take on Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, but Democrats’ control of Congress may actually depend on the fate of the state’s other senator. 

Democrat Mark Kelly is a top Republican target in 2022, but progressive grassroots groups have been focused on Sinema lately. A handful of efforts have cropped up, seeking to back a primary challenger to Sinema, who remains a holdout on a sweeping social spending package at the center of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. 

Sinema won’t be the ballot until 2024, but activists say the primary efforts won’t distract from their focus on next year’s Senate race and their support for Kelly’s reelection. They believe the pressure they’re placing on Sinema could actually help Kelly in 2022 if it ensures that the spending package, which includes early childhood education and free community college as well as climate policy and expanded health insurance access, becomes law.

“Organizing, it’s about long-term vision,” said Luis Avila, an Arizona organizer who supports the effort to challenge Sinema. “And for us, we can elect Kelly, and we can primary Sinema.” 

Still engaged? 

Anger at Sinema’s role in the negotiations over the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package culminated last week in multiple efforts to support a primary challenger against her in 2024. Activists launched the Primary Sinema PAC, which Avila is advising. A spokesperson for the group said it is not backing a specific challenger, but rather raising money to support grassroots groups that are organizing against Sinema. 

The PAC’s announcement came with a statement of support from Living United for Change in Arizona, or LUCHA, a group that has helped organize Latino voters critical to Democrats’ recent success in Arizona, including Sinema’s victory in 2018 and Biden’s and Kelly’s wins last year.

LUCHA did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Democrats familiar with the group still expect organizers to be very engaged in 2022 to support Kelly, despite the current focus on Sinema. 

“The kind of work that’s being done related to Sinema doesn’t really interfere with the work that some of these groups will be doing on behalf of Kelly,” said Arizona Democratic consultant Bill Scheel, who has worked with LUCHA. 

“Next year, when the focus really is on the Kelly race, all of those groups will be mobilized,” he said. 

“LUCHA has been able to walk and chew gum for a number of cycles,” Arizona Democratic strategist Stacy Pearson said. “So I’m confident that they’re keeping an eye on an immediate prize, which is ensuring that Mark Kelly is reelected.”

While activists have been focused on Sinema, they said there has not been a similar level of frustration with Kelly, even though they sometimes disagree with him or wish he was more forceful. Avila said Kelly’s office has had an “open channel of communication” with Arizonans, while Sinema’s office does not.  

Gallego urged to run

Democrats in Arizona and nationally are not concerned that the focus on Sinema could divert attention or critical resources away from Kelly, whose reelection could determine whether the party holds on to the Senate. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Arizona as one of eight Senate battlegrounds in 2022. 

Republicans need a net gain of just one seat to win back the chamber, and Arizona is a top target, since the state has traditionally backed Republicans. Sinema was the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Arizona in 30 years, winning by 2 points. Biden carried Arizona by just less than half a point, or 10,000 votes, in 2020, while Kelly won a special election by 2 points. He’s running for a full term next year.

Activists involved in the efforts to primary Sinema stressed that the money currently being raised for that effort won’t distract from Kelly’s reeelection. 

“Those folks giving us $5, $10 and $20 is what we’re building,” said Chuck Rocha of Nuestro PAC, which last week launched a “Run Ruben Run” campaign to encourage Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego to challenge Sinema. “So I don’t think it takes away. I think it … gives people a reason to be involved in the overall process.”

Nuestro PAC is gathering donations through a separate fundraising account that will be transferred to Gallego’s campaign if he decides to run. If he doesn’t, Rocha said the money will be used to mobilize Latinos in Arizona or support another Latino candidate in the state. 

Gallego, who chairs BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Hispanic Caucus, passed on a Senate run in 2020, in part to avoid a bitter primary with Kelly. 

“I’m not interested in running for Senate at this time. Right now, I’m focused on the 2022 midterm elections and how BOLD PAC can support keeping a Democratic majority in the House and Senate,” Gallego said Wednesday in a statement to CQ Roll Call. 

Focus on ’22

Kai Newkirk, an Arizona activist who founded a campaign to collect donation pledges to support a Sinema challenger, said the senator’s “obstruction” of Biden’s agenda "is hurting the Democratic Party brand" throughout Arizona.

“We think that the biggest danger to [Kelly’s] reelection is if Sinema doesn’t change course and actually help Democrats deliver on what they promised,” Newkirk said. 

“The biggest risk, again, is that her obstruction stops Biden and the Democrats from being able to deliver on the agenda that they were elected to enact,” he added. 

Kelly’s campaign has already been working on next year’s race, relaunching in June a formal statewide coordinated effort with the Arizona Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. That’s the earliest a coordinated campaign has ever launched in Arizona.

“Our ability to get through this pandemic, rebuild our economy, address climate change, and pass immigration reform relies on a Democratic Senate majority,” state Sen. Raquel Terán, the state party chairwoman, said in a statement. “We are already focused and hard at work at re-electing Senator Kelly.”

Grassroots organizers say they have also been engaged.

“We never stopped,” Avila said. “We are doing assessments, we’re doing coaching within communities … to get people ready for next year.”

Scheel said such organizing was “the difference-maker” in Sinema’s, Kelly’s and Biden’s earlier victories. 

“Obviously, when you win Senate races by 10 or 20 or 50,000 votes … there’s a ton of different people and organizations who claim credit,” Scheel said. “But certainly the activation, mobilization of the Latino vote, specifically that groups like LUCHA and Unite Here have focused on, none of those candidates would have been successful without their involvement.”

But Pearson said the other key to Democratic success has also been winning over independent and moderate Republicans, especially suburban women in Maricopa County who were fed up with President Donald Trump. She said those voters also prioritize fiscal responsibility, which helps explain Sinema’s reluctance to support the sweeping spending package. 

Sinema is acting as a “heat shield,” Pearson said, adding that Kelly can stay under the radar as negotiations continue. 

“Even for Kelly, there has to be a consensus that this is a fiscally responsible thing to do as well as the right thing morally to do,” Pearson said of the spending bill. “And that combination is going to be key.”