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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is facing more and more pushback

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two Democrats voted with all 50 Republicans last night against changing the filibuster - West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema. That vote has doomed the effort to pass voting rights legislation for now, and Sinema's move is giving Arizona progressives yet another reason to seek a primary challenge. Ben Giles from member station KJZZ in Phoenix reports.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Arizona progressives have spent months trying to sway Sinema. Voting rights, they say, is important enough to toss aside Senate rules requiring a 60-vote majority to move forward on legislation.

EMILY KIRKLAND: We really are in a situation where our freedom to vote is at stake.

GILES: Emily Kirkland is the executive director of Progress Arizona. Unable to change Sinema's mind on their own, Kirkland and dozens of other Arizona Democratic women sent a letter to EMILY's List late last week. It was a call to arms to a national organization focused on electing female Democrats who support abortion rights.

KIRKLAND: We're in a moment where, given the threats to our democracy, we can't afford for people and organizations to be staying in their lane and focused only on one issue.

GILES: Historically, abortion rights advocates like EMILY's List have resisted calls to change or eliminate the filibuster. As Sinema has argued, the rule's been used in the past to defend women's access to health care. But on Tuesday, EMILY's List issued a statement singling out Sinema - if the senator won't bypass the filibuster for voting rights, she'll lose a valuable ally when up for reelection.

It's no hollow threat. From 2015 to 2020, while Sinema was running for the Senate, no one contributed more to her campaign than EMILY's List - over $400,000, according to OpenSecrets. Tony Cani, an Arizona political strategist, said it's not just about the money.

TONY CANI: EMILY's List is a very powerful, trusted messenger to Democrats and to pro-choice women.

GILES: Other organizations took notice and ramped up their own messaging against Sinema, including NARAL, a national reproductive rights group that said it won't endorse candidates who don't support a path forward for the voting rights bills in the Senate. Threats from national abortion rights groups come on top of months of calls for a Democrat to challenge Sinema in a 2024 primary.

The Primary Sinema Project claims it's raised over $300,000 in about three months, with a surge of donations after Sinema last week affirmed her commitment to the filibuster. LUCHA, a group of local Arizona activists who have clashed with Sinema over the past year, issued a statement condemning her for turning her back on Black and brown Arizonans. Co-executive director Alejandra Gomez vowed to oust Sinema in the Democratic primary.

ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: I think she is showing the American public and Arizonans very clearly who she is standing with. And she is not standing with voters.

GILES: In her own statement, Sinema brushed aside the criticism, chalking it up to honest disagreements over policy and strategy. Strategist Tony Cani said she may have miscalculated.

CANI: I think that what she's missing here is that her brand is somebody who gets things done.

GILES: Cani said some voters see Sinema as a symbol of obstruction. She did help craft the bipartisan infrastructure law and has made her mark in the Senate working across the aisle. Arizona is a tightly contested state where centrist candidates have found success in general elections. But to win reelection in 2024, she'll first have to survive a primary.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Giles in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 19, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier headline misspelled Kyrsten Sinema's first name as Krysten.
Ben Giles