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With voting rights at stake, Arizona progressives issue a call to arms against Sinema

Arizona progressives spent months trying to convince Sen. Kyrsten Sinema that voting rights are important enough to toss aside the filibuster, or at least change it, temporarily.

The Senate rule requires a 60-vote majority to move most legislation forward through the chamber. Republicans have used it for the length of President Joe Biden’s time in office to block voting bills Democrats, including Sinema, argue are needed to scale back voting restrictions passed at the state level by Democrats.

“We really are in a situation where our freedom to vote is at stake,” said Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona.

Unable to change Sinema’s mind on their own, Kirkland and dozens of other Democratic women in Arizona sent a letter to an organization they hoped would have more influence: Emily's List, a decades-old campaign fund focused on electing female Democrats who support abortion rights.

Historically, abortion advocates like Emily’s List have resisted calls to change or eliminate the filibuster. It’s been used in the past to defend women’s access to health care, a point frequently noted by Sinema in her defense of the Senate rule.

Kirkland said the stakes are too high for organizations like Emily’s List to stay on the sidelines.

“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,” she said.

On Tuesday, Emily’s List heeded the call.

In a statement, President Laphonza Butler said if Sinema “can not support a path forward for the passage of this legislation, we believe she undermines the foundations of our democracy, her own path to victory and also the mission of Emily’s List.”

“Right now, Senator Sinema’s decision to reject the voices of allies, partners and constituents who believe the importance of voting rights outweighs that of an arcane process means  she will find herself standing alone in the next election,” Butler added.

Amid mounting calls for a primary challenger to Sinema in 2024, when she’s next up for reelection, the statement marked a turning point — from speculation and to concrete action, not just locally, but by an organization that’s steadfastly supported Sinema over the years and holds broad, national influence.

“Emily's List is a very powerful, trusted messenger to Democrats, and to pro-choice women,” said Tony Cani, a political strategist who served as deputy director to the Biden campaign in Arizona.

And 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. In a Wednesday announcement, following Sinema’s vote,  Butler stated Emily’s List won’t endorse Sinema in the future.

Emily’s List seemed to set a tone for other organizations as well   later Tuesday, the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America issued their own statement that, without mentioning Sinema by name, made its target clear:  “We will not endorse or support any senator who refuses to find a path forward on this critical legislation,” the organization said of the two voting rights bills stuck in the Senate.

Organizers with Stand Up America and  Living United for Change in Arizona, also known as LUCHA, issued their own statement vowing to challenge Sinema in 2024 if she won’t change her mind.

“Senator Sinema has spent her energy shedding crocodile tears on the floor of the Senate, being a constant source of opposition to critical reform, and sending hollow tweets about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. instead of supporting changes to the Senate rules that would allow the Democratic majority to protect and strengthen voting rights,” they said.

In her own statement ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Sinema  brushed aside the criticism as she had a week earlier, chalking it up to honest disagreements over policy and strategy.

And late Wednesday evening,  Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin joined Republicans in a vote against a proposal for a “talking” filibuster.

Sinema later issued a statement touting her vote for voting rights legislation, but also explained why she blocked the only path forward at this time to actually pass those bills.

“I also maintained my long-standing opposition to separate actions that would deepen our divisions and risk repeated radical reversals in federal policy, cementing uncertainty and further eroding confidence in our government,” she said.

"I also maintained my long-standing opposition to separate actions that would deepen our divisions and risk repeated radical reversals in federal policy, cementing uncertainty and further eroding confidence in our government." —U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema

Cani said Sinema may believe she’s doing the right thing by preserving the filibuster. But if the senator is making a political calculation, Cani said she’s mistaken.

“I think that what she’s missing here is that her brand is somebody who gets things done,” Cani said. “And the problem right now is … she’s becoming someone who is a symbol for the type of obstruction that exists in Washington, D.C., in the Senate that is preventing reasonable laws from getting passed that the American people want.”

For some Arizona progressives, Sinema’s speech a week ago in defense of the filibuster had already confirmed she’s a part of the problem, not the solution.

“I think she is showing the American public and Arizonans very clearly who she is standing with,” said Alejandra Gomez, co-executive director of LUCHA. “And she is not standing with voters.”

Sinema 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 re-election in 2024, she’ll first have to survive a primary.

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.