A group of big-dollar donors who have spent millions electing Kyrsten Sinema and other Democratic senators is threatening to sever all funding to her if she doesn’t drop her opposition to changing Senate rules in order to pass voting rights legislation.
In a letter to the Arizona lawmaker, which was first obtained by POLITICO, 70 Democratic donors — some of whom gave Sinema’s 2018 campaign the maximum contribution allowed by law — said they will support a primary challenge to Sinema and demanded that she refund their contributions to her 2018 campaign if she doesn’t budge.
“We are terrified about our prospects as a democracy if we do not pass the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis VRA Act,” they wrote in the 1,400-word missive. “We appreciate your support of these bills, but they will die without your action on Senate rules. Bipartisanship works only if it is reciprocal. Republicans are gutting our electoral system in state capitals with no federal check on them. This is life and death important to us.”
The broadside is the latest example of the fury among a growing number of Democratic donors, lawmakers and organizations after Sinema’s rejection of their pleas to do away with the filibuster. They are turning the screws on her in the hours before the Senate careens toward a showdown over voting rights Wednesday evening, which is expected to end in failure for Democrats because they lack the votes to create an exception to the filibuster.
“I can’t recall this kind of pressure coming from party regulars,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist who supports eliminating the filibuster and wrote the book “Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy.” “I think it says a lot that there’s this level of feeling right now.”
Sinema is up for reelection in 2024.
Democrats believe the need to pass a voting rights bill is particularly urgent in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results, as well as the efforts of GOP-led states to push through a slew of bills restricting voting The voting rights legislation is a top priority of President Joe Biden as he wrestles with low job approval ratings and setbacks to his agenda.
On Tuesday, EMILY’s List, a political action committee that is one of Sinema’s top financial supporters, said it would cut her off if she continued to stand by the filibuster as it prevents the passage of the voting rights legislation.
NARAL, the abortion rights group, also said it would not endorse senators who hold firm on the chamber’s rules, though it didn’t name Sinema or Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator who has also refused to create an exception do away with the filibuster.
The liberal organizations League of Conservation Voters, End Citizens United // Let America Vote, Latino Victory Fund, Black Voters Matter Fund and Collective PAC also recently announced they would not throw their weight behind any candidate who declines to “take all necessary measures” to pass voting rights legislation.
“We’re seeing what we call escalation,” Quentin James, co-founder of Collective PAC, said in an interview. “It’s important that [Sinema] understands there’s a pretty well-trained pipeline right behind her and it won’t be hard for Democrats to find a senator from Arizona who reflects the values of the broader progressive movement.”
James added that the pressure campaign against Sinema “is also kind of being led by donors in the background, folks kind of really being pissed off with the lack of action.”
Nathalie Rayes, president of Latino Victory Fund, told POLITICO she was invited to meet with Sinema on Wednesday along with other Latino and Black constituency groups but declined. Sinema’s office confirmed the meeting took place and said that it was requested by the organizers.
“We’re done with political theater and this waste of time and energy, and senators trying to hurt communities of color,” Rayes said. “Impeding democracy is simply unacceptable, and stopping Latinos to get to the polls and cast their votes is just unacceptable.”
The donors who signed onto the letter released Wednesday said they have given a combined $2.5 million to Sinema and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee over the years, as well as nearly $17 million to Democratic candidates and committees in 2020 alone. They include business executive Merle Chambers, billionaire Vincent Ryan, philanthropist Trey Beck, and former Planned Parenthood Federation of America board chair Naomi Aberly.
Not all of the signatories have donated directly to Sinema, but most have contributed to her or the DSCC, they said.
“Some of us gave the maximum allowable contribution to your 2018 campaign,” they said in the letter to Sinema, adding that, “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. 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.”
Last Thursday, on the same day that Biden headed to Capitol Hill to try to persuade Democrats to revamp Senate rules to make way for the voting rights legislation, Sinema reiterated in a speech on the Senate floor that she supports the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most bills.
Sinema said she backed the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, but could not get behind “separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country.” She argued that “when one party need only negotiate with itself, policy will inextricably be pushed from the middle towards the extremes.”
A spokesperson for Sinema did not immediately provide a comment about the donors’ letter. In a recent statement, the senator said “different people of good faith can have honest disagreements about policy and strategy.”
The escalating threats against Sinema have also come from some of Sinema’s colleagues. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Tuesday he is open to endorsing primary challengers to Sinema and Manchin. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also did not rule out supporting such a challenge, saying that “we’ll address that when we get past this week” when asked if Sinema and Manchin should be primaried.
Notably, even Majority Leader Chuck Schumer dodged a question about whether he would back Sinema and Manchin in upcoming Democratic primaries: “I’m not getting into the politics. This is a substantive, serious issue,” he said.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a potential challenger to Sinema, has enjoyed a significant amount of buzz in recent weeks. He has hired a fundraiser and spoken with national donors, while activists seeking to draft him or another Democrat to primary Sinema have seen a fundraising boost in the wake of the senator’s floor speech.
In their letter to Sinema, the Democratic donors said that she is underestimating the threat Republican lawmakers pose to fair elections, particularly as Trump demands GOP candidates endorse “not just the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, but that the result should have been overturned.” They also contend that Republicans will inevitably change or do away with the filibuster when they take back control of the Senate in the future.