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Why Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s brand of centrism has Arizona progressives promising a primary

Sinema styles herself as an independent in the tradition of John McCain, but in obstructing a popular key piece of Joe Biden’s agenda, she’s drawn the ire of Democrats

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., departs the Senate at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a senator vital to the fate of President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” agenda, departs the Senate before meeting with Biden at the White House, at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The fate of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act rests in part with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who’s feeling the heat in her home state for opposing the legislation.

Sinema styles herself as an independent in the tradition of the late Arizona Sen. and Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The maverick approach plays well in a technically new blue state where registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats. In 2019, Sinema became Arizona’s first Democratic senator in 24 years, and last year, fellow Arizonan Mark Kelly followed her campaign’s moderate Democrat playbook to win his own Senate race.

But in obstructing a key piece of Biden’s agenda that’s broadly supported in Arizona and by Democrats back in Washington, Sinema has drawn the ire of Democrats back home, like Jade Duran, who told The New York Times, “I will never vote for her again.”

Sinema isn’t up for reelection until 2024, but efforts are already underway to replace her after she failed to so far sign onto Biden’s climate and social safety net bill. A new political action committee, Primary Sinema PAC, is raising money to prepare for a future primary to unseat the first-term senator.

“Sen. Sinema has decided to use her power as a United States Senator to slow down progress and empower Mitch McConnell at President Biden’s expense,” the group says on its website. “She is listening to corporate donors and lobbyists instead of the grassroots volunteers and voters who elected her. Senator Sinema will be up for re-election in 2024, but we can’t afford to wait.”

Protesters are also getting more confrontational. On Sunday, activists from the immigration reform group Living United for Change in Arizona confronted Sinema at Arizona State University, where she lectures, filming her while following her into a bathroom. Sinema said in a statement the activists were not legitimately protesting.

“Yesterday’s behavior was not legitimate protest,” Sinema said. “It is unacceptable for activist organizations to instruct their members to jeopardize themselves by engaging in unlawful activists such as gaining entry to closed university buildings, disrupting learning environments, and filming students in a restroom.”

A poll from OH Predictive Insights last month found Sinema had a 56% approval rating among Democrats. She’s still popular, but much more vulnerable than Kelly, who was at 80% approval among Democrats.

Sinema’s office reiterated her independence when asked about her standing in Arizona.

“Kyrsten has always promised Arizonans she would be an independent voice for the state — not for either political party,” Sinema spokesman John LaBombard told the Times in a statement. “She’s delivered on that promise and has always been honest about where she stands.”

Sinema, 45, didn’t take a linear path into politics. She graduated from Brigham Young University in just two years, and earned her M.S., J.D., and Ph.D. degrees from Arizona State University. A former Green Party spokeswoman and anti-war activist, she’s since become a centrist and member of the Senate’s so-called “G-20” bipartisan group. She served in the Arizona state legislature from 2005 to 2012, and in 2013, at the age of 36, she was sworn in as the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

She’s angered her party’s progressive flank before, like in March when she voted down a $15 federal minimum wage increase with a thumbs down on the Senate floor.

Her stance on the 10-year, $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act could further upset Democrats, who almost universally support it. An August survey of likely voters by Data for Progress, a progressive nonprofit, found 95% of Democrats support the legislation, as do 65% of Arizonans. Sinema co-negotiated the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s stalled in Congress alongside the Biden bill.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., the other conservative Senate Democrat opposed to the Build Back Better Act, has said he would back a slimmed down $1.5 trillion version of the bill, but Sinema has not publicly indicated a number she’s willing to support. Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker illustrated Arizona and West Virginia’s outsized role in the negotiations conveyed with a redrawn map that shows how much hinges on the two conservative Democrats.

Though Sinema’s endgame remains elusive to political observers, last week she held a fundraiser with business lobbying groups opposed to the bill, according to an invitation obtained by The New York Times. The groups listed on the invitation include the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and the National Grocers PAC, whose director of government relations, Robert Yeakel, wrote in a blog post last month that the bill was a “smorgasbord of spending priorities.”

The lack of clarity about what Sinema would support was a joke in “Saturday Night Live’s” cold open this weekend, with the senator played by Cecily Strong.

“What do I want from this bill? I’ll never tell, because I didn’t come to Congress to make friends, and so far, mission accomplished,” Strong said.

Biden told House Democrats last week he expected the bill to likely be pared down to between $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion, according to Politico. The Build Back Better Act includes funding for two free years of community college, child care and universal pre-K, an extension of the child tax credit through 2025, and measures to combat climate change.

Sinema co-negotiated a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that the Senate passed in August. Named the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a vote in the House was canceled last week because moderates and progressives have not yet come to an agreement on the full details of how much of Biden’s agenda they’ll pass.