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The Trailer: The other 2024 campaign: Democrats versus Kyrsten Sinema

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In this edition: The campaign to replace Kyrsten Sinema, a sort-of-unexpected retirement in Nashville, and why Democrats are thanking two Trump-appointed judges in Alabama.

The newsletter that keeps all of its profanity on-mic and as loud as possible, this is The Trailer.

The first thing Kyrsten Sinema's Democratic enemies usually tell you is that they're trying to save her Senate seat in 2024. They cite polls to argue that she can't win reelection. They describe Arizona as a purple state that's getting more hostile to Republicans. The first Democrat to win a Senate seat there in 30 years has, they say, let history zoom right past her.

“It's not about infighting. It's about who gets elected,” said Patti Serrano, a member of the Arizona Democratic Party's executive committee who helped pass two Sinema-related resolutions since September. One threatened to censure the senator if she did not get rid of the filibuster; the other, passed last weekend, actually censured her. 

“She did not change her course,” said Serrano. “We can’t say she wasn’t given the time or the opportunity. She acted in a resolute, bold and — in my opinion — a mistaken way.”

In Washington, Sinema's vote against changing the Senate filibuster to pass voting rights bills is largely seen as a failure of Democratic leadership; Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer forging ahead on a doomed show vote to get activists off his back. An “aye” from Sinema wouldn't even have rescued her party, because Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) was voting the same way. 

But Democrats have been declining for decades in West Virginia, and Democrats have been gaining ground in Arizona — and the donors and activists who take credit for that are dead serious about beating Sinema. Two years and six months out from Sinema's next primary, the liberal and left-wing infrastructure that expanded massively in the Trump years is fixated on replacing the senator. 

Beating Sinema in the primary, they believe, would define what Democrats stand for, much as the Club for Growth and Grover Norquist made the Republican Party inhospitable to politicians willing to raise income taxes. Replacing her with another Democrat would prove that they're right about everything else.

“There are consequences for not truly representing your base,” said Leah Hunt-Hendrix, the wealthy co-founder of the Way to Win donor collective. Donors who were initially skeptical of threatening to primary Sinema had come on board, she said, increasingly convinced that a better Democrat could win the state. “The demographics have changed, and there are a number of good candidates who could do well.”

Ideological challenges to Democratic senators are fairly rare, a function of both the declining number of conservative Democrats and the humiliations faced by the last few challengers. 

In 2006, businessman Ned Lamont narrowly defeated then-Sen. Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary campaign focused largely on Lieberman's Iraq War vote; Lieberman formed a new party and won a three-way race. In 2010, liberals and unions backed Arkansas's lieutenant governor in a challenge to then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln, losing narrowly, then absorbing some blame when Lincoln lost her seat in the Republican wave.

The left's political infrastructure has grown massively since then, especially in Arizona. Donors and local activists have worked in tandem there for years, piling up wins — the recall of state Sen. Russell Pearce, the defeat of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Sinema's 2018 victory used to appear on that win list, a combination of the senator's success in courting liberal donors and the years local campaigners had spent registering Latino voters.

Large donors made a voting rights bill a top priority last year, and the network that used to support Sinema has been lining them up against her. One effort, first reported by Politico, was an open letter from dozens of donors which disputed all the arguments Sinema had been making for retaining the filibuster, and asked for refunds if the senator didn't buckle.

“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,” the letter read.

The donor community escalated as the vote got closer. Its most dramatic victory was a statement from Emily's List, a liberal group focused on electing female Democrats, making a 2024 Sinema endorsement conditional on her filibuster vote. “Electing Democratic pro-choice women is not possible without free and fair elections,” the group's president, Laphonza Butler, explained, spelling out a standard that Emily's List had never used in its endorsements before. Karla Jurvetson, a California donor who had spent at least $200 million on Democratic campaigns since 2016, sits on the group's board, and had funded Sinema's 2018 campaign — a powerful recruit to the idea that replacing Sinema would help, not hurt, the party.

Last year's pressure campaigns against Sinema spawned three PACs dedicated to unseating her; Primary Sinema PAC, with a $400,000 initial investment from Way to Win, was formed to steer it in one direction. The PACs present the 2024 race as a fight to save a Democratic seat, with Primary Sinema ads on Facebook declaring that the senator is “betraying our country and our president” and saying she's already been captured by right-wing donors.

“It’s bizarre — groups backed by big pharma, Wall Street, even the Koch brothers, are spending millions of dollars to praise the legislative decisions of a Democrat,” reads another ad, urging angry liberals to unseat Sinema in 2½ years. The day of Sinema's speech explaining why she would not break the filibuster was, according to Primary Sinema PAC spokesman TJ Helmstetter, the biggest fundraising day in the PAC's history, with about $25,000 raised. The day after was its second-biggest; since the launch in September, the PAC has raised more than $350,000.

When asked why this wouldn't simply hurt the party, Hunt-Hendrix and other Sinema opponents sometimes pointed to polling from Arizona-based OH Predictive Insights, or from Civiqs, launched in 2018 by the founder of Daily Kos. Sinema's approval rating in each survey, among Democrats, had fallen precipitously since the start of 2021, while more Republicans viewed her favorably. 

“I’m glad that she’s trying to bring people together,” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), whom Republicans are still trying to lure into a challenge to Sen. Mark Kelly (D). Sinema's opponents see that as a ruse by Republicans who want to take her seat in 2024, and they see Kelly's race as a way to prove their theory of politics. In the same polls they've used to show problems between Sinema and her base, Kelly had nearly the same overall approval rating, with overwhelming support from Democrats and overwhelming opposition from Republicans. The money being given to Primary Sinema PAC isn't in escrow for 2024 — it is, say Democrats, being spent to organize for Kelly, and the tools they build in that race can be used to oust the senior senator.

“It's in the best interest of Republicans to divide us, but we’re unified,” said Luis Avila, a Phoenix-based Democratic strategist. “There was a time when Democrats were saying: She sucks, but I’ll vote for her. That's not what people say now.”

The only remaining dispute between Sinema's Democratic opponents is over who should challenge her — Rep. Ruben Gallego (D), or someone else. Gallego, who considered running for Kelly's seat and decided against it, has leaned into the speculation. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he joined Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) for a rally in Phoenix where Jones called him the state's next senator. That wasn't coy; Gallego, who has been meeting with donors about a run, told CNN last week that he'd been urged to run by “elected officials, from senators, from unions, from your traditional Democratic groups, big donors.” 

Chuck Rocha, a 2020 Bernie Sanders strategist who founded a Run Ruben Run PAC last year to court Gallego, said that their fundraising improved last week, too, and that the pitch wasn't just about settling a fight inside the party. Gallego, he said, was “the only person who can win the general election,” who wouldn't be dragged down by disappointed activists refusing to knock doors or asking why they should care who wins.

“A Latino, Spanish-speaking Marine veteran is a guy who’ll attract not only progressives but Republicans,” Rocha explained. “Ruben Gallego fought in the hardest-hit company in Afghanistan. I’ll take that dude over a woke White woman any day.”

Reading list

“How Trump’s flirtation with an anti-insurrection law inspired Jan. 6 insurrection,” by Devlin Barrett and Spencer S. Hsu

The summer of 2020 ended up shaping prosecutors' responses to Jan. 6.

“FBI raid portends political and legal challenges for U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar,” by Abby Livingston and Patrick Svitek

How a mysterious investigation is rattling one of the year's first primaries.

“The latest GOP idea: A police force to ferret out voter fraud,” by Dan Balz

Republican governors look for new ways to convince the base that they'll stop the steal.

“Start the steal: New MAGA emails reveal plot to hand Arizona to Trump,” by Andy Kroll

Were they taking notes on a criminal conspiracy?

“Steve Bannon was de-platformed. An obscure media mogul keeps him on the air,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker

The deeply American saga of Robert J. Sigg.

Redistricting

On Jan. 12, Rhode Island's special redistricting commission voted to advance a map that would keep its two House districts largely intact. The Providence-based 1st Congressional District, which went for President Biden by 29 points, would remain overwhelmingly Democratic; the larger 2nd Congressional District, which went for Biden by just 13 points, would remain more competitive. And Rep. Jim Langevin (D), who had represented the 2nd District since 2001, wasn't seen as particularly vulnerable.

Six days later, Langevin announced his retirement, and Republicans saw a potential opportunity. Republican state Sen. Jessica de la Cruz tweeted that she was getting ready to make an announcement about the House race; other Republicans began urging former Cranston mayor Allan Fung, who lost 2014 and 2018 races for governor but did well in the 2nd District, to look at a run for Congress.

That has some Democrats asking whether the current version of the map, which needs to be approved by the party's supermajority in Providence, could be tweaked to reduce the risk of a GOP victory. One idea: Simply undo what Democrats did a decade ago, when they had the opposite problem, and worried about freshman Rep. David N. Cicilline (D) surviving a 2012 reelection campaign. 

Cicilline, who had won by just six points in 2010, spent his first year in office fending off questions about the state of Providence's finances when he'd left city hall for the House. To shore him up, Democrats moved deep-blue south Providence from the 2nd District into the 1st, and moved some conservative towns where Cicilline had lost badly from the 1st to the 2nd.

That never posed a risk to Langevin, a moderate Democrat who was one of the last members of his party in the House to support federal abortion rights legislation; he ran four points ahead of Biden in 2020. But nervous Democrats could make some changes that take Republican votes out of the now-open 2nd District.

Late Monday night, a panel of three federal judges blocked Alabama's new congressional map, drawn by Republicans in Montgomery to give the party a 6-to-1 advantage in the House delegation. Like the current, expiring map, the GOP's new lines would retain one supermajority Black district — the 7th Congressional District, which Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D) has represented since 2011 — while keeping the other six uncompetitive and safely Republican. The judges, two of whom were appointed by Donald Trump, ordered that “any remedial plan will need to include two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.”

The panel gave the state 14 days to draw new lines, and Republicans immediately began planning an appeal, pointing out that the similar 2011 map held up under legal scrutiny. But Democrats and their allies, caught flat-footed in the 2011 redistricting cycle, had pursued an aggressive legal strategy here and in other states where Republicans were expected to draw favorable maps. That had delayed the approval of a new map in North Carolina, thrown a GOP-friendly map in Ohio back to the legislature, and created a potential opening in Alabama.

“The congressional map our Legislature enacted fails Alabama's voters of color,” said Evan Milligan, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, in a statement shared by the American Civil Liberties Union. “We deserve to be heard in our electoral process, rather than have our votes diluted using a map that purposefully cracks and packs Black communities.”

The very same day, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves approved a new Republican-drawn map that maintained the party's 3-to-1 advantage, slightly expanding the 2nd Congressional District — the majority-Black seat that stretches from Jackson to the Delta — to account for population shifts. The ACLU and other groups that sued in Alabama are weighing whether to act in Mississippi, too.

Ad watch

Billy Long for Senate, “Join Our Fight.” It's an ad for the Missouri Republican's bid to move from the House to the Senate, but it doubles as a trailer for the 2024 campaign. “I need your help,” says Long, “and then we'll help Donald Trump make America great again — again!” Twice, Long says that the 2020 election was rigged or stolen, adding that he was “one of the first to support Donald Trump for president.” That depends on what the meaning of the word “first” is — Long stayed neutral in the 2016 primary and endorsed Trump two months after his last competitors had quit. But like his rivals in the primary, Long is trying to convince Trump that no other candidate is so supportive of the ex-president and his agenda.

Suozzi for NY, “Protected.” Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.) rolled unused funds from his congressional campaign into his campaign for governor, and his first ad of the year goes after a fellow Democrat — Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who took office this month. Without mentioning Bragg by name, Suozzi warns that Manhattan's new DA is “actually proposing to downgrade armed robbery to a misdemeanor and to stop prosecuting resisting arrest.” Bragg has clarified his policy, saying that armed robbery will continue to be prosecuted as a felony, but Suozzi suggests that he would act as governor to remove Bragg or other like-minded DAs. “Governor [Kathy] Hochul refuses to act,” he says. “I will.”

Texans for Henry Cuellar, “Field of American Dreams.” Not long after FBI agents arrived at his home and campaign office in Laredo, and while his political allies were getting some distance, Rep. Cuellar (D) began running this biographical ad — the sort of thing you rarely see from a long-serving incumbent in the last days of an election. Standing in a field, running his hands through the soil, he makes no mention of the attacks against him and says he'll “never stop fighting” for South Texas. After putting this ad up, Cuellar shot a video in Laredo reiterating that he would seek another term and cooperate with any investigation.

Justice Democrats, “It's Time for a Change in Texas.” The left-wing group that recruited Democrat Jessica Cisneros to run against Cuellar uses its first big independent expenditure to fold the FBI investigation into a bigger story of political shadiness. “An honest candidate doesn't have a history of suspicious campaign reporting,” a narrator says, citing a 2011 story about the congressman's late Federal Election Commission reports. “Whatever Cuellar's hiding, Texans are sick of corrupt politicians in D.C.” Cisneros appeared on the left-wing news show “The Young Turks” last week, where hosts made the same argument.

Poll watch

Which do you think is contributing more to inflation and rising prices? (Fox News, 1,001 registered voters)

Effects of coronavirus: 42 percent
Federal government policies: 48 percent
Both equally: 9 percent

One of Barack Obama's underrated advantages at the start of his presidency was that public opinion of George W. Bush had collapsed by the end of 2008. For more than a year, as Republican politicians blamed Obama for not launching the country out of the Great Recession, pollsters found that most voters still blamed Bush for the 2008 crash. The fundamentals are different for Joe Biden: The economy was growing when he took office, and everyone but Democrats and liberal independents blame him for inflation.

That's put Republicans in an unusually strong position, even though Biden's overall negative rating in Fox's poll has stabilized. By a 15-point margin, voters say they believe Republicans would do a “better job” on “the economy” than Democrats, the highest advantage one party has had on that question since Democrats during the Bush years.

Should Joe Biden (Pew Research, 5,128 adults)

… “try as best he can to work with Republican congressional leaders to accomplish things, even if it means disappointing some people who voted for him”: 67% (-7 since Jan. 2021)
 … “stand up to Republican congressional leaders on issues that are important to the people who voted for him, even if it means it’s harder to address critical problems facing the country”: 29% (+6)

Pew's one-year-in survey of the Biden presidency finds his approval rating slipping, less enthusiasm for him from Democrats, and higher negative ratings from voters under 30 than from any other cohort. Some of that slippage, as the Democrats organizing against Sinema are telling each other, is rooted in frustration that Biden isn't doing more; some is from Republicans who think not enough is being done to stop him. 

Since the start of Biden's presidency, the share of Democrats saying he should “stand up” to Republicans even if it makes parts of his job harder has risen from 37 percent to 48 percent. Republican opinion has moved even more dramatically, with 72 percent saying that their party should “stand up to Biden” on important issues, up from 59 percent last January.

Retirements

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) won't seek reelection, making the announcement on Tuesday after a Republican map carved up Nashville to replace his district with several that would be hard for a Democrat to win.

“Despite my strength at the polls, I could not stop the General Assembly from dismembering Nashville,” Cooper explained in a statement. “No one tried harder to keep our city whole. I explored every possible way, including lawsuits, to stop the gerrymandering and to win one of the three new congressional districts that now divide Nashville.”

Cooper had been sounding the alarm about the potential gerrymander for months, writing columns to warn against a Nashville split-up, and even appearing at the first meeting of the legislature's redistricting committee to plead for the current 5th Congressional District.

“In previous redistricting rounds, the general feeling was let’s keep districts as close as you can,” Cooper told the committee. “… Don’t ruin the recipe.”

Republicans didn't take the advice. On Monday night, on a party-line vote, the GOP majority in the state House moved ahead with a map that would turn the 5th District into a Trump-won seat by extending it south, connecting Nashville to more-rural areas. The rest of fast-growing Davidson County would be added to the 6th and 7th Congressional Districts, whose current electorates gave Trump 73 percent and 67 percent of the vote, respectively.

The GOP's proposal in Nashville came as Republicans in other deep-red states, including Missouri and Florida, squabble over whether they should press their advantage, eliminating more Democratic seats by splitting up cities. They've frequently pointed to Democratic-run Illinois, where Republicans were packed into just three safe districts, to ask why any Republican wouldn't want to do the same. Odessa Kelly, a community organizer endorsed and recruited by Justice Democrats, said yesterday that she would continue running despite the “Jim Crow” approach to the new map.

Special elections

If it's Tuesday, there's a special election to fill a vacancy in Connecticut's 151-member House of Representatives. Republicans lost the Stamford-based 144th district in 2014, narrowly, and it rocketed to the left during Donald Trump's presidency. (Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden carried it by better than 20 points, and Republicans didn't bother fielding a candidate after 2016.) 

Republicans picked respiratory therapist Danny Melchionne to fill the vacancy left when former representative Caroline Simmons left to become mayor of Stamford, and Democrats nominated Hubert Delany, an Army reservist and party activist.

In the states

Nebraska. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R) accused two of the state's most powerful Republicans of a personal betrayal, after Gov. Pete Ricketts and former governor Dave Heineman endorsed his primary opponent in the state's 1st Congressional District.

“I have counted these people as friends, and you hope you can rely on your friends to stand by you when you face adversity like a false and unjust accusation.” Fortenberry wrote on Facebook after the two governors endorsed state Sen. Mike Flood's campaign for the district. “The voters will pass their own judgment on the character of the candidates in this race.”

Fortenberry was charged in October with making false statements to federal investigators who are probing donations to his 2016 campaign. While Trump carried his seat by 15 points, and while a new Republican map made it a little safer for the GOP, Democratic state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks is running for the seat and would give her party a credible candidate if Fortenberry fell into further trouble.

California. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones (R) launched a campaign for the state's new 3rd Congressional District, saying in a Facebook post that he'd “fight for law and order in America, stand up against the ‘Defund the Police’ movement, and secure our border” if elected to the Republican-leaning seat near Sacramento. 

Republicans recruited Jones to run before, in 2016, when, like every challenger to Rep. Ami Bera (D) in the current 7th District, he lost narrowly. Jones won his next election, a 2018 reelection bid, and entered this race just weeks after Assemblyman Kevin Kiley announced his own campaign.

Countdown

… 21 days until school board recall elections in San Francisco
… 35 days until the first 2022 primaries
… 287 days until the midterm elections

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