When Maria-Elena Dunn first met Kyrsten Sinema, she said she was elated.
Dunn, a leader in the local chapter of the Indivisible progressive activist group in Prescott, Arizona, was introduced to Sinema at a campaign event and was blown away by the Senate candidate’s poise and her impressive life story. Her group hosted Sinema multiple times for events. Dunn volunteered, by her estimation, for more than 100 hours to elect Sinema and other Democrats that election cycle.
“I was very impressed. I had literature, I did canvassing for her, I contributed, I campaigned. We did everything we possibly could to get her elected. We were very excited about her. We knew she was a Democrat who had centrist tendencies, and that wasn’t a bad thing. Here in Arizona and especially our area, you have to be realistic over who you could elect. We were thrilled. She seemed like the real thing,” she told VICE News.
“I’m livid. I can only call her a turncoat,” Dunn said. “I feel betrayed.”
Sinema’s Wednesday vote against changing the filibuster, which kept the 60-vote margin for most major bills and effectively killed Democrats’ efforts to pass voting rights legislation, is the latest in a long line of votes that have enraged and upset some of the people who worked hard to put her in office. Dunn said for her, it was the “last straw.”
VICE News talked to more than a dozen Arizona Democratic activists and former staffers who actively worked to elect Sinema during her 2018 race. Many expressed their frustration not just with her voting record but also with her inaccessibility, her seeming delight at infuriating her party’s base, and her unwillingness to meet. All said that they’d likely vote against her in a primary if she runs in 2024.
Dunn first met Sinema at an event hosted at the home of her friend Toni Denis, who chaired the Yavapai County Democratic Party and now heads the Arizona Federation of Democratic Women. Denis donated more than $3,000 to Sinema in 2018 and says she spent roughly 30 hours a week for months working to elect Sinema and the rest of the Democratic ticket that election.
She’s done with Sinema too.
“I’m crushed that she won’t support doing away with the filibuster, and especially that she won’t explain any of her decisions,” Denis told VICE News on Thursday, saying Sinema’s vote on this and other issues has been a “slap in the face” to those who helped elect her.
“I’m livid. I can only call her a turncoat.”
“The people who supported her and who did work for her campaign put in a lot of hours in canvassing and getting signatures for her are bitterly disappointed,” she continued.
It’s not just a handful of local progressive activists who are fed up with Sinema, who with their help won a close race in 2018 and became the first Democratic senator elected in the state in more than three decades.
Only 8 percent of Arizona’s registered Democrats held a favorable opinion of Sinema as of Jan. 14, according to a tracking poll from the Democratic firm Civiqs—and that was before she voted to uphold the filibuster this week. Her favorable rating was at 70 percent with Arizona Democrats as recently as the 2020 elections, but it took a nosedive when she voted against raising the federal minimum wage early last year and plunged again when she skipped the Senate vote to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot (she said she missed it because of a “personal family matter”). Her hesitation about parts of the Build Back Better plan, the vehicle Biden and Democrats are using to try to pass their top legislative priorities, hasn’t helped either.
Some former staffers are frustrated too. They’re glad Sinema’s 2018 defeat of Republican Sen. Martha McSally helped give Democrats Senate control, but they told VICE News they’ve been disappointed with her as a senator.
One former Sinema staffer said she could be “really rough on people” and “likes to have somebody she’s pissed off at” on staff. That wasn’t enough for them to stop supporting her—but her Senate votes have been.
“I certainly don’t think she deserves to be reelected,” said the former staffer, who asked to remain anonymous because of their current job in Democratic politics. “I’m extremely disappointed in her.”
Another former staffer was even harsher in their criticism. They said they went to work for Sinema over two other candidates, and looking back on it, wish they’d taken a different job even though those two other candidates lost that cycle.
“I really wanted to win. But at the end of the day, the win didn’t feel good,” said the former campaign staffer who asked to remain nameless because they could get in trouble at their current job.
“I cannot wait to donate to her primary challenger. There is a running joke that Sinema staffers text each other: ‘That line on the resume gets worse and worse by the day,’” said that staffer. “People need to know she sucks.”
Sinema will almost certainly face a primary in 2024 if she runs again. Rep. Ruben Gallego has been publicly making noises about a bid, and slammed her Wednesday vote. The Primary Sinema Project, a group that launched last summer, has raised $330,000—including $100,000 in just the last week since her filibuster speech.
There is a running joke that Sinema staffers text each other: ‘That line on the resume gets worse and worse by the day,’” said a former staffer. “People need to know she sucks.”
Some of Sinema’s biggest national backers are done with her too.
EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, spent $1.7 million on her last race and helped funnel much more to her with their fundraising network. But they publicly warned Sinema this week that if she didn’t change her position on the filibuster, they wouldn’t support her anymore. So did NARAL Pro-Choice America, a major abortion rights group.
“We believe the decision by Sen. Sinema is not only a blow to voting rights and our electoral system but also to the work of all of the partners who supported her victory and her constituents who tried to communicate the importance of this bill,” EMILY’s List said in a statement.
Indivisible, the national grassroots Democratic organization, says its volunteers sent a half-million text messages, made a quarter-million calls, and knocked on at least 5,000 doors for Sinema—and that’s not counting their volunteers’ work directly for Sinema’s campaign and the state Democratic Party. They were among the groups pushing hardest for Sinema to change her filibuster position, and their local leaders are furious.
When Indivisible asked its Arizona members this week if they’d support a primary against Sinema, 94 percent of those who responded said yes.
Multiple former supporters also say it’s not just Sinema’s votes that have pissed them off—it’s how she’s conducted herself. Many pointed to her enthusiastic, meme-ready thumbs-down when she voted against raising the minimum wage last May. Others said her decision to give a speech defending the filibuster right before President Biden was set to arrive at the Senate to try to convince Democrats to back him on the carve-out for the voting rights legislation infuriated them.
“I was outraged. It was such an obvious tweak on Biden, a needless show of power in the way where she was obviously trying to humiliate the president,” said Chris Vaaler, who heads Indivisible’s Scottsdale chapter. “It’d been a slow process, a gradual process of just becoming more and more nervous, a feeling of unease that was steadily increasing. But that was when it went over the edge.”
Sinema’s staff point out that she’s been consistent on her support for the filibuster and has long had a centrist voting record. She’s long been a moderate Democrat, joining the Blue Dog Coalition as soon as she won her House seat a decade ago, and this isn’t the first time she’s broken with leadership and backed the GOP on key bills, including some changes to Obamacare and keeping the individual tax cuts passed under President Trump.
“Personally and professionally I just feel betrayed, like I’ve been stabbed.”
She campaigned that way in 2018, too, running immigration ads that frustrated some local activists. But that positioning undoubtedly helped her: She won by two percentage points, even as the much more liberal candidate for governor lost by 14. And to be fair, most other Senate Democrats agreed with Sinema that the filibuster shouldn’t be changed just a few years ago.
"During three terms in the U.S. House, and now in the Senate, Kyrsten has always promised Arizonans she would be an independent voice for the state—not for either political party,” Sinema spokeswoman Hannah Hurley told VICE News. “She’s delivered for Arizonans and has always been honest about where she stands, and has said that different people of good faith can have honest disagreements about policy and strategy, and that honest disagreements are normal."
But she’s never been in the spotlight like this before.
David Lucier said he’s known Sinema for a decade, going back to their work together on a bill to provide in-state tuition to military veterans. He volunteered on Sinema’s race in 2018, then was invited to serve on her veterans’ advisory council. But he grew increasingly frustrated with her stances, and was one of five veterans who resigned in protest from the council in October.
“Personally and professionally I just feel betrayed, like I’ve been stabbed. It’s a horrible, horrible feeling. I still feel badly about it,” he said Thursday. “There is absolutely no trust at this point. She had all the way up until last night to do something, revise her position or compromise. She failed to do it.”