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Arizona’s Democratic Senators Are Already Angering the Left

The activists who sent Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema to Washington aren’t happy with their early moves in office.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last week, during a series of votes on amendments to the Senate’s budget resolution, eight Democrats signed onto an amendment aimed at prohibiting undocumented immigrants from receiving Covid-19 stimulus checks—a redundant measure that might have threatened payments to their spouses and children, according to Democrats like Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly were among the Democrats who backed the amendment. Latino advocates aren’t happy about it. “We are extremely disappointed by the vote that they have taken to strip stimulus funds from immigrants in the Covid stimulus bill,” Hector Sanchez Barba, executive director of the Phoenix-based group Mi Familia Vota says. “So we are sending a clear message, early in the game with a new administration, that this is unacceptable. We immediately mobilized our people on the ground, we immediately reached out, but we’re going to use all the political capital that we have. We’re going to use everything that we’ve been building in terms of political power to keep all the politicians accountable.”

The vote and the upset about it underscore the outsize role Arizona will play in the Senate in the weeks and months ahead. Sinema and Kelly, the latter of whom is up for reelection next year, will be two of the caucus’s pivotal moderate votes, and not just on immigration policy: The elimination of the Senate filibuster and the bulk of Biden’s legislative agenda are also in their hands. Activists in Arizona are hoping to give them a shove in the right direction.

“Our focus is on sending a really clear message that the U.S. Senate and the Biden administration need to deliver clear material benefits to Arizona voters,” Progress Arizona Executive Director Emily Kirkland says. “So many people are sick, so many people are dying, so many people are out of work, and we just think there’s such a need for the government to respond with the $2,000 checks, with expanded and extended unemployment, and then with the kind of moves that bring us out of the Trump era and set the stage for where we need to go next as a country—that’s voting rights, that’s D.C. statehood, action on climate, immigration. There’s so much to do.”

Much of the credit for booting Trump out to begin with belongs to Arizona’s organizers. In November, the state went blue for the first time since 1996; Mark Kelly’s election to the Senate marks the first time Arizona’s been represented by two Democrats since 1953—the year an upstart conservative Republican named Barry Goldwater was sworn in for his first term. November’s wins and other recent victories for the state’s Democrats were, in large part, the product of a decade of organizing kicked off by the passage of Senate Bill 1070—which required police officers to demand proof of immigration status from anyone suspected of being undocumented. The infrastructure progressives have built since has paid tangible dividends: According to Progress Arizona, organizations like Mi Familia Vota, LUCHA Arizona, and CASE Action registered over 180,000 voters this cycle alone. In the final tally, Biden beat Trump in the state by just over 10,000 votes.

Organizing has deepened the impact of the state’s demographic trends, including the growth of the Latino community, the same suburban shift away from the GOP evident across the country, and an influx of young professionals from California and elsewhere. But Arizona is, obviously, still far from a solid blue state. Governor Doug Ducey is the new chair of the Republican Governors’ Association. Republicans remain in control of the state legislature. Ian Danley, executive director at the progressive organizing coalition Arizona Wins, says some of the caution from Arizona’s Democratic politicians, including Sinema and Kelly, stems from a desire to wait and see where the state’s rapidly changing politics come to rest.

“You have Sinema and Kelly figuring out ‘What’s the secret, what’s the recipe, how do you win and govern here over the long term?’” Danley says. “You’ve got multiple people and groups and efforts testing the waters. And I think the safe, rule-of-thumb thinking is, ‘Don’t, don’t rock the boat, don’t really talk about issues of race, immigration and some of these demographic issues that are kind of central to our political conflicts here. That’s bad, that’s polarizing, that’s going to alienate folks, stick to kitchen table issues’—what I call maturity campaigns, where it’s like, ‘I’m the adult in the room, and we’re going to solve the problem. We’re going to reach across the aisle with bipartisanship.’”

But the substantive futility of this approach is being well demonstrated in the state legislature. “It has radicalized this session,” Danley says. “It’s focused on criminalizing abortion up to murder charges for anybody who’s had an abortion; ending vote by mail; subpoenaing the entire Maricopa County Board of Supervisors with threats of jail time if they don’t hand over all of the ballots from Maricopa County; the largest voucher expansion in Arizona history, which the voters just shot down in 2018. It’s really bizarre, radical unpopular, thingsclearly things Arizonans don’t want.”

Nationally, Sinema and Kelly will now have a critical say in whether the majority of Arizonans and the majority of the American people get the policies that they do want. So far, they seem inclined to say no. Kelly recently passed on an opportunity to take a stand on eliminating the Senate filibuster and moving the chamber to a simple majority threshold for passing legislation. Sinema has been more straightforward. In the showdown over the Senate’s organizing resolution last month, she told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell personally that she would oppose the move. “Kyrsten is against eliminating the filibuster,” a spokesperson said, “and she is not open to changing her mind about eliminating the filibuster.”

Both can expect to hear an earful about this from activists inside and outside the state as Biden’s term rolls on. “After the devastating four years that we’ve had in our democracy and in our nation, we need to move into a direction in which there is a more direct impact of the wishes of the popular vote and the majority of people,” Sanchez Barba says. “That has to be transformed into policy priorities. That’s the whole discussion about the filibuster—this has to be fully reconsidered.”

Eliminating the filibuster would create a much easier path to immigration reform and other policies progressives in the state are expecting from the administration, including a push for democratic reforms that would build upon initiatives already in place in Arizona and other states. “We were the first state to have online voter registration,” Danley says. “We love our vote-by-mail program here—all sides of the spectrum use it widely. And we’ve seen the impact of these good-government efforts to streamline and make more safe and make more accessible our election systems. So, I think we’re supportive of those kinds of reforms and hopeful that those could be implemented with this new Congress.”

Overall, the key to getting Sinema and Kelly on board with eliminating the filibuster and other structural reforms will likely be framing them as ways for them to pass and protect legislation that will better serve the constituents who elected them rather than as partisan power moves.

“Arizona has turned blue because of deep investment in organizing led by grassroots leaders with a particular emphasis on organizing and communities of color,” Kirkland says. “And those organizations and leaders are looking for gains that affect the people they’ve been organizing with. It’s never been about Democrat versus Republican.”

If those gains don’t materialize in time for the midterm elections, voters in the state are sure to take notice. “I just think Democrats are going to have to deliver by 2022 on stuff,” Danley says. “This is an agenda to help alleviate deep, historic levels of suffering and pain. That’s how you defend it—when you’ve got historic norms that had a logic at one point but don’t any longer and are now contributing to a failure of public service. Our senators are there to help solve problems. And they can’t do it if one side of the political spectrum is dysfunctional and won’t help in any significant, meaningful way. It’s got to be about delivering on our promises and commitments.”