Kyrsten Sinema vs. the Left: An Old Rivalry’s New Turn

Joe Manchin may be Washington’s favorite cranky centrist, but quietly, Kyrsten Sinema has become the darling of the Pennsylvania Avenue establishment — and the Democrat progressives love to hate.

The White House and the party leadership love Sinema, Arizona’s senior senator, because she helped deliver a deal with Republicans on the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, keeping the negotiators on track with wine when they got distracted. Republicans love her because she works closely with them, even ducking into their cloakroom for a friendly chat when the Senate is in session. And moderates from both parties love the way she manages to stick by her centrist convictions and still deliver results.

The left, on the other hand, can’t stand her. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attacked her over her handling of the infrastructure bill. “Good luck tanking your own party’s investment on childcare, climate action, and infrastructure while presuming you’ll survive a 3 vote House margin,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “especially after choosing to exclude members of color from negotiations and calling that a ‘bipartisan accomplishment.’”

Just Democracy, a coalition of progressive groups representing people of color, recently announced a six-figure ad campaign against Sinema in Arizona, on top of a $1.5 million ad buy in June. Last week 39 activists, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, were arrested outside her office in Phoenix while protesting her refusal to ditch the filibuster. And several liberal groups have already suggested they would back a primary challenge against her — even though she isn’t up for re-election until 2024.

What explains the haters? On one level, it’s simple. In today’s partisan environment, anyone who seems too close to the other party risks friendly fire — and it doesn’t help that Ms. Sinema has won praise from some of the right’s most vociferous combatants, including Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, who said she was “more of a Republican than John McCain ever was.”

But Mr. Manchin often wins similar cross-partisan Brownie points, too. And Ms. Sinema’s policy positions are not that different from his: They both support the filibuster, they are both uncommitted to the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending plan, and they have both expressed wariness about using the reconciliation process to pass it.

Of course, Mr. Manchin is hardly beloved by the left, either. But he often appears to get a pass — perhaps because he is, after all, an older white man representing West Virginia, one of the whitest, most conservative states in the country. Whether that makes him conservative by nature or by a pragmatic survival instinct, he’s at least easy to comprehend.

Not Ms. Sinema. Arizona is a purple state, and in 2018 she became the first Democrat the state has elected to the U.S. Senate in 30 years. But it has also been tilting left for years, with a surging population of young people of color and an increasingly active progressive movement.

In fact, one cause of progressive frustration with Ms. Sinema is that she herself comes from a progressive background. She famously began her political career as a lefty, focused on antiwar activism. She was a member of the Green Party and backed Ralph Nader for president in 2000.

But once she started winning elections, first in the Arizona Legislature, then in Congress, she shifted to the middle. In 2009 she wrote a book called “Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win — and Last.” She joined the centrist Blue Dog Coalition and the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. And she began to consciously model herself after Mr. McCain, the conservative Arizona Republican known for his occasional maverick stances and willingness to work with Democrats, even at the risk of angering his own party.

“The legacy of John McCain does loom large for her,” said Joe Wolf, a Democratic consultant in Phoenix. “There’s a strong legacy of Arizona politicians who have an outsize influence on the world, and that’s not lost on her.”

It’s the McCain comparison that seems to particularly addle her fellow Democrats. The virtue of McCain’s bipartisanship was that he built it on a solid conservative voting record, so that his cross-party stances seemed to be principled exceptions. But so far, Ms. Sinema doesn’t have the record — at least in the Senate — to do the same.

“When people say, ‘That’s Kyrsten being Kyrsten,’ it’s hard to describe her actions as ‘typical’ Kyrsten Sinema because there isn’t yet a typical Kyrsten Sinema,” said Adam Kinsey, a Democratic political consultant in Arizona.

Other progressives say that her background in the 2000s-era left skews her understanding of progressive politics today. Back then, the left, especially in Arizona, was relatively marginal and ineffective, pushing a grab bag of causes in a political landscape where “liberal” was still considered a scarlet letter among Arizona voters.

Now, with younger voters driving the party to the left, progressives say that image, and her seemingly dismissive response to it, seems out of touch, tilting against an outmoded stereotype instead of engaging with the issues powering left-wing politics.

“I almost feel she is responding to her understanding of what the left is based on her engagement with leftist politics a decade and a half ago,” said Emily Kirkland, the executive director of Progress Arizona, a liberal advocacy group. “She doesn’t understand that the frustration is not just with a scattering of groups on the left.”

Then there is her political style — for progressives, her brand of centrism comes across as aggressive, even trolling. Recall the moment in March when, during a vote on raising the minimum wage, she sauntered down to the well of the Senate and gave a flippant thumbs-down, a move that many on the left translated into a gesture involving a different finger, pointed in a different direction.

“It can feel like she is more interested in making progressives mad than in engaging with the substance of the topic at hand,” Ms. Kirkland said.

But it’s at least plausible that another sticking point for progressives is that so far, her centrism seems to work. She is regularly in contact with President Biden, on the phone and at the White House. She helped broker a deal between Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and Senator Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, on the Covid relief bill. She’s been working with Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, on a minimum-wage bill. And now she’s making headlines on infrastructure.

All of which means that the next few weeks are critical for her stature in Washington, and in Arizona. If the infrastructure bill goes through — and it still faces obstacles, some of them out of Ms. Sinema’s control — then she could cement her reputation as not just a maverick, but also as a savior of a bipartisanship that people had largely written off. That doesn’t mean the left will fall in love with her, but at least they might give her some grudging respect.

“She absolutely has to get a win like that to point to,” Mr. Kinsey said. “If she continues to work with Republicans but doesn’t have something to show for it, she’ll look ineffective. If she can, she will show there is a method to the madness.”

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