WASHINGTON – Sen. Bernie Sanders suggested Tuesday that he'd support primary challengers against Democratic colleagues Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, further intensifying a political battle pitting members of President Joe Biden's party against one another.
Sanders told reporters that he thinks "there is a very good chance” that Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, and Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, could face challenges in their states' Democratic primaries. He said home-state voters would be disappointed that the pair have refused to support changing Senate rules to overcome a Republican filibuster against major voting legislation while also balking at a massive, Biden-backed spending and social plan known as Build Back Better.
Asked if he'd consider supporting such primary challengers, Sanders responded, “Well, yeah."
Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, didn't elaborate on his comment, but it's unusual for senators to suggest they'd be willing to campaign against colleagues from their own party. The move recalls more of the bare-knuckled politics of former President Donald Trump, who has gleefully targeted fellow Republicans in Congress he sees as disloyal.
Sanders' sentiments also lay bare progressives' growing frustrations with the more moderate Manchin and Sinema, whom the left has blamed for stalling many of Biden’s top legislative priorities.
Manchin countered that he wouldn't be bothered by a primary challenger.
“I’ve been primaried my entire life. That would not be anything new for me,” he said Tuesday, when asked about fellow Democrats urging voters not to back him in a primary. “I’ve never run an election I wasn’t primaried. This is West Virginia, it’s rough and tumble. We’re used to that. So bring it on.”
Sanders remains one of the nation's leading progressive voices after strong Democratic presidential primary bids in 2016 and 2020 — and is still popular enough nationally to potentially affect Senate primaries around the country.
Manchin and Sinema aren't up for reelection until 2024, but both could face serious primary challengers then. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who has sharply criticized Sinema for not supporting the voting rights legislation, hasn't ruled out launching a challenge against her.
Earlier Tuesday, Emily's List, a group that works to elect women nationwide and has deep ties to Democrats, said it would no longer endorse Sinema if she failed to support changing Senate rules to advance the voting legislation. NARAL Pro-Choice America, which supports abortion rights and is also influential in top Democratic circles, released its own statement suggesting it would no longer support or endorse Manchin or Sinema because of their stances on the legislation.
The legislation in question is The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which civil rights activists say is vital to safeguarding American democracy as Republican-led states pass new restrictive voting laws. It would make Election Day a national holiday while ensuring access to early voting and mail-in ballots — both of which have become especially popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. The package also seeks to let the Justice Department intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes.
Manchin and Sinema say they support the legislation but are unwilling to change Senate rules to muscle the legislation through the chamber over Republican objections. With a 50-50 split, Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to overcome the GOP filibuster.