As he talks with voters at their doors in Phoenix’s Arcadia neighborhood, Aaron Lieberman, a Democratic candidate for the Arizona House of Representatives, explains that control of the Legislature runs through Legislative District 28.
The district, which stretches from Arcadia to north-central Phoenix, is a perpetual battleground. Democrats have managed to hold onto one of the district’s two House seats for more than a decade, but have never been able to win both. In most years, they don’t even bother running a second House candidate in the district, instead resting their hopes on a “single-shot” strategy in which a lone Democratic candidate runs while ceding the second of the two at-large seats to the Republicans.
But 2018 is different. The energy and enthusiasm among Democrats has reached unprecedented levels, Lieberman said. Two years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president, the district only had about 70 Democratic precinct committeemen, who are the elected members of the parties’ district-level organizations. Now, there are more than twice that number, he said, and around 200 people attend the district’s monthly meetings.
“It was really the district leadership that got together and thought, hey, there’s a real opportunity here,” Lieberman said said of the decision to run two Democratic House candidates in District 28.
Lieberman aims to unseat Republican Rep. Maria Syms. He is campaigning with first-term Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler, who is running for re-election, and Christine Marsh, who is challenging Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee.
Democrats have their work cut out for them. The GOP took control of both legislative chambers in the 1968 election and has rarely ceded power. Democrats won majorities in the Senate in 1976 and 1990, and tied the Republicans with 15 members apiece in 2000, but the GOP regained control two years later in each of those cases.
The House has been even worse for Democrats: Republicans have held the majority in the Arizona for the past half century.
But Democrats have some rare advantages this year. President Donald Trump’s unpopularity is a drag on Republicans across the country, and Arizona Democrats are expecting the “blue wave” that many people are predicting as a result to reach this state. At the local level, K-12 education, always a top issue for the Democrats, is more relevant than ever. The #RedForEd movement and the eight-day teachers’ strike is spawned in the Spring have energized people, and Democrats are hoping it will help carry them to victory in November.
Today, Republicans outnumber Democrats 17-13 in the Senate and 35-25 in the House. Conventional wisdom leans toward the Senate being the chamber that Democrats have a chance of taking over.
Only a small number of Republican-held legislative seats are considered potentially winnable for Democrats, largely due to the small number of competitive districts in the state. Charles Fisher, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, an arm of the Arizona Democratic Party, said there’s a clear path to victory in the Senate, albeit a slim one.
District 28 is “ground zero” in this year’s legislative races, according to former House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, who now works as a political consultant. Most political observers agree that, if Democrats want to take control of the Senate, they must win the district, which means ousting Brophy McGee.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, Brophy McGee may be uniquely suited to withstand Democrats’ messaging on K-12 education, despite representing perhaps the most competitive legislative district in the state.
Brophy McGee is a moderate Republican in a moderate district that leans toward the GOP. In a year when Democrats’ message is very heavy on K-12 education, Brophy McGee boasts of being an education champion with impeccable credentials. She was the lone Republican vote against a 2017 bill to dramatically expand Arizona’s school voucher system, and a year later was a key holdout that stopped GOP lawmakers from repealing the law in order to prevent a citizen referendum on it in November. She also told the Arizona Mirror that she sponsored successful legislation that extended an expiring sales tax that provides funding for K-12 schools.
“In my opinion, you don’t need to replace me,” Brophy McGee said. “You need more people like me down there.”
Democrats insist Brophy McGee isn’t as moderate as she makes herself out to be. Fisher said she bucks her party on key votes once or twice per legislative session, but votes with her Republican colleagues the rest of the time. And Marsh, a top Democratic recruit who in 2016 was named the Arizona teacher of the year, suggested that it doesn’t really matter whether Brophy McGee is a moderate, and that the only way to effect change in the Senate is to replace Republicans with Democrats.
“It doesn’t matter how moderate she is. Her voice doesn’t make it through the majority of the majority party,” Marsh said.
Even if Marsh defeats Brophy McGee, Democrats still need to win other Republican-held seats to take control of the Senate. Observers consider the likeliest pickup opportunities to be in District 6, a predominantly rural patch includes Flagstaff, Payson and Snowflake, and District 20, which covers part of north Phoenix and east Glendale.
Some also eye District 8, a Pinal County-based district that has elected lawmakers from both parties, and District 17, a Chandler-based district that is home to both the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate.
Even many Democrats concede that dreams of winning District 17 are a longshot, given that Republicans outnumber them by about 14,000 registered voters. And though voter registration figures are nearly even between the two parties in District 8, it has grown increasingly favorable for Republicans, who have held both of its House seats for six years, despite starting with a voter registration deficit of more than 5,000 in 2012, when the district was first drawn.
Democratic hopes look more promising in District 20, where Doug Ervin is running against Republican Rep. Paul Boyer for the district’s Senate seat. The GOP’s advantage has shrunk from nearly 11,000 to less than 8,000 since 2012. And during a special congressional election in May, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni won the portion of District 20 that’s part of the deeply conservative 8th Congressional District.
Rep. Anthony Kern, a Republican who represents District 20, said Democrats are more fired up this year than in previous elections. But he questioned whether Democrats will be able to recreate the relative success they had during the congressional special election. Since then, he said, Republicans have been able to correct much of the “misinformation” that he said Democrats have perpetuated about the GOP’s education record.
Nonetheless, Kern said it’s good that Republicans aren’t taking their races for granted.
“I think it’s a good thing that Republicans are running a little nervous, and I think it keeps the momentum going. That being said, do I think that the Senate or the House are going to be split chambers? I don’t see it,” Kern said.
The 2016 election provides Democrats with a good road map of where to focus their efforts. Democrat Sean Bowie won District 18, taking a Senate seat away from the Republicans. And Democrats competed strongly for the Senate seats in Districts 6, 8 and 28. In District 6, Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen appeared headed for defeat, but took a late lead over Democratic challenger Nikki Bagley.
Paul Bentz, a Republican campaign consultant with the firm HighGround, said Democrat Wade Carlisle, a hardware store owner who serves as vice mayor of Holbrook, could give Allen a run for her money this year.
“Sylvia Allen beat her challenger by 1,700 votes two years ago,” Bentz said. “There’s almost more independents than anybody else in that district. So, that would be one to watch.”
While Democrats are focusing more on the Senate, one school of thought is that the House of Representatives may be the more winnable chamber.
Campbell said he’s grown more bullish about Democratic prospects in the House. He predicted that Rep. Todd Clodfelter, R-Tucson, will lose re-election in his predominantly Democratic district, and said Districts 18 and 28 are the next likeliest House pickup opportunities for the Democrats.
In District 18, Democrats are targeting Republican Rep. Jill Norgaard. The district consists of Ahwatukee and western Chandler, and has grown more competitive over the past six years. When Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission first drew the district in 2012, Republicans outnumbered Democrats there by about 11,000. As of August, that margin had shrunk to just 4,000.
“The stars have to align. But there’s a pathway in the House,” Campbell said.
If Democrats can win those three seats, they still must win two more for a 30-30 tie in the House and three to control it. Campbell has his eye on Districts 6 and 17, where Democrat Jennifer Pawlik is running a single-shot campaign, and said Districts 8 and 20 will be difficult for Democrats to win, though not impossible.
“I think you’re getting into fantasy-land after that,” Campbell said.