Arizona Democrats need more than a blue wave

Democratic Gubernatorial nominee David Garcia speaking with attendees at a campaign rally with former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro at Azukar Coffee in Phoenix on Oct. 10. Photo courtesy Gage Skidmore

Record turnout. Progressive enthusiasm. Young voters. Those three things should have combined to create more wins for Arizona Democrats in Tuesday’s midterm election. Instead, we are licking our wounds and wondering how we failed to capitalize on growing discontent and a changing electorate that favors progressive issues.

Many will claim it was all about the money. Democrats lack the same fundraising prowess and connections as our Republican opponents. But while that statement is true, it overlooks a more fundamental reason Dems lose: messaging.

In the last few years, millions of dollars from outside organizations have poured into Arizona’s progressive advocacy groups. Instead of using the money to create a desperately needed statewide brand for progressives, it was spent on registering thousands of minority and young voters – individuals who generally favor Democrats – in an effort to turn the state blue.

On the other side of the aisle, conservatives remained focused on the narrative. National and statewide candidates rarely deviated from agreed upon, poll-tested talking points. Messaging, not field work, was paramount in their campaigns.

To understand why the Republican strategy was and continues to be more effective in wooing voters, we should examine this year’s race for governor.

Democrats fielded David Garcia, a nationally recognized education policy expert who outperformed every Democrat in 2014 and came within one percentage point of winning his race for state superintendent. (Disclaimer: I was the communications director for the 2014 Garcia campaign.)

Garcia started his gubernatorial campaign with strong name recognition and a solid education narrative, but ended with a crushing loss. While it’s true that Gov. Ducey and his allies had an obscene amount of campaign cash, it’s also true that Garcia handed Ducey much of the ammunition that led to his loss.    

This was a much different year than 2014, and Garcia had room to move to the left. He couldn’t be the anti-politician anymore or a single-issue candidate. However, he adopted more of a national platform rather than an Arizona-specific narrative.

An example was Garcia’s early push for free community college. Though a noble goal, it was a curious move during a year when K-12 education funding, not higher education, was dominating Arizona politics and voters’ minds.

Months later, Garcia decided to wade into the immigration debate. Had he remained focused on the humanitarian aspect of migration, he would have demonstrated a clear differentiation between himself and Ducey. But Garcia strayed into the contentious national battle over ICE and Trump’s border wall. Though he may not have uttered the words, “Abolish ICE,” conservative voters heard as much when Garcia talked of reform.

Garcia’s speech at the progressive NetRoots Nation conference, where he infamously asked people to imagine no wall in southern Arizona, became the proverbial nail in his campaign coffin. His Democratic opponents began raising doubts about his sincerity, and the Ducey campaign capitalized on the opening. They put Garcia on the defensive, using his own words to paint him as a radical.

Garcia had to use the last precious few weeks of the general election to clarify his positions on immigration. Meanwhile, Ducey was given ample time to hone his image as the governor who championed safety and security. The contrasting ads effectively changed the direction of the 2018 election from a focus on education to one of immigration and border security, a seismic shift in a year that saw unprecedented volunteer efforts from public school parents and teachers.

Moderate voters who previously rallied around Garcia and felt comfortable voting for a Democrat were left questioning whether they really knew him. Was he David Garcia, the education champion, or David Garcia, the open borders liberal?

Had Garcia been running against another Diane Douglas, the messaging missteps likely wouldn’t have mattered. But this wasn’t Team Ducey’s first rodeo. They understood the art of the narrative, and they played the game well.

Contrast the governor’s race with the U.S. Senate campaigns, and a similar pattern emerges. Republican Martha McSally created doubt in voters’ minds by using Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s words against her. However, McSally’s attempts were much less successful than Ducey’s because McSally had to reach into a time machine to find quotes from Sinema’s earliest days in politics.

As a congresswoman, Sinema remained consistent in her views and messaging. She didn’t allow her campaign to be pulled into a national debate over immigration or President Trump. Instead, she tailored her narrative to fit the views of Arizonans. Some called her robotic because she rarely spoke off the cuff, but her message discipline kept her competitive in a state that re-elected its Republican governor by more than 17 points.

As I write this column, the U.S. Senate race is still too close to call, but if Democratic strategists choose to reexamine the successes and failures of current and past tactics, they should look to Sinema as an example of how to turn the tide.

Simply registering more people will not turn the state blue. Brand development and messaging discipline should be at the forefront rather than an afterthought, and the strategy must involve a concerted effort by the entire progressive infrastructure, not just the candidates.

I contend many voters, especially moderates, were not happy casting their ballots for Ducey and others Republicans this year, but did so because it’s safer to elect known entities over possible wild cards. Record turnout and blue waves cannot overcome a tsunami of doubt surrounding inconsistent messaging and a weak brand.

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.

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