For Democrats who have spent years predicting that Arizona is destined to become a competitive, purple state, the 2018 election was validation.
Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate since 1988. Katie Hobbs is the first Democrat elected to the Secretary of State’s Office since 1986. Kathy Hoffman is the first Democrat to serve as superintendent of public instruction since Diane Bishop left office in 1995. And the Democrats’ 29 seats in the Arizona House of Representatives is the most they’ve held in the Legislature’s lower chamber since 1966.
Even in some of the statewide races Democrats lost, they were still competitive. In the race for mine inspector, an obscure, down-ballot office in which voters rarely know anything more about the candidates than their party affiliation, the Democratic candidate lost by less than 4 percentage points. The statewide race where Republicans fared the best was in Gov. Doug Ducey’s re-election campaign, which he won by 14 percentage points. But Democrats chalk that up largely to a massive spending advantage over Democratic nominee David Garcia.
With 2020 right around the corner, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is expected to energize Democrats and bring more success in the next election.
But was the 2018 election the beginning of the long-term shift that Democrats have been waiting for? Or will Arizona revert to its Republican mean once the “blue wave” of energized Democratic voters recedes after Trump leaves office?
Democrats see more purple, less red
Democrats are largely optimistic that the former will hold true.
Former Gov. Janet Napolitano provides a cautionary example for Democrats. Arizona seemed to moving closer to the center as she and fellow Democrat Terry Goddard won election as governor and attorney general in 2002, and again in 2006. But after Napolitano left the state to join the Obama administration in 2009, Democrats were once again confronted with years of one-party rule by the GOP.
Bill Scheel, a Democratic campaign consultant, said the problem was that Arizona Democrats had no infrastructure in place independent of Napolitano. When she left, the foundation of the party’s success left with her.
But that all started to change after 2010, when Senate Bill 1070, a controversial illegal immigration bill, gave Democrats a new rallying cry. Groups like One Arizona, Mi Familia Vota and others began registering new voters and organizing Democrats, with a renewed focus on Latinos. Following Trump’s victory, new groups like Indivisible and NextGen started organizing in Arizona, as well.
Trump clearly gave Arizona Democrats a boost this year, Scheel said. But that boost aided Democrats in taking advantage of the infrastructure they’d built in the post-SB1070 world. And that building will continue into the 2020 presidential race, when Scheel said he expects Arizona to be in play for the Democrats. If Democrats continue to build on that foundation, Scheel said they’ll find continued success once Trump is no longer around to energize Democratic voters.
“This is not a blue state, and it’s not going to be a blue state in the next cycle or two. But … it truly is purple. We’re going to have wins and we’re going to have losses. It will ebb and flow. Progress is not a straight line thing. It goes up and down. But, definitely, the trend is toward more purple and more blue,” Scheel said.
Luis Heredia, a Democratic national committeeman for Arizona, said there was a tenfold increase in investment in the state for 2018 over previous election cycles. And while billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen organization received the lion’s share of the attention, other groups like One Arizona and Living United for Change in Arizona did a lot of work, and a lot of money came in from various foundations, he said. And Heredia predicted that those organizations will continue to invest in Arizona.
“We’ll see the end results four, five, six years from now,” he said.
The 2020 election, when Trump will be up for re-election, is widely viewed as another opportunity for big Democratic gains. Turnout, though extraordinarily high for a midterm election in 2018, surges in presidential years, which generally brings lower-efficacy voters who lean toward the Democratic Party to the polls.
Democratic consultant D.J. Quinlan said increased voter registration among young people and people of color has benefitted Democrats. And getting new voters from 2018 to go back to the polls two years from now is critical. Once someone has voted in two consecutive elections, Quinlan said, they’re much more likely to continue voting throughout their lives.
“Having that multi-cycle kind of investment in voter engagement is really critical for a state like Arizona,” he said.
Heredia believes Arizona has become a purple state, but he cautions that there are “degrees of purple.” Despite their 2018 gains the and foundation they’ve laid for future elections, Democrats are still at a disadvantage, Heredia said.
To win statewide races, they still need the stars to align. And they need to convince voters who are normally inclined to cast their ballots for Republicans to cross the aisle and support Democrats. That means Democrats need high-quality candidates, Heredia said, and they need to convince voters that their Republican opponents are unqualified or unfit for office.
“You still need one out of every nine, one out of every 10 voters to look at a Democrat and split their ticket here and there to win statewide,” Heredia said.
Republicans: When Trump is gone, GOP edge will return
Many Republicans view the 2018 election as more of an anomaly caused by Trump than by changing demographics and a long-term shift that will make Arizona competitive.
Paul Bentz, a Republican campaign consultant, pointed to the races for governor, attorney general, state treasurer and mine inspector, all of which the GOP won. Bentz noted that about 140,000 voters appear to have cast ballots for both Sinema and Ducey. In Maricopa’s only countywide contest, for clerk of the court, the Republican candidate won. In the heavily Republican 8th Congressional District, Democrat Hiral Tipirneni actually did worse than she did during an April special election.
“Ultimately, what we’re finding is this is the same swing audience that has moved in previous elections. It’s the same audience that elected Janet Napolitano in 2002,” Bentz said. “Arizona is still a red state.”
And in the statewide races that Democrats won, their candidates were buoyed by unique circumstances, he said: Sinema had a strong campaign and a popular centrist message, while Hoffman benefitted from the “Red for Ed” movement that pushed K-12 education to the forefront earlier this year. Bentz also credited education with pushing Democrats over the top in some of their legislative wins.
Bentz also noted that the successful Democratic statewide candidates were all women, and that most were running against men in the general election. The Democrats’ worst showing in a statewide race this year was in the contest for state treasurer, which was the only statewide race in which a male Democrat faced a female Republican.
“Democrats absolutely should take credit for the gains that they made,” Bentz said. “But I don’t think it was just the blue wave that did it.”
George Khalaf, a Republican pollster, credited Trump with the Democrats’ victories in Arizona. He said there have been some minor demographic changes that aided the party – he pointed to Chandler-based Legislative District 17, where Jennifer Pawlik’s successful House campaign gave Democrats a win in a historically red district – but that Democrats shouldn’t expect such success in election years when Trump isn’t on the ballot.
Nonetheless, Khalaf said he expects Arizona to be more politically competitive going forward. Things won’t always look like 2018 for the Democrats, he said, but Republicans shouldn’t expect the status quo of 2010 and 2014 to continue either.
“I think it’s always going to be more competitive than it had been historically, in the years where Republicans dominated everything. But I don’t think it’s going to be so competitive to where it’s going to look like this year or potentially (2020) when Trump’s at the top of the ticket,” Khalaf said.