Democrats hope to turn 2018 gains into real power in 2020 and beyond




Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

For the past few election cycles, Arizona Democrats have talked a big game about winning control of one of the state’s legislative chambers before falling short of the majorities that have eluded them through decades of Republican control.

Things could be different this year.

Democrats had a historic year in 2018, winning 29 of the 60 seats in the House of Representatives, the most seats they’ve held since Republicans won control of the chamber in 1966. In the Senate, which Democrats haven’t won since 1990 — there was a 15-15 split in 2001-02 — they have held the GOP to a 17-13 lead for the past few years.

But 2020 could be the year that pushes Arizona’s longtime minority party over the top. President Donald Trump is struggling to win a state that Republicans have won in every presidential election except once since 1952 — he trails former VP Joe Biden in most polls — and demographic shifts this decade have fueled Democratic victories in Maricopa County, statewide offices and previously out-of-reach legislative seats.

Democrats’ success in the past two election cycles have gotten them closer than they’ve been in decades to control of the legislature, but it’s also left them with few feasible pickup opportunities. They need to win three Senate seats and two House seats to control those respective chambers, or could force a tie by winning two in the Senate and one in the House. Meanwhile, they must protect the seats they won in swing districts two years ago.

Three districts make up the core of the Democratic strategy in this year’s legislative races:

  • District 6, a sprawling rural district in northern Arizona that covers Flagstaff, the White Mountains and parts of Gila County, including Payson.
  • District 17, which encompasses most of Chandler.
  • District 28, which takes in north-central Phoenix and Paradise Valley.

Democrats are also eyeing seats in District 20, which includes parts of north Phoenix and eastern portions of Glendale, and District 8, which covers part of Pinal County. Some also believe the Democrats have a pickup opportunity in District 21, a solidly red district centered in Peoria.

“The House is just as much in play as we all thought it was … and the Senate is definitely in play, as well,” said Democratic consultant Joe Wolf, who is working for Arizona Integrity PAC, an independent expenditure committee that expects to be active in the general election.

The Aug. 4 primary election is buoying Democratic hopes. More Arizonans voted than ever before in the primary election, despite a dearth of high-profile races to energize voters. And while both parties saw increased turnout, it was Democrats who largely drove that trend. In 2016, nearly 230,000 more votes were cast in the Republican primary than Democratic primary. In 2018, that gap narrowed to about 146,000. This year, it was just 57,000.

That trend comes on the heels of two successful election cycles for Arizona Democrats. For the first time since 1988, Democrats in 2016 won two county-wide offices in Maricopa County. In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona in 30 years, and Democrats ended the Republicans’ dominance in statewide races, winning contests for secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction and capturing a seat on the Corporation Commission.

With Trump threatening to drag down other Republican candidates, some in the GOP worry that Democrats will do what they can to nationalize Arizona’s legislative races. 

Lorna Romero, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Republican Legislative Victory Fund, said local issues will carry the day. Voters don’t want higher taxes and more regulation, she said.

Romero said many of the Democrats legislative candidates are too liberal for the swing districts where they’re running. And regardless of whether some individual candidates run as centrists or moderates, she said, progressives will drive the agenda at the legislature if Democrats take control.

“Our message is very clear. There has been economic growth and prosperity under Republican leadership. Period. If you want that to continue, we need to make sure we keep our Republican majorities at the state legislature,” Romero said. “People moved here for a reason, and it wasn’t because of progressive policies.”

Some Democrats say it’s not the legislative campaigns that will be nationalized, but the electorate itself.

“Many people look at the Republican Party now as the party of Trump, nothing else. So, I think most voters have already done that in their own minds already,” said former House minority leader Chad Campbell, a Democratic consultant. “I don’t think it’s going to take much to nationalize it because I think that the Republican Party has molded itself in the image of Donald Trump, and many swing voters see that now.” 

Democrats have an array of talking points on local issues, mixing longstanding talking points about low education funding and health care with newer concerns over the COVID-19 crisis, which saw Arizona become one of the nation’s biggest hotspots for the novel coronavirus.

In some critical races, Democratic challengers are leading their Republican rivals in fundraising. 

Judy Schwiebert, the lone Democrat running for the House in District 20, has raised more than Republican incumbents Shawnna Bolick and Anthony Kern. Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, who is running for the House in District 6, has raised more than Republicans Walt Blackman and Brenda Barton combined. 

Republican Wendy Rogers raised more than any other legislative candidate during her campaign to oust Sen. Sylvia Allen in the GOP primary for the District 6 Senate seat. But she spent most of the $551,000 she raised and reported having only about $100,000 on hand in mid-August, while Democratic nominee Felicia French goes into the general election with nearly double that.

Well-funded outside groups will likely also play a significant role in determining who controls the House and Senate when the next legislative session begins in January. 

Leading the charge for the GOP is the Arizona Republican Legislative Victory Fund, an independent expenditure led by Republican leadership in the legislature. On the Democratic side, the Arizona wing of the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee looks to play heavily in the general election.

Other groups will be weighing in, as well. Arizonans for Strong Leadership, an independent expenditure effort created by Gov. Doug Ducey, will spend in key races to help ensure that his fellow Republicans maintain their majorities in both legislative chambers. And Democratic groups like Arizona Integrity PAC will fight to wrest control of the legislature from the GOP.

District 28

As it has been for years, District 28 is likely to be the fiercest battleground in this year’s legislative races. Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, has been perhaps the GOP’s most centrist lawmaker, which is widely considered to be an asset in her affluent, moderate, right-of-center district. 

In 2018, Democrat Christine Marsh, an educator who was once named Arizona’s teacher of the year, gave Brophy McGee the biggest electoral fight of her career, falling short by just 267 votes. 

Marsh is confident about her rematch this year. She may have lost in 2018, but the race gave her a blueprint for how to run in 2020, she said, giving her invaluable information on how to spend her money and which precincts to target.

Brophy McGee said the race is about more than political party. She touted her record as an independent, bipartisan lawmaker with a history of bucking her own party’s leadership, and questioned whether Marsh would be willing to do the same.

“You are talking about someone who is a very effective legislator, who has worked across the aisle for the last 10 years, who has developed amazing relationships,” she said. 

Marsh rejected Brophy McGee’s allegation that she’d be a rubber stamp for her party, though she was skeptical that any situation would arise in which she’d feel compelled to do so.

“I don’t envision that there would be the time when I would need to. But if I needed to, I absolutely would,” Marsh said.

The primary results may bode well for Marsh. She received about 4,500 more votes than Brophy McGee in the primary, in which both candidates ran unopposed for their party’s nomination, even though Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district by more than 2,600.

District 6

Democrats have gotten more bullish about the District 6 Senate race since Rogers defeated Allen in the Republican primary. Rogers has run losing congressional campaigns in the past four election cycles, and Wolf said she’s taken a lot of positions that will come back to haunt her. On top of that, Allen was well known in the area, where she has deep family roots, and has a history of grinding out wins in a district that Democrats have targeted for years.

Rogers also ruffled a lot of Republican feathers during her campaign against Allen. Blackman, an ally of his seatmate Allen, told the Arizona Capitol Times that he dislikes Rogers so much that he’s not even committed to voting for her.

And the financial support Allen received from outside groups isn’t automatically transferable to Rogers. Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman Garrick Taylor said the chamber’s PAC backed Allen, but now that she’s out of the picture, the business group will have to decide what, if anything, it will do in the District 6 Senate race.

“The Sylvia Allen loss in six will probably cause a lot of groups to go back and reassess what to do in that district, including ours. We’ll see,” Taylor said.

District 17

If French and Marsh can win, District 17 will likely be the firewall that determines whether the Democrats can take control of the Senate for the first time since 1990, or simply force a 15-15 tie, as they did in the 2000 election.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said his district has changed a bit in recent years, with high-wage jobs attracting new residents from out of state who bring their voting preferences with them to Arizona. His district also fits the profile of the suburban regions where Trump is driving voters, especially women, away from the GOP’s brand.

“Suburban America is definitely the battleground, and suburban Arizona is no exception. And my district is kind of the quintessential example of the typical suburban district,” Mesnard said.

District 17 has been solidly Republican since its creation in 2012, but Democrat Jennifer Pawlik was able to win a House seat there two years ago. The fact that they’ve already won a race in that district is fueling Democrats’ optimism there, though Democrats aren’t running a candidate for its second House seat, a strategy that parties generally use when their chances of winning in a district are more marginal.

Mesnard faces A.J. Kurdoglu, a small business owner and naturalized U.S. citizen from Turkey who “achieved my American dream in Chandler here in Arizona.” 

The battle for the House

Both sides have less room for error in the House. 

“In the House, we have to bat a thousand. It’s not going to be easy this year,” said Sara Mueller, who runs Ducey’s Arizonans for Strong Leadership PAC.

Democrats already hold both seats in District 28 and one seat in District 17, and completed their takeover of Ahwatukee-based District 18 several years ago. That leaves two districts to focus on. 

The first is District 6, where Evans is the lone Democratic candidate for the House. Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott, a former Democrat, is running as an independent. The second is District 20, where Schwiebert, a former teacher, is running as a single-shot.

Neither district has elected a Democrat to either chamber since the current legislative maps went into use in 2012. But Schwiebert is optimistic that could change this year. In a conference call hosted by the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, she noted that District 20 voted for Trump in 2016, but gave the majority of its votes to Sinema in the U.S. Senate race two years later.

“We feel like, especially in having conversations with so many voters here in my district, that people are really ready for local leadership…from people who are looking out for our local interests, especially around schools,” Schwiebert said.

Republicans hoping to win back lost seats

While Arizona’s political class is largely focused on where Democrats might pick up seats in the legislature, Mesnard said Republicans have opportunities to expand their majority. In Ahwatukee-based District 18, which shifted from all Republican representation to all Democratic in recent years, former Rep. Bob Robson, known during his years in the legislature as a moderate Republican, is seeking his old House seat. 

In District 4, which stretches from southern Yuma to Tucson and juts into the southwestern Phoenix area, Mesnard said GOP candidate Joel John has a chance of winning a House seat. He noted that a Republican candidate nearly pulled off an upset there in 2014. Republicans have won House seats in three other Democratic districts anchored in Tucson in previous years, though Democrats since regained control in all of them. 

And Mesnard is hopeful that Republicans can take back the seat that Pawlik won in his district two years ago.

“We have potential, as well,” Mesnard said.