Bolstered by national money, Dem groups spend massive sums in legislative races

By: - October 23, 2020 2:01 pm

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Rep. Walt Blackman sees the Democrats gunning for his seat, and he doesn’t see his fellow Republicans doing much to stop them.

Blackman, a Republican from Snowflake, is one of the Democrats’ top targets in their quest to take the Arizona House of Representatives for the first time since 1966. With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, outside Democratic groups have spent more than $1.2 million to unseat him — more than $700,000 attacking him and another $400,000 supporting Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, the lone Democratic House candidate in northern Arizona-based District 6.

Outside Republican groups, on the other hand, have only spent about $323,000 in the District 6 House race. And more than half of that has been spent to help former lawmaker Brenda Barton, the other GOP candidate in the race, or attack Art Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor who’s running as an independent. That money won’t do anything to help Blackman survive the Democratic onslaught.

“I am disappointed that the amount of money put in my race compared to other swing district races, and I would have expected more support,” Blackman said.

Democratic advocacy groups are outspending their Republican counterparts in most of the state’s heavily targeted legislative races, though the disparities are generally smaller than the yawning gap in District 6. 

The 2018 election left Democrats in the minority in the legislature, but got them closer to majorities than they’ve been in generations. They need a net gain of two seats in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate to wrest control from the Republicans, and are hopeful that 2020 will be the year they can finally achieve their elusive dream. 

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

Overall, outside Democratic groups have spent about $8 million in legislative races so far, compared to about $4 million by the GOP. The bulk of that Democratic money has gone toward digital, mail and even television ads attacking Republicans on health care, especially protections for people with pre-existing conditions, and K-12 funding.

Much of that disparity is due to out-of-state money from national Democratic groups. 

Forward Majority Action Arizona, the state arm of a national Democratic organization, has pledged to spend at least $3.5 million in legislative races, more than double the $1.5 million it spent in 2018. And the Arizona wing of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee will spend at least $2 million. More than a half dozen other groups, both local and national, are spending on behalf of Democrats in key legislative races, as well.

“Arizona is a top target of ours because we see a path to the majority. We’re spending more this year because, during presidential election cycles, we know our candidates need to communicate more to break through the noise and get their message out to voters,” said Christina Polizzi, the DLCC’s national press secretary.

Two years ago, the Democrats spent nearly $750,000 trying to defeat Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen in District 6 and more than $650,000 helping Democratic challenger Christine Marsh in her race against Sen. Kate Brophy McGee in District 28, which covers north-central Phoenix and Paradise Valley. No other district attracted nearly as much outside spending by either party .

This year, with nearly two weeks to go before election day, the Democrats have spent nearly twice as much in their most expensive race than they did in District 6 in 2018.


Signs of a long-anticipated demographic shift in Arizona — driven by changes in Maricopa County — combined with President Donald Trump’s unpopularity, a slumping economy and public dissatisfaction with Republicans’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, are buoying Democrats’ hopes and giving them confidence that 2020 is their year.

Ben Wexler-Waite, Forward Majority’s communications director, said the organization sees an opportunity in Arizona that didn’t exist in previous years, and is spending accordingly.

“All of these things have created a perfect storm, in a sense,” Wexler-Waite said.

Republicans have keyed in on the fact that much of the Democrats’ money is coming in from out of state and touting their own independent expenditures — as well as fundraising by the candidates themselves — as being funded by predominantly in-state sources.

“It always comes down to who is leading the charge,” said Lorna Romero, a spokeswoman for the Republican Legislative Victory Fund, an independent expenditure committee controlled by GOP legislative leadership.

Not that Arizona Republicans have historically been averse to out-of-state funding for their own campaigns and independent expenditures. Romero acknowledged that Republicans have at times relied on out-of-state funding, as well, but said it’s rare to see in lower-profile races like campaigns for the legislature.

The Democrats may be outspending their Republican rivals in most targeted legislative races, but they also have a greater disadvantage in most. Even in districts where Democrats have made inroads over the past couple election cycles, Republicans still hold voter registration advantages — sizeable ones in some cases.

The road to Democratic control of the Senate will almost certainly go through Chandler-based District 17. If the Democrats can win Senate seats in Districts 6 and 28, their biggest target of recent years, they’ll still need one more seat to take a majority instead of forcing a 15-15 tie in the chamber. District 17 is their best shot of a third pickup in the Senate, and Democratic groups have already spent more than $1.4 million boosting challenger A.J. Kurdoglu’s campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard.

Republicans outnumber Democrats in District 17 by more than 9,000 registered voters, though a similar margin didn’t stop Democrat Jennifer Pawlik from winning one of the district’s two House seats in 2018.

In every district where Democratic independent expenditures are spending big bucks, Republicans hold voter registration advantages. Wexler-Waite said the decisions on which districts to target are about more than just raw voter numbers. Polling plays a part, as does Democratic performance in those districts in previous elections, from legislative hopefuls to presidential and U.S. Senate candidates. 

Another area where Democrats are hoping to overcome a sizable voter registration gap is District  21, which covers much of Peoria and Sun City, and where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 12,000.

Kathy Knecht, a former Peoria Unified School District governing board member, lost the district’s Senate by about 3,500 votes in 2018, when she ran as an independent in a race with no Democratic candidate. This year, she’s running as a Democrat, and the party’s outside groups have made her race one of the most expensive in the state. 

Democratic outside groups have spent about $1 million in the District 21 House race, mostly attacking incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Payne. Republican groups have spent about a third of that, with more than $100,000 going to help Beverly Pingerelli, the other Republican House candidate in that district.

Payne was surprised to see his district become such a battleground.

“We’ve had a lot of new people move in. We’re growing and growing and growing. Apparently, they think we’ve grown in a Democrat way,” he said. 

Like Blackman, Payne feels like he should be getting more help from the GOP’s independent expenditures. Still, he said he expects to win.


It’s a similar story in other swing or targeted districts. Democrats have spent $1.3 million compared to the Republicans’ $719,000 in the District 6 Senate race. They’ve spent more than $900,000 compared to nearly $600,000 for the Republicans in the House race in north Phoenix and Glendale-based District 20, where they’re hoping newcomer Judy Schwiebert can oust Rep. Anthony Kern. In the District 20 Senate race, Democrats have spent nearly $700,000 to about $550,000 for the GOP’s in a bid to replace Sen. Paul Boyer with challenger Doug Ervin, who lost their 2018 matchup by 2,800 votes.

Sara Mueller, who runs Arizonans for Strong Leadership, Gov. Doug Ducey’s independent expenditure group, said the Democrats have no choice but to outspend the GOP, given that they’re supporting liberal candidates in center-right districts.

“A lot of their nominees are way to the left of these districts and I think they’re having to invest this kind of large sum in their candidate because that’s their only path,” Mueller said.

That’s not to say Republicans aren’t spending plenty in their quest to maintain control of the legislature.

Arizonans for Strong Leadership has raised more than $3.5 million, and is doing all it can to ensure that the governor won’t be negotiating budgets with a Democratic-controlled legislature next year. Americans for Prosperity, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Center for Arizona Policy and a bevy of other mostly in-state interest groups are also doing their part to bolster the GOP’s chances of holding onto the legislature.

“There are a lot of us engaged here, local Arizona PACs, for our conservative candidates. I think ASL has done more than anyone in history in terms of a sizable independent expenditure effort supporting Republican legislative candidates,” Mueller said. “We’re the home team effort.”

There are some districts where Republicans are outspending their rivals. 

In the perpetual battleground of District 28, Democrats now hold both House seats, but Marsh fell short of ousting Brophy McGee in 2018 by just 267 votes. Democrats are hoping things will be different this year. Republicans’ independent expenditures have spent more in District 28, though the gap is narrowing, with Democrats pouring in about $716,000 so far compared to the GOP’s $763,000.

And District 8, which covers large swathes of Pinal County, has attracted little Democratic money, despite a GOP voter registration edge of just 4,000, notably smaller than in other targeted districts. Republicans have spent about $180,000 defending Sen. T.J. Shope, while Democrats have only put in about $160,000 to help Barbara McGuire, a former senator who is the only Democrat to have ever won in the district. 

Spending in legislative races isn’t just about the independent expenditures. The candidates themselves are also raising some eye-popping amounts of money. 

Retired U.S. Air Force pilot Wendy Rogers, a four-time Republican congressional candidate who is now running for District 6 Senate, has raised $900,000, an unheard-of amount for a legislative race. At least half that money went toward defeating incumbent Sylvia Allen in the GOP primary. But that still leaves Rogers with hundreds of thousands to campaign against Democrat Felecia French, whose half million dollars still ranks her as one of the top fundraisers of 2020. That’s on top of the more than $1.3 million spent so far by outside Democratic groups and more than $700,000 by Republican independent expenditures in the race.

Brophy McGee, Evans, Kurdoglu, Marsh and Schwiebert have also all raised more than $300,000 apiece, exceeding the money that statewide Corporation Commission candidates get from Arizona’s Clean Elections system of public campaign funding.

There are districts where the Democrats face long odds, despite their spending disparities with the Republicans.

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising target for the Democrats has been District 11, a conservative stronghold that stretches from the northern Tucson area through much of Pinal County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 14,000 voters. Democratic groups have spent nearly $400,000 targeting the district’s Senate seat, currently held by Vince Leach, as well as more than a half million for the House seat held by Rep. Mark Finchem.

Wexler-Waite the district is flippable thanks to Finchem’s “radical record.” Finchem has never had a credible challenger, he said, and said the district is in play for Democrat Felipe Perez

Finchem had a different take.

“Apparently, they have more money than sense,” Finchem said the Democrats’ spending spree in his race.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”