Republicans overtake Dems in key races, control of legislature up for grabs

By: - November 4, 2020 8:44 am

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

Election night started on a high note for Democratic hopes of taking control of Arizona’s legislature for the first time in more than a half century, but Republicans finished strong, taking the lead in several key races that could cement their control of the state’s House of Representatives and Senate.

Democrats need net gains of two seats in the House and three in the Senate to take the majorities in each chamber. And as of late Tuesday night, they led in just enough races to make that a reality, if those leads held up. 

But Republicans gained ground with each new vote count, and the last batch of ballots reported by Maricopa County around 2:30 Wednesday morning flipped several races.

In the Senate, GOP incumbents J.D. Mesnard and Paul Boyer overtook their Democratic challengers. Republican Rep. Kevin Payne also edged out his Democratic opponent, and Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, the Democratic hopeful in northern Arizona-based District 6, slipped to third place behind former lawmaker Brenda Barton.

Democrat Judy Schwiebert still holds a strong lead of nearly 3,800 in the House race for District 20, which covers parts of Glendale and north Phoenix. But that gain could be offset by the loss of a Democratic seat, with incumbent Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, trailing Republican challenger Joel John by about 1,400 votes. Peten is the seatmate of House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez.

As things stand Wednesday morning, Democrats appear likely to gain at least one seat in the Senate. Teacher Christine Marsh holds a commanding lead in her rematch against Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix. Marsh is up by about 4,900 votes in District 28, which covers north-central Phoenix and Paradise Valley. Brophy McGee defeated Marsh by 267 votes in 2018.

There are at least 400,000 ballots left to be counted across the state, including 248,000 early ballots in Maricopa County, The Arizona Republic reported.

Traditionally, early ballots that voters drop off on election day, which are generally the last to be counted, break strongly for Democrats, which in 2018 shifted the leads in several statewide races. However, it’s unclear whether that trend will continue this year. President Donald Trump has urged his supporters not to vote by mail, baselessly alleging the system is rife with fraud. Some observers expect that trend to give the GOP a boost in the post-election day count.

If Republicans hold onto their leads in the House and Senate races, they will maintain control of the legislature despite an unprecedented spending onslaught by Democratic independent expenditures. Democratic groups spent more than $9.7 million in the general election, buoyed by massive sums from out-of-state organizations like Forward Majority and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, who saw a rare opening to wrest control of the legislature from the GOP. 

Meanwhile Republican independent expenditures spent more than $5.6 million, a number that would have been record-shattering in most years but was dwarfed by the Democratic total.

In District 6, which stretches from Flagstaff through parts of Gila and Navajo counties, early Democratic leads evaporated as the count continued through the night. Retired U.S. Air Force pilot Wendy Rogers, a four-time congressional candidate, started the night trailing Democrat Felecia French by about a thousand votes, but now leads by about nearly 8,000 votes. Outside Democratic groups spent more than $1 million against Rogers, who ousted incumbent Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, in the GOP primary.

And while Evans was the top vote-getter in the district’s House race for most of Tuesday, Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, surged into first place, despite nearly $800,000 in Democratic spending against him, and former Republican lawmaker Brenda Barton leads Evans by less than 300 votes.

Democrat Kathy Knecht’s slim lead in the House race for Peoria-based District 21 has turned into an even slimmer deficit, as Payne jumped ahead of her by just 44 votes. The former Peoria Unified School District board member had led by more than 1,600 votes earlier in the night. Beverly Pingerelli, also a member of the Peoria Unified School District board, holds a comfortable lead for first place in the district’s House race.

In Chandler-based District 17, Democratic Rep. Jennifer Pawlik is poised to hold the seat she won two years ago. But Democratic Senate challenger A.J. Kurdoglu’s lead over Mesnard disappeared late in the night. If Mesnard holds on to win another term, he will have survived $1.3 million in Democratic spending against him, the most an independent expenditure has ever spent against a legislative candidate in Arizona.

Democrat Doug Ervin trails Boyer by 610 votes. Democratic groups spent nearly $900,000 against Boyer over the past two months.

Outside Democratic groups raised eyebrows by spending both the House and Senate races in District 11, a conservative stronghold that runs from the northern Tucson suburbs through parts of Pinal County. And early in the night, it looked like it might pay off as Senate hopeful JoAnna Mendoza led Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, and Felipe Perez led the race for the House.

But subsequent ballot drops propelled Leach to a 7,000-vote lead, while Perez fell behind both incumbent GOP House representatives, Bret Roberts and Mark Finchem. Perez now trails Finchem by nearly 3,200 votes for the district’s second House seat.

Republicans David Cook and Frank Pratt erased an early lead for Democrat Sharon Girard in the House race in Pinal County-based District 8 as well.

Republicans have held the state House continuously since winning the chamber in 1966, and have controlled the Senate for most of that time as well, ceding it to the Democrats in 1977-78 and 1991-92. In 2001-02, the Senate was split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. 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.”