The road that ended with Kyrsten Sinema winning a seat in the United States Senate began in 2011, as Democrats outmaneuvered Republicans in Arizona’s decennial redistricting process to create the congressional district that served as her stepping stone.
Redistricting in Arizona is done by an independent five-member commission, rather than by legislators. The Democratic and Republican leaders in the Arizona Senate and House of Representatives each choose one member, and those four commissioners select a fifth who serves as chairman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. Because no more than two members can be from the same political party, the chairman is a registered independent.
But “independent” can mean a lot of things. And in 2011, the independent chairwoman, Colleen Mathis, essentially became the commission’s third Democrat. Most major decisions came down to a 3-2 vote, with Mathis joining Democratic Commissioners Jose Herrera and Linda McNulty. That gave Democrats the run of the shop when it came to redrawing Arizona’s legislative and congressional districts. Their greatest prize was the 9th Congressional District.
For generations, Maricopa County’s county’s congressional districts were predominantly Republican, with one district carved out for Latino Democrats, effectively mandated by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Democrats had long pined for another district in the greater Phoenix area so that an ambitious (and likely non-Latino) member of their party could rise to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Many Republicans believed the state GOP and prominent elected Republicans didn’t plan ahead for redistricting, ignoring it until was too late and allowing the Democrats to gain the upper hand. Upon realizing how the process was playing out, Republicans fought back with every tool at their disposal. They even engineered Mathis’s impeachment, using the supermajorities they’d won in both legislative chambers in the 2010 election. The Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the Legislature lacked legitimate grounds for the impeachment, and ordered Mathis reinstated.
There were plenty of complaints to go around, but Republicans reserved their greatest anger for CD9. It especially rankled them that Mathis and McNulty drew portions of the congressional map, particularly the Maricopa County districts, in secret. During breaks in the commission’s meetings, McNulty could be seen huddling around a laptop with a Democratic operative, poring over the lines of the proposed new district.
The result was a district that looked competitive on paper, but was less so in practice. Voter registration was nearly dead even between the two parties, but voters in the district tended to favor Democratic presidential candidates and routinely voted against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In 2014, Democrat Fred DuVal narrowly won CD9 in his unsuccessful bid for governor, even while Republican Doug Ducey beat him by 12 percentage points statewide.
Sinema was one of three Democrats who jumped into the race for Arizona’s newest congressional district. She easily dispatched her opponents in the Democratic primary, and notched a narrow win in the general election. Her two re-election campaigns were uneventful affairs, as her strength and fundraising prowess scared off top-tier Republicans.
Formerly a left-wing firebrand, Sinema quickly migrated toward the political center after winning her first congressional race, eventually racking up one of the most conservative voting records among House Democrats. She touted that centrist record on the campaign trail during the U.S. Senate race, branding herself as more of an independent than a Democrat. That political shift paid off on Nov. 12, as Republican Martha McSally conceded the Senate race to Sinema.
Republicans are still brooding over the 2011 redistricting. Given their relative lack of attention until it was too late, there is no shortage of people in both parties who feel they have no one to blame but themselves. Nonetheless, the last commission’s work left a bitter enough taste in their mouths that the GOP is less likely to be asleep at the switch when preparation begins on the next Independent Redistricting Commission, which will be formed in 2021.
That Sinema is now a United States senator will likely provide some extra encouragement for Republicans to be prepared.