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Independent surge, tight primaries change election battlefield

Voter turnout in Arizona’s primary election Aug. 24 reflected historical trends that have defined mid-term primaries. But the statewide rise in independent registration and results that were either unexpectedly close or surprisingly decisive could mean tactical shifts by campaigns and perhaps upsets in races where voter registration figures would naturally favor one party.

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, roughly 25.8 percent of registered voters in Arizona showed up to vote in the primary, up from the 2006 mid-term primary, when 23.1 percent voted, and very close to the 2002 mid-term primary, when 25.2 percent of registered voters came out.

A total of 801,287 voters participated in this year’s primary, more than any primary election during the past 10 years. More than 300,000 new voters have registered in Arizona since the 2008 primary election.

Matt Benson, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said a more detailed voter-turnout report will be available on Sept. 7. That report will reveal the influence early ballots had on any given race, as well as how the independent voters split.

Benson said only one thing sticks out to him about this year’s primary election.

“What is unusual is to have such a high profile, statewide race — the Republican AG race — come so close,” Benson said.

Normally, a race like that would be more decisive, he said.

Close results in some races and the influence of independent voters are what Arizona State University political science professor Bruce Merrill said give the most insight into what to expect from the general election.

Merrill said Ben Quayle’s victory in Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District GOP primary is a perfect example. Quayle won with less than 25 percent of the vote, and the race turned ugly near the end.

The fierce attacks launched against Quayle may cause a portion of the Republicans to abstain in the general, and could lead independents, who have been steadily growing in registration numbers, to sway just enough to make November’s election in that congressional district very competitive, Merrill said.

“There’s a tremendous increase in independents,” Merrill said. “They feel highly alienated, and they don’t vote in the primaries.”

Merrill said crowded and vicious primaries favor ideologues who might not be able to appeal to independents, who are expected to vote in greater numbers in November’s general election.

Merrill said that’s how Democrat Dennis DeConcini beat his GOP opponent in the 1976 U.S. Senate race in Arizona, even though the party registration numbers favored the Republican. DeConcini went on to serve as one of Arizona’s U.S. senators for 18 years.

“DeConcini got elected because the Republican Party was divided after the primary,” Merrill said.

Merrill said voter turnout in the CD3 primary indicates that the natural lead a Republican should enjoy in that district might evaporate, unless Quayle finds a way to reach the growing number of independent voters.

The same logic holds for the attorney general race, Merrill said, in which Democrat Felicia Rotellini will go up against a Republican who barely survived a heated primary.

Jim Haynes, president of the Arizona-based Behavior Research Center, said the attorney general’s race could end up in an upset victory for Rotellini. For Haynes, one question dominates: “If Horne ends up on top, where are Arpaio’s people going to go?”

Alternatively, Merrill said Paul Gosar’s decisive victory in the Republican primary in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District means he already has wide support among his party, which will make it easier for him to mobilize the rest of the Republicans in his party. Any effort to attract independents in his district will only add to his momentum, he said.

Joanna Burgos, regional spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, echoed Merrill’s point, saying that her organization was very encouraged by Gosar’s wide margin of victory. Gosar ended up with 31.5 percent of the vote in his eight-way primary, and won by nearly 9 percentage points.

Earl deBerge, research director at the Behavior Research Center, said he agreed with Merrill that the growing number of independents in Arizona means the more extreme portion of each party had a greater influence in the primary elections.

“On the one hand, you have a great number of people who are turned off,” deBerge said of independents. “So although they’re registered, they just don’t vote. So the ideologues are the ones who decide the primaries.”

DeBerge said that in the upcoming statewide and congressional general elections, independents likely will choose a candidate, though, since their registration means they want to be part of the political process. And because congressional elections — and to a greater degree statewide elections — have more parity in the three-way split among Democrats, independents and Republicans, candidates would be wise to try to court independent voters.

DeBerge pointed out that this is standard campaign strategy, and has been for a long time.

But deBerge and Merrill both see a clear shift in the state legislative races, where voter registrations are significantly more imbalanced.

“If you’ve got a (state legislative) district where the split is 47 percent Republican and 28 percent Democrat, it doesn’t matter,” deBerge said. “If the electorate is lopsided, the primary pretty well defines the general.”

Haynes said he had been paying close attention to the state Senate race between Republicans Sylvia Allen and Bill Konopnicki, and that Allen’s win tells him the more conservative message won the day.

“Obviously it’s a victory for the most conservative of voters,” Haynes said.

Republican newcomer Michelle Ugenti, who had the support of Sen. Russell Pearce and a local Tea Party group, won in the House District 8 race, and provides another example of where the most conservative message won, Haynes said.

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