Republicans in rural eastern Arizona are fighting against an almost 7 percentage point GOP voter registration deficit, trying to hold on to two House seats they picked up in the past two elections in a traditionally Democratic district.
And although the raw numbers look almost insurmountable for Republicans in Legislative District 8 — which covers parts of Pinal and Gila counties — Rep. Frank Pratt of Casa Grande and his running mate T.J. Shope of Coolidge say voters in LD8 aren’t highly partisan, and will cross the line and vote Republican if they like the candidate.
LD8 is a majority-minority district, and voters there have swung both ways in the past decade, electing candidates from each party on both the state and federal level.
“Pinal County Democrats, especially the farther you go into agriculture areas, are not solid blue Democrats,” Shope said. “If there’s a good Republican running, they will vote for a good Republican.”
Pratt says he’s walking proof of that theory. He was first elected to the office in 2008, as the only Republican of the three seats in the old LD23, which follows roughly the same district lines as the new LD8. Pratt hung on in 2010, when the GOP tidal wave swept the other House seat along with the district’s Senate seat.
Pratt said his no-nonsense attitude and ties to rural and agricultural Arizona persuaded Democratic and independent voters to cross over and vote for a Republican.
“I have been representing a district that has always been a Democratic majority,” Pratt said. “So this is not new for me. There’s really no strategy other than just to attend to the business of the district, keep it straight, keep it honest and try not to do stupid stuff.”
But Democrats Emily Verdugo, a former Coolidge Town Council member, and Ernest Bustamante, a former one-term lawmaker who has run unsuccessfully for the seat in four of the past five election cycles, say it will take more than a gaffe-free campaign for their opponents to overcome the built-in Democratic advantage in the district.
Verdugo is targeting crossover voters. Despite being pitted against two candidates with lawmaking experience, Verdugo hopes that by focusing her general election campaign on the western part of the district, where Republicans and independents outnumber Democrats, she can come out as the top vote-getter.
“I really think that I am going to have to sell myself to the soft Republicans and independents in my district,” she said.
“Representative Pratt has been our representative for a while, but from what I understand they are very unhappy with some of his votes, especially this legislative session.”
Bustamante said he didn’t want to discuss specific campaign techniques, but said he is focusing on the whole district, hitting likely voters with mailers and walking door-to-door.
Shope said his plan mirrors Verdugo’s, and besides trying to hold onto the Republican areas, he is focusing his energy in the eastern part of the district, where Democrats have the strongest grip.
“This is a district where if I get 100 percent of the Republican votes, I still can win,” he said.
At a LD8 Clean Elections debate Sept. 12 in Florence — in the center of the district that stretches from Globe to Mammoth in the east and reaches into San tan Valley and Casa Grande in the west — all the candidates agreed that the top issues for voters are jobs, the economy and education.
Verdugo hammered Pratt at the debate for his votes to cut education funding as part of the larger GOP budget packages in the past several years. She said the corporate tax cut package passed by the Legislature was the wrong move when the state desperately needs the income for education.
She said she supports making permanent the 1-cent sales tax increase because the Legislature has refused to properly fund education.
Pratt deflected the attacks, noting that he sponsored a bill to allow Central Arizona College in Coolidge to create a four-year bachelor program for certain degrees. The bill died without leaving the House, but Pratt said it’s still one of his top priorities if voters send him back to the Capitol, because Pinal County is one of the largest counties in the state without a university system.
Pratt said he doesn’t support extending the 1-cent sales tax because the proposition doesn’t allow the Legislature to disperse the money, which is the Legislature’s job. He said budgeting by the ballot is bad policy and part of the reason the state was in such a dire economic situation when he got to the Capitol.
He defended the budget cuts of the past few years as necessary to get the state through the recession, and pointed to the state’s current solid financial footing as proof that the cuts were effective.
“We’re actually starting to restore funding to education and to health care and some other areas so we have done a responsible job of taking care of the budget the last four years,” he said.
Bustamante noted that when he was a lawmaker, he voted to create all- day kindergarten and invest in university research facilities. He said his priority would be to invest in community colleges and job training to help Arizona’s work force meet the needs of the future.
If elected, Bustamante said he would not raise taxes, and said that the issue of the 1-cent sales tax extension should be up to the people. He did not say how he would personally vote on the matter.
Shope said that with the necessary cuts already made, and with the state on the financial upswing, there should be no more cuts to education or public safety. He said the Legislature doesn’t need to raise taxes in order to fund education — it needs to make sure taxes are low so that businesses will relocate here and broaden the tax base.
Shope doesn’t support the 1-cent sales tax extension, he said, because Arizonans have a history of voting for propositions that tie the hands of the Legislature, and it often ends badly.
“The Legislature’s job is to come up with a budget and spend those dollars,” he said. “And if you don’t like the way the Legislature is doing it, and if the governor signs that budget, you have the opportunity every two years to vote for somebody who can do it the way you want it to be done.”