Arizona Republicans hold two-thirds of the seats in both chambers of the Legislature after padding their majorities in 2010 as the party’s wave swept across the nation. But those “supermajorities” that allowed them to vigorously pursue conservative courses on gun rights and other social issues appear to be on the line Nov. 6.
Republicans outnumber Democrats statewide and hold leads in most legislative districts, but this is the first general election using the map of new districts drawn after the 2010 census.
Redistricting left many Republicans unhappy, complaining that the state redistricting commission favored Democrats and stressed creation of competitive districts — ones winnable by either major party — at the expense of other redistricting goals.
The redistricting changes, the growing percentage of registered independents and the higher turnout in a presidential election are creating expectations that more districts are in play and that the Republicans’ 2010 gains were a high tide that will recede in November.
“We’re going to see a shift. They will no longer have a supermajority,” said Mike Gardner, a Republican lobbyist and former legislator. “It will have a major impact on the types of policies that this Legislature will pass.”
In Arizona, a party must hold two-thirds of the seats in a chamber to have a supermajority. That’s the threshold required for veto overrides, but more routinely it enables a chamber’s majority to take an aggressive policy course even if a few of its own members balk.
In recent years, Republicans in the state Legislature used that power to pursue conservative legislation on social issues ranging from gun rights to school choice while championing a small-government philosophy on regulatory matters and social services and pushing for tax cuts for business.
Except when Democrat Janet Napolitano was governor, Democratic lawmakers have had little say on contentious issues— usually finding themselves on the winning side only when their positions lined up with those of moderate Republicans.
Governors from both parties have used their veto stamps and other powers to sometimes hold lawmakers in check, particularly during the six years before Napolitano departed in 2009 to become U.S. Homeland Security secretary. However, current Gov. Jan Brewer more often than not finds herself in ideological sync with her fellow Republicans.
While the GOP’s 40-seat majority in the 60-member House is expected to shrink a bit, most attention is focused on the 30-member Senate. Republicans picked up four additional Senate seats in 2010 and now hold 21 seats, a record high.
But even if Republicans retain control of the Senate, the loss of four or five seats would give disproportionate clout to GOP moderates, said Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat.
“They definitely have to stick together to get anything out of the state Senate. If one or two decides to flee from the bloc on critical bills, that changes the whole ballgame,” Gallardo said. “The day of this tea party agenda is over.”
Republicans’ talking points in this year’s legislative races include boasting of the state’s return to fiscal stability and efforts to stimulate the economy.
Meanwhile, Democrats point to budget cuts in education funding and accuse Republicans of waging “extremist” policies against women on contraception and abortion.
“The Democrats’ goal in this election is to make the Republican Party look as extreme as possible because that tends to turn off registered independents,” said Chris Herstam, a political analyst and former Republican legislator.
Republicans have controlled both chambers of the Legislature since the early 1990s, except for a 15-15 split in the Senate in the 2001-2002 session.
To produce another Senate split like that, Democrats would have to overcome sizable GOP registration margins in several districts and sweep virtually all the races considered up for grabs.
“That’s what is going to tilt the Legislature — those competitive seats,” Gallardo said.
As in 2010, national politics could again have an impact on legislative races, said Kristin Borns, a former Arizona State University policy analyst and registered independent who worked in Napolitano’s administration.
Some candidates “are hooking onto the presidential election and some of our congressional races,” while the higher voter turnout for a presidential election also is a factor, Borns said. “It’s a national election year.”