And even though their candidate lost, Democrats are hoping Richard Carmona’s candidacy is a sign of a better future for them in Arizona, where Republicans have dominated for decades.
Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general and Pima County SWAT team member who earned two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, lost to GOP Congressman Jeff Flake. With several hundred thousand votes left to be counted, Carmona trailed by 4.5 percentage points, or about 79,000 votes.
Still, it was the closest a Democrat has come to winning a Senate race since former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini’s last re-election in 1988.
And it was the best performance by a Democrat in a head-to-head statewide race since Gov. Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Terry Goddard cruised to re-election in 2006.
Andy Barr, a spokesman for the Carmona campaign, said Carmona will probably lose by only 2 percentage points once the votes are all in.
“All things being even, we can compete statewide now. I think our race pretty well showed that,” Barr said. “When you look at the amount of incoming (attacks) we took and the numbers we were still able to produce, I think it shows that this state very well could end up being a true battleground four years from now.”
Democrats haven’t held a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona since DeConcini retired at the end of 1994. In 2002, they didn’t even put up a candidate against U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl. In other years, the Democrats put up only token opposition to Kyl and U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Jim Pederson gave Democrats a new reason to hope in 2006. The Phoenix land developer spent nearly $11 million of his own money in his bid to unseat Kyl.
Though he still lost by nearly 10 percentage points, Pederson has long said he doesn’t regret spending the money because his campaign proved that Democrats can run a competitive race in deeply red Arizona. He also noted that Carmona ran for an open seat, not against an entrenched incumbent.
But Carmona’s campaign was a greater omen than his for Democrats, Pederson said.
“Carmona’s race, it was a real race. Mine, we got close two or three weeks before the election, and … it didn’t end up being close at the end of the day,” Pederson said. “My goose was cooked about two weeks before the election. Rich, I think, a lot of people made up their minds in the last couple of days.”
Democrats pin their hopes on Arizona’s growing Latino population to break the GOP’s grip on the state. Latinos made up 30 percent of the state’s population in 2010, compared to about 25 percent in 2000.
“I would say that, even though we’re a little bit behind the curve, I think there is both scientific and anecdotal evidence that the growing Hispanic population in Arizona is going to make a huge difference in Arizona … in the very near future,” said Democratic lobbyist Barry Dill.
Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, whose 2011 election was hailed as a watershed moment for Latino voter turnout, said it will be hard to tell what kind of impact Latinos had on the 2012 election or on the U.S. Senate race until all the votes are counted. But he believes the final numbers will show that Arizona has built on the record Latino turnout and registration efforts from his City Council race.
And considering that 70 percent of Latino voters supported President Barack Obama, Valenzuela said Democrats stand to make great gains from the coming demographic shift.
“The state is moving in the right direction. Latino voters, they are becoming a significant voting bloc,” said Valenzuela, who boasts of increasing Latino turnout in his council district by nearly 500 percent in 2011. “Arizona is becoming less of an easy win for the other side.”
But some Republicans warn that Carmona’s competitiveness was due to his unique strengths as a candidate, not the long-predicted demographic shift that Democrats hope will turn the reddest of states purple, or possibly even blue one day.
Voter registration numbers in Arizona are still pretty grim for Democrats. According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, the state currently has 1,120,992 registered Republicans, compared to 952,931 registered Democrats.
Chris Baker, a Republican campaign consultant, said Democrats’ chances of success in U.S. Senate and other statewide races is dependent primarily on recruiting strong candidates not on any shifting political winds in Arizona. He likened the situation to Napolitano, whom he described as a good recruit who caught some breaks along the way.
“Every once in a while, the Democrats in this state get a good candidate. Their bench is weak, but every once in a while they get a good recruit. The Democrats’ success statewide in Arizona is very, very much dependent on the recruit they get. But even then, they typically start out as an underdog,” Baker said.
Republican consultant and lobbyist Chuck Coughlin said Mitt Romney’s 11-point win over President Barack Obama in Arizona is far more indicative of the state’s political leanings than Carmona’s narrow loss to Flake.
“That’s not my read on it,” Coughlin said of Democrats who viewed Carmona’s competitiveness as a sign of future success.
Bert Coleman, another Republican consultant, pointed to other GOP wins on Nov. 6. Republicans swept the Corporation Commission races, taking away the only statewide offices the Democrats held. Democrats also failed to knock off state Sen. John McComish in a Republican-leaning- but-moderate district, despite spending more than $300,000 on the race.
“I think that’s a fantasy that this is all good news for the Democrats. They lost all over the state,” Coleman said.
Baker questioned the Democrats’ conventional wisdom that demographic changes will ultimately sweep them into power. He said that change may come, but voter registration numbers indicate that it’s not happening now and won’t be anytime soon.
“They want you to believe that Arizona will change. But for Arizona to change to the level they need to have consistent electoral success, it’s kind of like turning a big ship. If it happens at all, it’s going to take a very, very long time. This is not a case four years from now where they’re going to wake up say, ‘Wow, we’re very competitive now.’
I just don’t see that happening,” Baker said.