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Groups spend big, have little to show for it

Groups spend big, have little to show for it Outside groups dug deep into their war chests and poured millions of dollars into state Senate races, splurging in amounts unmatched in Arizona history and inundating voters with attack ads.

But in the end, big money failed to upset Arizonans’ natural voting patterns.

The results of contested Senate races ultimately depended on which party held the voter-registration edge.

The counting was still continuing as of Nov. 13, but it’s clear Republicans lost their supermajority while still retaining control of the state Senate, 17-13.

Perhaps even more interestingly, the results hewed very closely to how the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the body that redraws the state’s political boundaries every decade, predicted the districts would perform.

Consider the race between Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, and Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff.

The mapping commission’s competitive index, a gauge of voters’ performance based on previous election cycles, gave Republicans the advantage over Democrats, 53.8 percent to 46.2 percent, in Legislative District 6. The expansive area in northern and eastern Arizona includes Flagstaff.

Latest unofficial results closely followed the competitive index: Crandell won with 53.5 percent of the vote and Chabin lost with 46.4. The average difference from the redistricting commission’s competitive indicator is only 0.25 points.

Put another way, the assertion by Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, that his defeat boiled down to the way his district was redrawn now seems like a straightforward — and plausible — explanation. His thesis, applied to other Senate races, yielded the same results.

On average, the outcome in 19 contested Senate races deviated from the competitive index by less than four percentage points.

In five key races the Arizona Capitol Times followed throughout the election, the deviation is much smaller — a mere 1.91 points.

• • •

If the Nov. 6 elections produced results that were based on party dominance, the big question is: Did all of that independent spending really matter?

Outside groups spent more than $423,000 on the Senate race between Chabin and Crandell, yet the result wasn’t even close. The Democrat lost by 8.7 percentage points.

They also spent more than half a million dollars for or against Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, and educator Janie Hydrick, a Democrat from Chandler, in Legislative District 18. Yet Hydrick trailed her Republican foe by 7.2 points.

The same was true in other Senate races where groups spent big: Antenori lost to Bradley by 8.5 percentage points and Sen. Jerry Lewis, R-Mesa, lost to Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, by 11.7 points.

In Senate race after Senate race, the story is the same. Republicans won in Republican districts and Democrats cruised to victory in Democratic districts.

Only in the race between former legislator Barbara McGuire, a Democrat from Kearny, and Republican Joe Ortiz, a businessman from Casa Grande, can a plausible case be made that the lopsided spending against Ortiz made some difference.

Outside groups spent $155,000 against the Republican, who received zero help from outside groups.

Ortiz lost to McGuire, who had served in the House before, by 2.7 points, underperforming the redistricting commission’s competitive index by 5 points.

• • •

Political strategists said last week’s outcome wasn’t surprising.

Chuck Coughlin, an adviser to Gov. Jan Brewer and a veteran Republican political consultant, said it’s difficult for local candidates to break from the prevailing narrative in a presidential election year. To do so, a candidate needs two things: a compelling story and enough cash to fund that narrative.

The candidate must also avoid imploding by making big mistakes or getting embroiled in a major controversy, he said.

“None of that happened in this cycle. There was no separate narrative that broke the national voting pattern,” Coughlin said. “And the candidates who had the demographic numbers in their favor didn’t do anything to injure their own opportunities and fumble.”

Other strategists added that the spending by and subsequent attacks from both sides might have canceled each other out.

Chris Baker, who helped Congressman David Schweikert retain his seat, said an outside group’s spending often invites a reaction from the other side.

“Oftentimes, you do end up in a stalemate. Not always, but you do often,” Baker said.

People who were familiar with the activities of outside groups maintained that their spending helped to neutralize attacks or to ensure that people voted for the dominant party’s candidate.

Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, noted that while the spending against McComish, for example, was lopsided, he received help from the Republican Victory Fund. The state chamber was a major contributor to the Republican committee, which vigorously defended McComish.

“That’s a seat that probably flips without a vigorous response from the Senate (Republican) Victory Fund,’’ Hamer said.

He added that the quality of candidates counts, and upsetting incumbents with years of having a good record is difficult.

Meanwhile, a source who knew the electioneering operations of organized labor said its money helped to hold down Republican candidates. A coalition of labor and Democratic groups funded Arizona Accountability and Revitalize Arizona, which spent more than $1 million on five Senate races alone.

“I doubt McGuire would have won if it weren’t for that spending,” the source said.

The source, who spoke on background because he’s not authorized to officially speak for organized labor, added that internal polling in LD10 showed that Bradley trailed Antenori.

“We knew that in order to win over Antenori, we had to just bombard him,” the source said.

What’s more crucial, he said, is that in districts where Democrats had little organization prior to this year’s election, the party’s candidates competed well even though they ultimately lost.

“We understand that it’s going to take more than two months’ worth of work to move the needle in these districts,” the source said. “We looked at the numbers… (and) we know that we moved the needle in these districts without having done a whole lot of infrastructure building.”

Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Democrat from Phoenix who has ties to unions, echoed the sentiment. He said the new political maps were not meant to upend the GOP majority immediately.

Instead, Democrats expect to become the majority over time, the senator said. He added that the union spending this year was just the “kickoff” of bigger things to come.

“This (year) is the start. That’s the message that needs to be sent, and it has been sent… This is a new era,” Gallardo said.

Still, some wonder if the failure of big money to sway districts would impel some introspection about how to more effectively deploy resources.

“It’s interesting,” said Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa. “We spent millions more and people pretty much voted the same way they always have.”

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