With Donald Trump atop the November ballot, Arizona politicos say all bets are off in the down-ballot races, where the ripples from the “Trump effect” could turn into giant waves that wipe out the status quo at the Capitol.
Insiders in both political parties agree that, love him or hate him, Trump will likely drive voter turnout in November, and that a strong showing of pro-Trump or anti-Trump voters could turn previously uncompetitive state legislative districts into real battlegrounds.
Republicans say this year they may see a wave akin to 2010, when Republicans took a two-thirds majority in both the state House and Senate.
Democrats, on the other hand, argue that this could finally be the year where they take back the Senate, and at least significantly increase their numbers in the House.
But Pima County Republican Party Chairman Bill Beard was perhaps the most realistic when describing how the “Trump effect” will affect down-ballot races for the Legislature.
“Anybody that goes into their political analysis of what that means down ballot, their guess is probably as good as the drunk passed out on the corner. You’ll get wiser political analysis from the drunk,” he said.
Still, each side is reading into the situation what they want to happen.
And with pie-in-the-sky hopes, both Republicans and Democrats see a rare opportunity to significantly sway the balance of power at the state Capitol.
SPLITTING THE SENATE
The politics of a presidential election year, particularly with presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in the mix, have local and national Democrats hoping to turn the state Senate from red to blue.
Arizona was among two states that the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee had set as long-term targets for flipping the Senate from Republican to Democrat, but DLCC officials are rethinking that strategy, according to Carolyn Fiddler, spokeswoman for the DLCC.
While it’s unclear what resources will be made available by the DLCC in each state, Fiddler said Arizona and Florida, which had been targeted to flip by 2020, are now each considered in play in the 2016 election cycle.
In Arizona, that’s primarily because of Trump, Fiddler said.
“There’s a lot of anti-Trump backlash,” she said. “He uses a lot of extremist language, and frankly racist language, when it comes to many communities, including but not limited to the Latino community, and that is definitely starting a backlash.”
Democrats see a chance to pick up Senate seats in only a handful of districts, but they only need four seats to take a majority in the upper chamber.
The marquee race for the minority party is in LD28, where Rep. Eric Meyer, a Paradise Valley Democrat, is challenging his seatmate, Republican Rep. Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix, for the Senate seat left vacant by the retiring Republican Sen. Adam Driggs of Phoenix.
Democrats will need Meyer to win in LD28 if they have any hope of taking control of the Senate from Republicans.
That won’t be easy. Both candidates have reputations as strong fundraisers and hard-working campaigners, but by the nature of the district, Republicans have an advantage of about 13,000 more registered voters than Democrats.
The Senate Democratic caucus is down to only 12 members following the defection of Sen. Carlyle Begay, who was elected in 2014 as a Democrat, but switched parties late last year and became a Republican.
Democrats are confident they’ll at least return to the Senate to a 13-17 split by reclaiming the LD7 seat Begay gifted to the GOP.
Candace Begody-Begay, the senator’s wife, also joined the GOP and is attempting to replace her husband in the Senate as he runs for Congress. But she is facing a challenge on her nominating petitions from Democrats, who argue the vast majority of her signatures are invalid, and she is therefore ineligible to run for the office.
And anyway, the district is a Democratic stronghold – Democrats have nearly three times as many voters as Republicans. Former Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai of Cameron is running for the Senate seat in the district, though she faces a primary challenger in Steven Begay.
Arizona Democrats are also targeting the seat held by Republican Sen. Jeff Dial of Mesa, who faces a primary challenger, as a potential swing seat.
Dial, if he survives a primary challenge, would face Democrat Sean Bowie, a first-time candidate and employee at the Arizona State University’s provost office. But Democrats say their best chance in LD18 comes if Dial actually loses his primary election challenge to Frank Schmuck, and Bowie has a chance to face off against the newcomer Republican rather than the incumbent.
Winning those two seats in LD18 and LD28 and reclaiming LD7 would bring the Democrats to an even 15-15 split in the Senate, a feat that would itself be considered a victory for the minority party.
But Democrats are also targeting Sen. Sylvia Allen in LD6, a popular Snowflake Republican now serving in her second stint at the Capitol. She’ll face Democrat Nikki Bagley, the former mayor of Jerome, in the November general election. Neither candidate faces a primary challenger.
In order to make their Senate takeover complete, Democrats will have to fend off a challenge from Republican Rep. Frank Pratt of Casa Grande, who is attempting to take out Democratic Sen. Barbara McGuire of Kearny in Pinal County-based LD8.
Democrats’ House strategy
In the House, Democrats are setting their sights on fewer targets.
When Republican Rep. Chris Ackerley of Sahuarita pulled off a stunning upset in 2014 in the heavily Democratic LD2, which spans from the U.S.-Mexico border to the southern edges of Tucson, Democrats were galled and immediately painted a target on his back for 2016.
This year, Democrats have a three-way primary for the district’s two nominees, and the winners will have significant help from the state party and independent expenditure committees in defeating Ackerley, who won the seat two years ago with a considerable 2,500 vote lead over the district’s Democratic incumbent.
Democrats are also, once again, hoping that Democrat Mitzi Epstein can pull of an upset in Tempe-based LD18. Epstein ran in 2014, but fell about 1,000 votes short of her closest Republican counterpart. Republicans, however, have a roughly 8,000 voter registration advantage over Democrats in the district.
Also essential to Democrats’ House strategy is maintaining the seat held by Meyer in the Phoenix-based LD28.
To that end, Democrats are backing Kelli Butler, a twice-failed candidate for the Senate in the district, with the hopes that as the only Democrat running for the district’s two House seats, she may be able to utilize the single shot strategy that helped Meyer pull off unlikely victories in the district.
Single shot is a strategy by which a party will offer only one candidate for the district’s two House seats. Democrats, in this case, will be urged to cast one vote supporting only Butler, while independents and Republicans will be encouraged to give one vote to their favorite Republican and the other to the only Democrat in the race, thereby increasing Butler’s odds.
HOUSE AND SENATE SUPERMAJORITY TARGETED
The 2010 election, when Republicans gained a historic supermajority in both the state House and Senate, was a high water mark that Republicans have been trying, and failing, to reach ever since.
But Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham argues that with Donald Trump as the party’s standard-bearer, voters are excited to cast their ballots in November.
And he hopes to capitalize on that excitement all the way down the ballot to usher in a new wave of Republican lawmakers at the state Capitol, possibly even enough to reach a supermajority.
“We’re on the hunt, basically, to add to our numbers (at the Capitol),” he said.
With that goal in mind, the Republican Party is turning its eye to legislative districts that aren’t necessarily Democratic strongholds, but where Democrats hold a sizeable voter registration advantage, with the hope of taking back the elusive supermajority in the state House and possibly even the Senate.
A supermajority, or control of two-thirds of the seats in both chambers, would allow the GOP to unilaterally enact budgets and legislation, even with a significant number of dissenters in their own ranks. Controlling two-thirds of the seats in both chambers would also give Republicans the ability to override a veto from the governor, and to enact “emergency legislation” that goes into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature.
In order to reach a supermajority, Republicans would need to hold onto every seat they currently control, and win four more seats in the House and two more in the Senate.
Graham said the party has eight or nine seats in the Legislature they’re looking at seriously, races where they intend to bring the fight to Democrats’ home turf.
And Graham said the GOP’s biggest asset in that fight is the same man Democrats see as their biggest asset in the upcoming election: Trump.
“We saw a huge wave of excitement in the presidential preference primary. Leading up to that quite a few Democrats and independents switched their party registration to vote in the primary, and we think that will translate across the board,” he said.
By encouraging Trump voters to support Republican candidates across the state and all the way down the ballot, Graham hopes to snatch some unlikely seats for Republicans in the state Legislature.
But Republicans aren’t just counting on riding Trump’s coattails to expand their grip on the Capitol.
The GOP is starting to hire their ground team of 60 or more young people who can knock on doors and make phone calls to identify top issues in each community and help develop localized messaging that can boost Republicans in districts where they’re traditionally at a disadvantage, Graham said.
And the state Republican Party has a significantly larger war chest than the Democratic Party.
Ward Nichols, a former Republican lawmaker who now works as a lobbyist and runs the influential House and Senate Republican independent expenditure committees, said reaching a supermajority would be a “best, best case scenario.”
Like Graham, Nichols said turnout for the presidential race will likely have huge ripple effects all the way down the ballot. But which way those ripples cut is still an outstanding question, he said.
Both parties’ candidates have ardent supporters, but also unprecedented unfavorable ratings, he noted.
“How’s that going to play with (Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Hillary) Clinton and Trump at the top of the ticket? I think it’s unknown at this point if it will cause a lot of people who are dissatisfied with them to stay home, or if they are going to be motivated to vote because they hate the other option so much,” he said.
Conservatively, Nichols thinks Republicans should be able to pick up two seats in the Arizona House, and at least one in the Senate.
But if the stars align, he thinks a supermajority could be within reach, especially in the House.
“There’s a real possibility that Republicans in the House could pick up a supermajority, and without question the Senate could see a two or three seat increase as well,” he said.
Republicans hope to build on their numbers in the House by picking up the seat Democratic Leader Eric Meyer will leave behind as he attempts to move up to the Senate in Phoenix’s Republican-leaning Legislative District 28. Republicans will need to fend off Democratic challenger Kelli Butler, who also hopes to replace Meyer.
Republicans also see rare opportunities for pickups in southern Arizona, including two House seats they are targeting in Tucson’s LD9 and LD10, and a seat in the Yuma-based LD4.
In LD9, Republicans are counting on Ana Henderson, a first-time candidate, to pick up a seat in the Democratic-leaning district. In LD10, Republicans are looking to a familiar face to pick up a seat, Todd Clodfelter, who has run two unsuccessful races for a House seat in the Democratic-leaning district. And in LD4, Republicans are counting on Republican Richard Hopkins, a write-in candidate who isn’t even on the primary election ballot in the solidly Democratic district.
And while the crew seems like an unlikely bunch to take over the House, the GOP has good reason to take the candidates seriously.
For example, despite fighting an uphill battle in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 12,000 registered voters, and being outspent roughly 17-to-1, Hopkins, the LD4 Republican candidate, only lost by 188 votes in the 2014 election.
And although the Democratic stronghold of Tucson isn’t a likely place for Republicans to pick up seats, Pima County Republican Party Chairman Bill Beard noted that up until the last election, LD9 was represented by one Democrat and one Republican: Rep. Ethan Orr.
Henderson, the Republican running in that district this year, is a thoughtful, business-minded Republican in the same vein as Orr, Beard said, but “without the baggage.”
Orr lost his re-election bid following his vote for former Gov. Jan Brewer’s Medicaid expansion plan in 2013, which cost him dearly with his Republican base, according to Beard.
In LD10, Clodfelter lost by a mere 1,200 votes to Democratic incumbent Rep. Stefanie Mach, pulling much closer to victory than he did in 2012, when he lost to Mach by more than 5,000 votes.
But Clodfelter has never had the advantage of being a single shot candidate, as he is this year. In fact, all three candidates – Hopkins, Henderson and Clodfelter – are employing the single shot strategy.
On the Senate side, Republicans have fewer targets, and a slimmer chance of picking up a supermajority.
Much of their efforts will be spent maintaining seats already occupied by the GOP in a few Democratic-leaning districts.
The GOP’s strongest chance at an actual pickup from Democrats lies in Pinal County’s LD8, where Republican Rep. Frank Pratt is challenging Democratic Sen. Barbara McGuire for her seat.
And Republicans see an outside opportunity to bounce Democratic Sen. Andrea Dalessandro from her seat in LD2 with Shelley Kais, a first-time legislative candidate who challenged U.S. Rep. Martha McSally in the 2014 Republican primary.