Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District was supposed to be a lost cause for Democrats.
The party had a thin bench in the district to begin with, and operatives had a rough time recruiting candidates to run against U.S. Rep. Martha McSally.
Months before former legislator Matt Heinz emerged as the winner of the Democratic primary in August, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had essentially decided the race wasn’t worth its efforts. And while Heinz has done a decent job of raising money – he has collected $1.4 million, so far – McSally’s fundraising prowess dwarfed his and everyone else’s. As of the last report, McSally has taken in more than $7 million, with about $1.3 million left in the bank – and that was three weeks before Election Day.
And yet Democrats are performing strongly in CD2, where they’re edging Republicans in early ballot returns.
Statewide, Republicans have caught up in the early ballot numbers and are now leading Democrats, but in the district once represented by Gabby Giffords, her party’s edge stood at five points a few days ago.
That translated to roughly 8,700 votes in a district won by McSally by only 161 votes in 2014. In 2012, former congressman Ron Barber defeated McSally by fewer than 2,500 votes.
In fact, Democrats are performing better in CD2 than in Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, where Democrat U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is also considered safe.
On November 2, Heinz’s campaign claimed he has a “clear advantage” over McSally, noting his party’s solid performance in early returns and the close races in 2012 and 2014.
Heinz also speculated that Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Arizona is what’s turning the tide against McSally, whom he had repeatedly connected to the GOP presidential nominee. McSally has dodged the Trump question throughout the campaign.
“With Donald Trump on the ballot, Democrats are voting at unprecedented levels,” said Heinz campaign manager Nichole Johnson. “We should always expect this district to come down to the wire, but things aren’t looking good for the Trump-McSally ticket.”
Back in February, McSally’s campaign had pointed to the DCCC snub of CD2 – it wasn’t on the group’s target list of 31 districts – as proof that Democrats accepted the inevitability of her victory this November.
Even political outlets that track House races conclude that CD2 is safe for Republicans. Sabato’s Crystal Ball puts CD2 in the “likely Republican” column, while the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report says it is “currently safe Republican.”
And yet the race has lately been getting more attention. In June, the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which says it’s dedicated to protecting the Republican majority in the U.S. House, slammed Heinz for supporting Obamacare and wanting to “expand it as much as possible.” The spending surprised many.
Despite the Democrats’ strong performance in early ballots, GOP strategists said Heinz faces a tough climb.
GOP consultant Chad Heywood said he believes McSally will be fine in the end, as she has a significant name ID, hasn’t stepped into controversial or divisive issues, and will probably get a good portion of the Democratic vote.
Heywood speculated that, like U.S. Sen. John McCain, McSally is pulling a good portion of Democrats and independents, creating a sufficient firewall even if Republicans aren’t performing as strongly as hoped.
Lobbyist Jonathan Paton, who ran and lost the in the GOP primary in the old 8th Congressional District (now reconstituted as CD2), said the best clue to whether CD2 is competitive is what national Democrats are up to.
“What’s D-trip doing?” he said, referring to DCCC. “That’s my answer. Unlike you and me, they actually know. We’re just opining. They’ve done polling. They’ve done all this matrices. If they thought they had a chance, they would be parachuting loads of money into that district.”
One Republican source, who has intimate knowledge of the district, agrees that McSally will win re-election, but said Democrats squandered their opportunity to unseat her.
“It’s definitely not a safe anything district. It has never performed as a safe district for anybody, certainly not for Republicans,” the source said.
The source said McSally likely will win only by a few percentage points. That’s because CD2 is split down the middle, and, unlike in the days of former Congressman Jim Kolbe, when up to 30 percent could be persuaded to change their minds, only 2 percent to 3 percent of voters are now persuadable. That is based on the very small number of ticket splitters, meaning those who voted for McSally and Obama in 2014, and Barber and Mitt Romney in 2012.
National Democrats’ nonchalance in CD2 is “miraculous, given McSally won by less than 200 votes in 2014,” the source said.