Here’s where Dems could make gains in legislative, statewide races

Here’s where Dems could make gains in legislative, statewide races

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., talks to campaign volunteers at a Democratic campaign office on primary election day Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Phoenix. Sinema is seeking the current U.S. Senate seat occupied by outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, and will face the Republican primary winner of the race between Rep. Martha McSally, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, if Sinema wins the Democratic primary. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., talks to campaign volunteers at a Democratic campaign office on primary election day Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Phoenix.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Democrats are running a historic number of candidates in Arizona this year, but even with talk of a “blue wave” sweeping the country, they can’t all be winners.

In all likelihood, more Democrats will lose than win this year, but they have a chance to pick up some key statewide and legislative seats.

Democrats are eagerly pushing for Kyrsten Sinema, who is locked in a close race against Martha McSally, to win the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake.

But Democrats also have the chance to pick up some important seats down the ballot. Propelled by unprecedented Democratic momentum and the Red for Ed movement, Arizona Democrats could pick up some statewide seats and are aiming to take control of the state Senate — a feat that would require them to flip three seats in the chamber.

As of October 31, early ballot returns cut the Republican turnout lead to just about 9 percentage points — giving Democrats a fighting chance this election cycle. Ballot returns were skewing younger, more Democratic and more female in the days running up to the election.

Here are Democrats’ best chances to make gains this year:

Katie Hobbs and Steve Gaynor
Katie Hobbs and Steve Gaynor

Secretary of State

Katie Hobbs (D) vs. Steve Gaynor (R)

Democrats have a chance to clinch the state’s second-highest office as recent polling shows Hobbs just barely ahead of Gaynor, a political newcomer.

Recent polling from HighGround shows Hobbs, the state Senate minority leader, with a 1-percentage-point lead over her opponent. She’s also leading among two crucial voting blocs – women and independent voters.

Gaynor blew the secretary of state’s race wide open when he defeated incumbent Michele Reagan in the GOP primary election.

Previous post-primary polls showed Gaynor, a wealthy businessman who has poured $2.35 million of his own money into his campaign, leading by 7 or more percentage points. But polls have tightened as Election Day nears.

Meanwhile, outside groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and iVote — a group that supports Democratic candidates for secretaries of state — are aiding Hobbs’ candidacy.

The winner will be the state’s top elections officer and second-in-command to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, the likely winner in his race against David Garcia. Arizona has not had a Democratic secretary of state in more than 20 years.

Kathy Hoffman and Frank Riggs
Kathy Hoffman and Frank Riggs

Superintendent of Public Instruction

Kathy Hoffman (D) vs. Frank Riggs (R)

Democrats fair ever-so-slightly better in the race for superintendent of public instruction.

HighGround’s polling puts speech therapist Hoffman ahead of former California Congressman Riggs, but just by a hair – 1.5 percentage points separate the two. That poll also found a significant swath of votes up for grabs with 18.5 percent of respondents still undecided.

Like Hobbs, Hoffman is leading among women and independent voters. Riggs has a 9-percentage-point disadvantage among women. That could prove fatal to his campaign when Hoffman’s run has already been bolstered by the Red for Ed movement and heightened scrutiny of charter schools, of which Riggs has been a longtime champion.

Riggs narrowly claimed victory in the crowded Republican primary field, but has since garnered widespread Republican support.

If Hoffman is successful, she’ll be the first Democratic schools chief in 20 years. C. Diane Bishop, who served from 1987 to 1995, was the last Democrat to hold the office.

The next superintendent will have a lot of work to do to improve the public image of the state Department of Education no matter who the winner is.

Diane Douglas lost her re-election bid to Riggs in the August GOP primary after a tumultuous single term in office. She leaves in her wake a school voucher management program that has been frequently criticized, an error in federal funding allocations that will have to be corrected in the coming years and low morale among department staff.

Legislative District 6–Senate

Wade Carlisle (D) vs. Sen. Sylvia Allen (R)

The vice mayor of Holbrook and a substitute teacher with the weight of the Red for Ed movement behind him is challenging Allen in the northern Arizona district that is no stranger to close elections.

Democrats have tried to win control of the district the past two election cycles and came within 2,000 votes each time.

Traditionally, LD6 has been a Republican stronghold, but the demographics of the district are changing, which could make it ripe for a Democratic pick up this year.

Legislative District 17–Senate

Steve Weichert (D) vs. Rep. J.D. Mesnard (R)

Weichert is another candidate running predominantly on education issues, but he faces an uphill battle against Mesnard, the current speaker of the House who is termed out of that chamber after serving for eight years.

Mesnard has a few advantages in the race. He has far outraised his opponent and his time in the House has boosted his name recognition. Senate President Steve Yarbrough, who is not running for re-election, defeated Weichert by 13 percentage points in the same district in 2016.

Mesnard is aiming to succeed Yarbrough as Senate president, giving his Republican backers extra incentive to help him win this election.

But Red for Ed supporters are pushing to oust the powerful Republican legislative leader so this race will be an interesting test of how much power the education movement wields nearly half a year after its show of force at the Capitol.

Legislative District 18–Senate

Sen. Sean Bowie (D) vs. Frank Schmuck (R)

In this case, Bowie is the incumbent defending his seat in another bout with Schmuck who came within 3 percentage points of defeating Bowie in 2016.

If Democrats want to make gains in the Senate this year, maintaining control of all the seats they currently hold is crucial.

Legislative District 21–Senate

Kathy Knecht (I) vs. Sen. Rick Gray (R)

Although she is an independent and not a Democrat, she would shift a seat away from legislative Republicans if she wins.

Knecht has a fighting chance at upsetting Gray, the Republican incumbent from Sun City.

Gray was appointed to fill the LD21 seat Debbie Lesko vacated when she ran for Congress. But Knecht, a longtime school board member, may have more name recognition than her opponent.

Knecht has not said if she will caucus with Republicans or Democrats if she is elected.

Legislative District 28–Senate

Christine Marsh (D) vs. Sen. Kate Brophy McGee (R)

Marsh, a longtime teacher and former Arizona teacher of the year, is gaining national attention as she takes on Brophy McGee, an incumbent who has made a name for herself as a centrist Republican lawmaker with a penchant for education issues.

If anything, Marsh has become the poster-child for energized educators taking on the status quo, and jumped into the race long before the Red for Ed teacher walkout.

But Brophy McGee is holding her own in this fight. She broke fundraising records this election cycle and brought in more than double the amount of campaign cash that her opponent raised.

Legislative District 10–House

Democrats: Rep. Kirsten Engel and Domingo DeGrazia

Republican: Rep. Todd Clodfelter

Engel winning her re-election bid seems to be a foregone conclusion. She has raised nearly double what either fellow incumbent Clodfelter or fellow Democrat DeGrazia have reported, and she’s spending at nearly twice the rate.

But she may not share the district with a Republican in her next term. And that wouldn’t be unusual for the district, which encompasses parts of Tucson.

Before Clodfelter was elected in 2016, he lost his election bids in 2014 and 2012, and the district was represented by two Democrats until he finally broke through.

His success came when the GOP employed the single-shot strategy to propel him to victory, and Republicans are relying on that strategy again.

But the number of registered Republicans has shrunk, leaving them outnumbered by Democrats by nearly 6,900 voters. That could spell defeat for Clodfelter yet again.

Legislative District 18–House

Democrats: Rep. Mitzi Epstein and Jennifer Jermaine

Republicans: Rep. Jill Norgaard and Greg Patterson

Both parties are aiming to be this district’s sole representation in the House with incumbents Epstein and Norgaard joined by newcomers Jermaine and Patterson respectively.

But if the money race is any indication, former Arizona Board of Regents member Greg Patterson isn’t faring well. He has raised a mere $31,000, less than half of what Jermaine has reported and far behind the incumbents.

Still, Save Our Schools Arizona volunteer Jermaine’s path to the House is no guarantee if she wants to unseat Norgaard.

The district flipped in favor of Democrats in 2016, when Bowie claimed his Senate seat and Epstein took one of the two House seats. But Republicans are putting up a fight to maintain what they already have and possibly unseat the incumbent senator.

Legislative District 28–House

Democrats: Rep. Kelli Butler and Aaron Lieberman

Republicans: Rep. Maria Syms and Kathy Pappas Petsas

Democrats abandoned their single-shot strategy in LD28 this time around, and it just might pay off.

Syms sparked controversy early in the cycle when her husband, Mark Syms, challenged Brophy McGee as an independent, a move many saw as jeopardizing Republican control of the Senate. And she didn’t redeem herself in the eyes of fellow Republicans. During a debate in September, Petsas said Syms sowed disunity among the Republicans seeking to represent LD28 in both chambers.

Meanwhile, Democratic newcomer Lieberman has pulled ahead of the pack in the money race with about $236,000 in total contributions and $205,000 in expenditures as of the latest campaign finance reporting period. And incumbent Democrat Kelli Butler has not been far behind.

Some Democrats worried that abandoning the single-shot strategy, which has been successful for years, and not focusing on protecting Butler’s seat was the wrong move.