The 2018 election gave Arizona Democrats their biggest wins in a decade, with three statewide victories and narrower margins in the state House.
But it also gave Republicans, who will face a tough fight to keep their long-held legislative majority, an opportunity they haven’t had since the 2010 election cycle – the ability to argue that Arizonans need Republicans in office to stave off overreach by newly empowered Democrats.
“Essentially what they’re doing is taking the brand of Democrats as extreme and attaching it to whatever name is helpful,” Democratic campaign consultant Catherine Alonzo said. “Nancy Pelosi has been the brand in the past because you haven’t necessarily had those statewide Democrats in Arizona to point to, but now that we do they’re going to be branded with the same brush.”
Nowhere is that more clear than in the case of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who, in the telling of some legislative Republicans and parent activists, is hell-bent on stripping parental rights, crippling the state’s voucher program and sexualizing schoolchildren instead of focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic.
The top Republican in the state House called Hoffman a “radical” in a speech over the weekend. Another legislative Republican called on Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate her implementation of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program.
The Senate’s Republican education policy leader warned parents that they would lose their rights if Democrats win the majority of legislative seats in 2020. And the state Republican Party jumped on an op-ed the Portland-raised Hoffman wrote for the Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal, urging lawmakers in her home state to support a legislative effort to create something akin to Arizona’s Clean Elections program in Oregon.
In Hoffman, a 33-year-old school speech therapist whose long-shot campaign was buoyed by the Red for Ed movement, Arizona Republicans found an in-state alternative to Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Her opposition to expanding the state’s voucher program and support for comprehensive sex education immediately placed her at odds with some legislative Republicans.
GOP political consultant Chuck Coughlin said it’s easy for Republicans to use vouchers and sex ed as talking points against Hoffman, and, by extension, their legislative opponents.
“Those are bread-and-butter issues for Republicans to try to stigmatize her on,” Coughlin said. “Whether she takes the bait and engages on that is a separate question. She has the ability to define what she’s for beyond those issues.”
Republican attacks on Hoffman as an elected official picked up in May, after the Arizona Department of Education discovered that eight families in the Window Rock area had improperly been using state voucher funds to pay tuition at a private school just across the New Mexico border.
The 10 students affected qualified for ESA funds, but the program didn’t allow state money to be spent at out-of-state private schools. The department suspended the students’ accounts and sent their families letters demanding that they repay the money spent.
The American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group headed in Arizona by former lawmaker Steve Smith, promptly filmed an emotional video shared widely by Republican lawmakers panning Hoffman’s implementation of the ESA program. The Legislature scurried in the last days of session to pass a narrowly tailored law that will allow the Navajo families affected to continue using their voucher money out-of-state through the end of the 2019-20 school year, though Republicans signaled they plan to expand the program next year.
Similarly-shot videos from the American Federation for Children began appearing like clockwork each month. A June video featured a Sierra Vista boy who was initially rejected from the ESA program because the active-duty military parent who would qualify him for the program is his stepmother, not a biological parent. One in July showed a Gilbert mother complaining about unusually long phone wait times she dealt with while seeking answers about her son’s ESA.
Each video sparked a cavalcade of criticism from conservative lawmakers. One even led Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, to call for an attorney general investigation of Hoffman.
“It appears that Superintendent Hoffman is letting her personal disapproval of the ESA program affect her legal obligation to follow the law,” Finchem said at the time. “It is unconscionable that an elected official charged with administering education programs would slow-walk a program, which primarily serves children with special needs, because it doesn’t fit her left-wing agenda to end parental authority over school choice. Personal politics should never supersede the law, particularly as it relates to disadvantaged and needy families.”
During the same period, the Department of Education was drawn into an intense fight over sex education — a topic that, like all other curricula, is predominantly managed at the district level.
In her State of Education Address to the House Education Committee in February, Hoffman called for the repeal of the state’s longstanding “no promo homo” law, enacted as part of a 1991 compromise between a Democratic minority desperate to preserve federal funding for sex education and House Republicans who wanted to avoid any acknowledgement of safe methods of homosexual sex.
In late March, two gay rights organizations sued Hoffman and the Department of Education over that law. Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s refusal to defend the state led the Legislature to vote overwhelmingly to repeal it.
That left the state Board of Education to rewrite its own rules to reflect the new state law, a task the board took up in May and June. It dropped language requiring schools to “promote honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage” in May, but declined to take up a suggestion Hoffman submitted on behalf of state Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network that would require that sex education instruction be “medically and scientifically accurate.”
Hoffman’s support of comprehensive sex education is a sticking point for conservative activists and lawmakers, including Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Both spoke at Gilbert’s American Leadership Academy September 14 about their concerns.
“I don’t feel radical, but I know radical,” Bowers said at the event. “When Kathy Hoffman promotes this, I don’t have any question it’s about radicalizing children.”
He later said he stood by his assessment of Hoffman, but hoped she would prove him wrong. Allen, meanwhile, told attendees they needed to elect Republicans to stand against Democratic plans.
Plan of Attack
Murphy Bannerman, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said Bowers and Allen are prefacing attacks Democrats expect to see in 2020.
“It seems like Allen and Bowers are teaming up to lay the groundwork for Republican 2020 talking points, that parents need to be afraid of what will happen if the Legislature changes,” she said. “They’re trying to rally their base and to get Republicans to turn out and vote down-ticket.”
Candidates want to be able to point to a contrast between “us” and “them,” Coughlin said. So far, Arizonans haven’t been exposed to much of that type of campaigning at the local level because of how thoroughly Republicans have dominated state government during the past decade.
“In the past two cycles, there’s been nobody really to contrast with,” Coughlin said. “It’s been more about ‘look at us, we’re doing great.’”
Most voters don’t know who Hoffman or Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, are, making comparisons to the two of them rather ineffective, GOP political consultant Chris Baker said.
As a consultant for congressional campaigns, Baker has tried to tie his candidates’ Democratic opponents to U.S. House Speaker Pelosi. Name-dropping Pelosi works because Republican and independent voters targeted by those campaigns tend to know who she is and think she’s too far left, but similar mailers in legislative races naming Hoffman or Hobbs instead of a prominent figure like Pelosi wouldn’t have the same effect, Baker said.
“The problem with using Hobbs and Hoffman, is as much as I’m sure they’d probably disagree, most voters don’t know enough about either one of them to be terribly influenced by comparing Democrat candidate A to Katie Hobbs or Kathy Hoffman, simply because most voters don’t know or care about either one of them,” Baker said.
Democrats seeking to win over independents despite negative attacks can actually look to Hoffman as an example of what to do, Alonzo, the Democratic consultant, said.
“What Democrats are going to do is make sure they are telling the consistent authentic story about what they do stand for, and I think it’s good news that in Katie Hobbs and Kathy Hoffman you do have candidates who got elected doing that,” Alonzo said. “They got elected telling the story of their vision, and we know that they’ll continue to do so.”