Big-money national Democratic groups are gearing up for what could prove to be a watershed election in Arizona, investing millions in staff, advertising and canvassing efforts to swing key races and turn out likely Democratic voters.
Success would mean more than picking up a Senate seat and winning some congressional races, though that certainly wouldn’t hurt the Democratic cause. Key victories could be a testament to the contestability of once-staunchly Republican Arizona – in essence, the extension of an invitation to moneyed progressive causes that now have evidence of a return on their investments in the state. This has its own suite of implications – on local campaign strategy, candidate messaging and the efficacy of outside-the-party PAC fundraising against institutional party fundraising.
A litany of Democratic PACs with seemingly computer-generated names like NextGen America, the Progressive Turnout Project, Flippable, MoveOn, Arena, the FutureNow Fund and others have all announced large investments in the state, building on groundwork laid in the last election cycle, which served as a sort of coming-out party for the state in national Democratic circles.
The 2018 election cycle introduced many in this cast of characters to the state political scene – NextGen, founded and largely funded by now-presidential candidate Tom Steyer, spent $3.4 million in Arizona last year. FutureNow, founded by Pritzker Family scion Adam Pritzker, economist Jeffrey Sachs and former New York Assemblyman Daniel Squadron, spent heavily on the 2018 Senate race in LD28, in which teacher Christine Marsh fell short of unseating Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, by two-tenths of a percent.
Several consultants, strategists and PAC staffers on both sides of the aisle told the Arizona Capitol Times that the positive results in that cycle – which netted the Democratic Party several seats in the state House, four statewide positions and generated wave turnouts among typically low-propensity voters – opened the door for the influx of national interests that are already preparing for battle in 2020, even as primaries in most races remain heavily contested.
And if returns are again positive this cycle, if the fractured but powerful Democratic fundraising machine is able to take on the institutional fundraising arms of the GOP, it could well mean that Arizona voters should expect more of the same in future years.
“The national implication for Arizona is at a zenith,” said Mike Noble, a pollster and former GOP strategist with OH Predictive Insights. “If you would have said four or five years ago that the Democrats could have two U.S. senators, people would be looking at sending you to the looney bin.”
Two years ago, Alex Galeana was a NextGen regional director in California’s Central Valley. Ahead of him was a daunting task: flipping California’s 10th Congressional District, which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but had been represented by Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican, since 2013. It was slated to be one of the most competitive races in the country, in an agricultural district with a large Hispanic population that Democrats had struggled to make headway in.
Denham would lose to Democratic venture capitalist Josh Harder by almost five points, a bellwether result that gives a sense of the kind of races that Galeana, now NextGen’s state director in Arizona, is used to working.
“We have the infrastructure from 2018,” he said. “We organized one of the biggest youth voting programs in (Arizona’s) history. I don’t see a scenario in which we don’t succeed.”
The organization is investing $45 million across 11 battleground states in 2020, and Arizona is at the top of the list. While NextGen is reluctant to release exactly how much they aim to spend in Arizona, press secretary Heather Greven said it’ll be “the biggest initial commitment to Arizona we’ve ever had since our organization formed in 2013.”
This means, she said, at least 55 paid staff by Election Day and upwards of 360 organizers. This behemoth organizing effort has a similar focus as in 2018: registering young people, especially young people of color, and turning them out to vote for Democrats, namely Mark Kelly and whomever the eventual Demcoratic nominee for president is. And Greven said that no race was off the table, whether that means taking on Rep. David Schweikert, the GOP incumbent in Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, where a close contest is brewing, or trying to flip the state House, where the Republican party has only a two-vote majority.
“We stayed here after 2018, and we’ve been running all through 2019,” Greven said. “The board doesn’t get erased between cycles.”
And though NextGen claims primacy in the voter registration game, it’s far from the only organization coming into Arizona with that objective. Progressive Turnout Project, a grassroots organization founded by a former treasurer for the campaign of Illinois Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider, is planning at least a $2 million initial investment in the state for 2020. That money, said spokeswoman Kait Sweeney, will buy five offices, 62 staffers and a goal of knocking on 886,000 doors.
“We looked at the data of, where can we be the biggest value ad for the party, what races are going to be the deciding factor,” Sweeney said. And that data pointed to, among other states, Arizona.
“We’re looking for states where there’ll be a major race, and where the number of low-propensity voters is greater than the margin of victory,” she said.
And this is just a sample of the smorgasbord of national interests that will be playing in the state in 2020. FutureNow, which in 2018 spent heavily on the campaigns of Marsh and Rep. Domingo DeGrazia, D-Tucson, and made regular $30,000 or $50,000 contributions to the Arizona Democratic Party, is targeting the state House. Need to Impeach is paying for mobile billboards to traverse CD6, demanding that Schweikert voice support for impeachment of President Donald Trump.
“Progressive groups are cognizant of the importance of our state,” said Ben Scheel, a Democratic strategist and director of Bright Phoenix. “Under Obama, local elections were not the focus of the DNC or any other leading progressive groups. Now, we’re seeing investment.”
The focus in 2018 was turnout, and Democratic groups succeeded on that front. Almost 65% of the state’s registered voters cast ballots, a figure driven in part by enthusiastic participation by young people and women, both groups that lean leftward. While it’s hard to point specifically at participation by groups like NextGen as a root cause – especially when broader national factors were at play – their presence was certainly felt.
The group sent 1.2 million pieces of direct mail and registered more than 20,000 young voters in Arizona. All this in an election where the Republican fundraising machine was caught flat footed, said George Khalaf, a GOP strategist and CEO of Data Orbital, a polling firm.
But he insists that in a general election with a literal celebrity in the White House and political groups abuzz with talk about the existential stakes of the election, spending millions on turnout may not generate the same kind of returns that doing so did in 2018.
“I have seen a lot of national groups come in and be fairly misguided, or read the tea leaves wrong,” he said. “Any group that’s coming out and doing get-out-the-vote, it’s not going to be the same impact that it was in 2018.”
That’s not to say that those groups shouldn’t think about Arizona, he said. In fact, he recommended that they double down, if they want to win. Rather, he said they should be careful.
An influx of national attention in a local race can mean nationalizing the race itself, something Democrats, especially in competitive districts, usually try to avoid, he said
Marsh, who lost in LD28 to Brophy McGee, said the national attention her race got didn’t pressure her to change her message. But that was in a midterm.
“With Arizona being an official battleground state, and Maricopa especially, with people talking about the presidency going through Maricopa County, I don’t know if that will change,” she said.
Moreover, Republicans will likely recognize what they failed to in 2018, Khalaf said – that the state is in play. And while GOP PACs founded by the millionaire du jour aren’t sending out press releases about ad buys and registration efforts like their counterparts on the left are, the Republicans have the advantage of holding power in the White House and the Senate. This means that PACs associated with Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, like Senate Leadership Fund, or OneNation, which have both accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars to defend Senate seats, including U.S. Sen. Martha McSally’s, will enter the fray. As will groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund and America First Action, which is associated with Trump.
“Will they be caught flat footed again? I don’t think so,” said Noble, of OH Predictive Insights.
Democrats in the state will not only have to contend with those leviathan fundraising operations, but will also have to grow accustomed to the strategic environment created by having so many fish in a relatively small pond.
The arrival of national cavalry will likely mean more homogenous and possibly national messaging in Democratic campaigns, though Scheel, the Democrat strategist, feels that’s probably a good thing, given the funding-dry environment he’s used to.
And it could also mean a competition for staffing and resources, as most groups want to hire as many local operatives as possible — not to mention presidential campaigns will also be looking to make local hires.
“We’re trying to run campaigns, and there are 47,000 Democrats running for president. Try hiring a regional field director,” said Rodd McLeod, a longtime Democratic strategist in Arizona.
But even with the logistical challenges, and even with the risk of nationalizing the messaging, and even if turnout isn’t the make-or-break factor in 2020, why should Democrats say no to extra attention?
“In 2018, the big national money didn’t invest in the governor’s race,” said McLeod. “When we don’t have their investment, but the other side does, then they cream us.”
If the money comes through, and the results look peachy — especially in the state Legislature and in swing districts like the 6th Congressional District, it’s hard to imagine that Arizona won’t be considered in play for the foreseeable future, Khalaf said.
But for Galeana, of NextGen, it’s about more than what the numbers say on the Secretary of State’s website in November. He sees Arizona as a test case: it’s a purplish state with a growing population, of which an increasing share is nonwhite.
As the Democratic Party looks to assert itself in other states once thought unwinnable — think, perhaps, in the South — Arizona’s role grows.
“When it comes to demographics, a lot of people should look at Arizona,” Galeana said. “Arizona can be a model for the rest of the country.”
Corrections: This story has been revised to correct the spelling of Alex Galeana.