A battle over the ideological heart of the Republican Party remains too close to call in Legislative District 15, where challenging Rep. Nancy Barto holds a narrow lead over incumbent Sen. Heather Carter.
Barto held 50.6% of votes to 49.4% for Carter shortly after 8 p.m., with an unknown number of votes left to count.
The most expensive and closely watched primary race this year was a clash between contrasting visions of the Repulican Party. Carter is a moderate lawmaker and prolific bill writer, who isn’t afraid of breaking with her party, particularly on health care issues. Barto is an ideological purist always willing to do the bidding of influential Christian social policy organization the Center for Arizona Policy.
Roughly $1.6 million has been spent on the race, most of it to aid Carter or hammer Barto. With no Democratic opponent in the general election, centrist groups and unions have instead poured money into electing Carter, whose policies frequently put her more in line with Democrats than the more conservative members of her caucus.
Carter is in some ways the last true moderate Republican in the state Legislature. Her frequent partners in crime, Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, and Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, get away with bucking the party because they’re in precarious seats, but LD15 is decidedly red.
Barto and Carter have been uneasy seatmates since 2010 and swapped seats because of term limits in 2018. Barto shocked the political world in September 2019 when she announced her challenge. Carter responded hours later with an attack on Barto’s record on vaping and vaccines, and the race has been heated since.
The COVID-19 pandemic added a dimension, as both candidates are highly involved in health policy. Carter, a college professor, is a champion of the health care industry, and she and Boyer were the first lawmakers to practice social distancing in the early stages of the pandemic.
Barto, chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, has alienated many medical professionals through her sponsorship of anti-vaccine measures and support for vaping legislation backed by the tobacco industry. She used her committee to amplify voices of a few contrarian doctors who opposed stay-at-home orders, has shared unfounded claims that hydroxychloroquine will cure COVID-19 and recently said she may not personally take a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available and certainly will not encourage her constituents to do so.
But while Barto isn’t supported by health professionals, she was the preferred candidate of many current Republican lawmakers, some of whom have spent the better part of a decade furious at Carter.
Current margins in the Senate enable any two Republicans to kill a bill that doesn’t have bipartisan support, and Carter, Brophy McGee and Boyer have used those numbers to their advantage over the past two years. Carter and Brophy McGee have killed controversial anti-abortion legislation, Carter and Boyer held the 2019 budget hostage until the Senate passed legislation for child survivors of sexual abuse and the three senators joined with Democrats to force a sine die vote this year.