Republicans hope to change the tide in LD 4

Arren Kimbel-Sannit//September 4, 2020

Republicans hope to change the tide in LD 4

Arren Kimbel-Sannit//September 4, 2020

A sign points to a local polling station for the Arizona Democratic presidential preference election Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
A sign points to a local polling station for the Arizona Democratic presidential preference election Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Gerae Peten is used to working with her back to the wall. 

It’s a mindset she shares with many of her Democratic colleagues in the state Legislature. Years of subordination to Republican rule can do that — as can the difficulties of slowly chipping away at that majority. 

“You always have to run in a paranoid sense,” Peten, a state representative from Goodyear, said. She knows, she said, that because of her skin and her gender, she has to work twice as hard – she didn’t get this far in life without a sense of stick-with-it-ness.

But now, in a year where Democrats are otherwise seeking to expand, Peten’s resiliency faces its first real test. If her resolve fails, the implications will be significant, as any one loss by a Democratic incumbent could seriously jeopardize the party’s attempt at controlling the Legislature. 

Republicans are looking at Peten’s seat in LD4 with “lots of seriousness,” said GOP consultant and pollster George Khalaf. 

Gerae Peten
Gerae Peten

The sprawling southern Arizona district, which forms a triangle from Tucson to Phoenix to Yuma, is largely rural, with an exurban portion in Maricopa County that could hold promise for the GOP, he said. Democrats have an admittedly significant 16,000-voter registration advantage in the district, but its fast-growing northern section is trending Republican. 

Peten’s seatmate, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, is far too great a target. But Peten, an education policy wonk with a doctorate in education from Northern Arizona University, could be vulnerable. 

“[The district] is a very unique animal,” Khalaf said. “I would actually compare it a little bit to LD8. The trends over the last ten years are actually in favor of Republicans, though LD4 has been tremendously more muted.” 

LD8, a largely rural district that stretches southeast from the Phoenix suburbs, had Democratic representation as recently as 2016. Since then, the number of registered Republicans in the district has ballooned. As of this August, the district had around 4,000 more Republicans than Democrats. Four years ago, Democrats had a 1,000-voter advantage. 

LD4, Khalaf said, is a similar, albeit less convincing, example of the same phenomenon. 

Democrats have actually expanded their registration advantage in the district in the past four years. But new Republicans are coming to the district in Maricopa County, where cities like Goodyear and Buckeye are gaining residents quickly.  

That geographic distinction is key. Peten – along with Republican challenger Joel John – lives in Maricopa County, 150 miles from the district’s Democratic nerve center in Yuma, the home of Fernandez, Peten’s seatmate. 

“Fernandez and (Sen. Lisa) Otondo are natives of Yuma,” Peten, a transplant from the East Coast, said. “That’s the reality.” 

Joel John
Joel John

Republicans, therefore, hope that Peten will underperform relative to the district’s large Democratic electorate, which is rooted in southern Arizona. And they’ve come close in the district before.

In 2014, Fernandez inched out Republican Richard Hopkins by fewer than 200 votes. Republicans hope that John, a former teacher with an agricultural business whose family has deep ties in Buckeye, can build on that past success. 

Fernandez has since grown into one of the state’s most influential Democrats, and while she has her share of detractors from within she remains well-connected to the party’s campaign apparatus. Peten, however, hasn’t had the opportunity to create such a mandate – part of the mission of her backers this year is to make her proximity to Fernandez clear. 

Peten was appointed to the seat in 2017 following the resignation of former Rep. Jesus Rubalcava, the subject of a Clean Elections investigation. The next year, a Republican didn’t even run, and Peten and Fernandez easily beat the Green Party candidate. Now, she faces a single-shot challenge from John, who netted more votes than her in the primary, 8746 to 7337. 

“This is a very different campaign,” said Charlie Fisher, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. 

“You’ve seen an explosion of votes from Maricopa County,” he added. “It’s just a heavier lift.”

As of the pre-primary reporting period, John had out-fundraised Peten by more than 2-to-1 – around $40,000 to her roughly $15,500. 

“I think it is money down the drain,” said progressive lobbyist and consultant Geoff Esposito. “But I think that’s what they have to do. These suburban districts are trending away from them so fast. It’s the same thing that Democrats experienced at the end of the aughts (with rural districts). They are gonna need to find new places.”

Charlene Fernandez
Charlene Fernandez

In other words – if Republicans can no longer hold onto districts in north Phoenix, Peoria or the East Valley, they might have to begin chipping away at less conventional goals.

LD4 is a “special pickup opportunity” for Republicans on a map with otherwise little to offer them, said pollster Mike Noble of OH Predictive Insights. 

And even if John can’t win, focusing an attack on Peten’s seat could divert resources from Democrats who are otherwise primarily focused on playing offense. 

“If you’re able to get them to play or defend seats that they weren’t really planning on spending on, that’s a good thing” for Republicans, Noble said. 

The question then becomes whether that makes much of a difference, given the significant amount of money that Democratic groups and donors are likely to invest in Arizona this year. Fisher, of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is skeptical. 

“I think there are enough resources committed,” he said.

The committee is marshaling staff and volunteer resources to help Peten hold onto her seat in LD4, Fisher said.

 “Republicans, like a lot of observers, see the opportunity we have to take the House,” he said. “We understand that we need to defend a couple of marginal districts.” 

One of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s main objectives is to make sure voters see Fernandez, Otondo and Peten as a slate of candidates with aligned values, even if they come from different parts of the state. It also has to focus on turning out Democrats more than it does swinging independents, given the built-in advantage the party has in the district. 

“The three of us are running as a team,” Fernandez said. 

And it’s a team, she said, that always works with a chip on its shoulder.

Joel John is coming in with a similar attitude. Taking on the district’s Democratic incumbents presents an “uphill battle,” he said. 

He was approached by Republicans in the district about running given the opportunity that the district presents – though he had his eye on the position already. 

John has been active at the precinct level in Buckeye, and hopes to appeal to the district’s exurban and rural Republican population, while also showing a pragmatic side that might swing the district’s substantial number of independents.

“This could be a possible Republican pickup, but our work is cut out for us regardless,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a shoo-in by any means.” 

Peten won’t be ceding ground easily. If Democrats want to take the House majority, they need to hold onto her seat.

“Failure is not an option,” she said. “I do not intend to be the weak link in my caucus.”