Just under 3,500 votes separated Kathy Knecht from history in 2018.
Knecht, a long-time school board member from Peoria, launched her Senate campaign in Legislative District 21 that year with then-Sen. Debbie Lesko as a target. The pair had a history, as Knecht had defeated Lesko in a Peoria Unified School District Governing Board vote back in 2006 – the only electoral defeat of Lesko’s career. If Knecht were able to deal Lesko her second loss, she would become the first elected independent in the state Legislature’s existence.
This didn’t quite happen. Lesko fled for Congress, achieving a somewhat shaky victory over Democrat Hiral Tipirneni. Rick Gray, who was appointed as Lesko’s replacement, defeated Knecht by 3,489 votes, under a 5-point margin. Even with a loss, given the institutional barriers that non-major party candidates face and the red hue of the district, Knecht had over-performed expectations.
Now, Knecht is back, flying a new banner, yet still possibly on the precipice of a historical moment.
In the years since her defeat, Democrats tapped Knecht to run for House in LD21 as part of their push for the majority in that chamber. If they succeed, not only will Democrats break the Republican trifecta that has dominated state politics since the Janet Napolitano days, it’ll be the party’s first majority in the House since the 1960s.
Who she is, is a spreader of the gospel of pragmatic bipartisanship, an eschewer of labels and a somewhat reluctant Democrat.
“Key to our campaign is people who are tired of political extremes,” she said.
But for now, she’s made her deal with the Democrats. And in that capacity, she has added a new identity – if she wins, she will become a data point in favor of the power of shifting demographics to elect Democrats into office.
For Democrats to flip the House this year, they need to hold all four seats they won in 2018 while picking up at least two more. Central to that strategy is the West Valley, especially the neighboring northwest Phoenix district of Legislative District 20.
That district was one of two in the state to support President Donald Trump in 2016 and Senator Kyrsten Sinema – a Democrat, albeit a moderate one – in 2018. The logic is that an influx of younger transplants from other states to the fast-growing West Valley, plus increased engagement among people of color, could put the region in play for Democrats.
The same logic applies in LD21, said Charlie Fisher, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which lists both LD20 and L21 as top-tier pickup opportunities.
“It has been a targeted district for us since early, early on,” Fisher said. “It’s the same trend as in a lot of suburban districts. There’s a convergence of new transplants moving in from other states and bringing their politics with them, as well as shifting demographics. Independents are continuing to lean towards or keep an open mind toward Democratic candidates.”
But LD21 includes older, wealthier and more conservative retirement communities like Youngtown and Sun City in the far-flung northwest suburbs, making it a heavier lift, said Paul Bentz, a pollster with HighGround Public Affairs Consultants.
“Demographic shifts haven’t hit 21 yet,” Bentz said. “LD20 has for a long time been a candidate to be a swing district. It’s been on the radar much longer than LD21.”
He said that historically, Republicans in LD20 only have a +7 participation advantage, compared to +13 in LD21. And while LD20 went to Sinema in the midterms, LD21 did not, though she did show a significantly improved performance for statewide Democratic campaigns in the district. While the Republican registration advantage in LD20 wilted by 2,500 voters from 2018 to 2020, it’s hardly budged in neighboring LD21.
Fisher isn’t too concerned. While he acknowledged that the fundamentals are tougher in LD21, he noted that the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is giving both districts equal attention.
“Having a candidate as strong as Kathy Knecht helps,” he said.
Part of that means fitting the district. Though now nominally a Democrat, Knecht said her education-focused platform this year is essentially a “carbon copy” of her platform when she ran as an independent in 2018.
While she advocates for increased school funding and supports the Invest in Education ballot initiative, she proudly touts her experience on local chambers of commerce, and says on her campaign site that she’s a proponent of “securing our border and stopping drug and human trafficking” and listening “to the law enforcement community … to provide them with the tools they need to do their jobs effectively.”
“When I decided to run as a Democrat, I first went to my Republican friends and supporters,” Knecht said. “They weren’t all thrilled at first, but the immediate comeback was, ‘We know you, we know what you stand for. Where should we send the check?’”
Her Republican opponents, the incumbent Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, and fellow school board member Beverly Pingerelli, are skeptical.
“I don’t see with my working with Ms. Knecht that she would be a bipartisan,” Pingerelli said of Knecht during a debate earlier in the month.
And Payne said, “We work across the aisle as often as we can, and there are a few [Democrats] who do, but for the most part I never see that happen. It’s a very partisan place. I think she’d be in for an extreme challenge – I don’t think she realizes that, how her party will hold her feet to the fire.”
One Republican pollster, George Khalaf of the firm Data Orbital, even suggested that Knecht might be better off running as an independent once more, given the district’s partisan environment.
Knecht insists that joining the Democratic Party was a pragmatic decision. Independents face significant hurdles, from higher signature thresholds to a dearth of fundraising support.
“You don’t have the established political infrastructure in place to help you get the word out,” she said. “The biggest thing is, people don’t know what independent means. When they get to the ballot, there’s confusion there.”
Since accepting the Arizona Democratic Party into her life, Knecht has raised more than either of her Republican opponents, and is already benefiting from massive expenditures from outside groups – more than $32,000 since August.
In short, while the wind may not blow as strongly at her back as it does for LD20 Democratic hopeful Judy Schwiebert, it blows nonetheless.
“It’ll be a lot more competitive than it has been in the past,” said Bentz. “But it’s a steep climb.”