The path to a Democratic majority in the Arizona Legislature goes through a few key swing districts that by now have received no shortage of newspaper ink. But an emboldened party, kept afloat by gargantuan amounts of money, is setting its sights beyond the usual suspects, toward districts like the conservative southern Arizona bastion of Legislative District 11.
Democrats are running a single-shot campaign in that district’s House race in the form of Dr. Felipe Perez, a family physician. In the Senate, they’re championing JoAnna Mendoza, a military veteran. Both face long odds – but, as Mendoza has said, in 2020, anything can happen.
“2020 is causing people to pay attention,” Mendoza said. “In another election period, we might not have gotten that same attention.”
Few paid attention to the district before the primaries. But since, national and state Democrats have made LD11 a top target, at least on paper.
Outside spenders have taken note, especially after both Democrats outperformed expectations in the primaries – Perez, for example, received more votes than Rep. Brett Roberts, R-Maricopa. Several PACs, including the Arizona affiliate of Forward Majority, a leading national group in the Democratic quest to flip statehouses, have heavily invested in the district, mostly in the form of attacks against two of the LD11’s three incumbent Republicans – Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, both among the most conservative members of the GOP caucus.
Ben Wexler-Waite, Forward Majority’s communications director, said previously that pursuing LD11 is part of an “aggressive portfolio strategy” – investing in deep-red districts where single-shot candidates are working to unseat incumbents. In this case, Republicans have a roughly 14,000-voter registration advantage in the southern Arizona district, a roughly 8-percentage point advantage.
Outside groups spent in September around $38,000 and $37,000 against Finchem and Leach, respectively. Roberts remains mostly unscathed. Perez and Mendoza, meanwhile, have benefited from around $33,000 and $52,000 spent in their favor during that period, respectively.
The theory for Democrats is that Finchem, Roberts and Leach haven’t faced serious challengers from the left, and that voters might be more amenable to a Democratic candidate if they get a fuller picture of their current representation – particularly in the case of Finchem’s ties to organizations like the Oath Keepers, a right-wing group of current and former military and police officers founded by a one-time staffer of then-Rep. Ron Paul in 2009.
“We have a high number of independents in this district who just want to vote for a candidate who shows up for them,” Mendoza said.
Showing up is important. Democrats say that the district’s current Republicans, who all fall into the party’s most conservative wing – Finchem is even making a bid for House speaker to elevate the platform of that cadre – have lost sight of the need to govern.
Those conservatives have lost sight of the desires of voters in the district who may have once supported southern-Arizona moderates like former Congressman Jim Kolbe, a centrist Republican who represented the area during his tenure, said Joshua Polacheck, the newly anointed executive director of the Pima County Democratic Party.
“We believe that a lot of the people that would have been considered Republican-leaning independents are becoming truly independent,” Polacheck said. “The Tea Party movement a decade ago, the current administration in Washington, the Q-Anon movement, the takeover of the (state GOP by Chairwoman Kelli Ward), we believe has alienated people.”
Finchem isn’t worried about increased spending by progressives in his district, saying voters in the heavily Republican LD11 share his pro-business and conservative leanings.
“At the end of the day, we’re engaged in action, action, action,” he said.
He’s also not concerned, he said, about criticism over his affiliation with a hard-right organization.
“They will make the fatal mistake that they always make,” Finchem said. “When they go negative, it turns voters in my district off. They don’t have any solutions. All they have is complaints.”
He said that anyone who’s taken an oath to support and defend the U,S, Constitution is “by definition” an Oath Keeper, and that he certainly wouldn’t be denouncing his organization if the Democrats don’t denounce Antifa and Black Lives Matter, which Finchem claims has deep ties with the Chinese Communist Party, a theory that has since been debunked. “If they want to play the socialist games of gaslighting people, fine. My constituents are smarter than that,” Finchem said.
Republican groups have marshaled around the district’s incumbents, especially Leach. Arizonans for Strong Leadership, a PAC affiliated with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, has spent $37,261 to support Leach, while the Arizona Association of REALTORS has spent heavily to support both Finchem and Leach.
Last election, Democrats saw LD11 as unwinnable, but strong returns for Dems in the primaries drew eyeballs and changed the calculus, Perez said. He hopes that a strong year for Democrats and his medical credentials might propel him to victory. What might help is between 2018 and 2020, the Democratic Party added nearly 10,000 voters in LD11, more than the roughly 7,000 new voters that the GOP registered
Perez said he’s surprised to see the volume of outside money materializing in the conservative district.
“A lot of folks are energized by electing new leadership,” Perez said. “There’s a realization that people know how directly their state government can impact them.”
Democrats have “the momentum and the resources” to play in more districts, said national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Jessica Post in a statement. The organization has elevated the race to one of its top priorities in the state, adding it to a list of top races in swing districts like Legislative District 6 and Legislative District 20, which each present clearer paths to victory for Democrats – this means more campaign resources and staff for Perez and Mendoza.
Of course, the party has other priorities. Democrats only need to win two House seats to flip that chamber, and LD11 is hardly the most likely place for that to happen. But with all the money that’s flooding into the state, Charlie Fisher, the director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s Arizona chapter, said he’s not worried about misplaced priorities.
“On my side of the wall, that’s not a concern,” he said. In regards to outside groups, Fisher said he hopes “that they would make these expansion investments after these widely known core districts are fully funded.”