One reason to care about the result in the House race in Legislative District 20, a West Valley district where Republican control has slowly deteriorated – possibly enough to flip this year – is that the fate of the Legislature could dramatically change based on its result.
Or so says Steven Slugocki, the chair of the Maricopa County Democratic Party. Like many in his party, Slugocki believes that the path to the first Democratic House majority in decades goes through LD20, the kind of white, independently-minded suburban district that pundits believe to be lurching away from the GOP.
In 2018, Hazel Chandler, a Democrat, fell short of now-Rep. Shawnna Bolick by fewer than 2,000 votes. Slugocki said she believes that the registration gains that Democrats have made in the district – from around 36,000 in 2018 to 40,551 as of this August – are enough to make up that deficit.
“Those extra 4,000 voters could make the difference between winning and losing,” Slugocki said.
Still, Republicans maintain a roughly 5,000-voter advantage. Surmountable, sure, but the outcome is hardly set in stone. They say they believe they are better prepared than they were in 2018, when the Democrats surged to a 29-31 split in the House, propelled by voters activated by education and the Red for Ed movement.
“Yes, this is everyone’s tier one, we take it seriously, they’re good recruits,” said George Khalaf, a Republican pollster and consultant working for Bolick’s re-election campaign, referring to House Democratic candidate Judy Schwiebert and her counterpart in the Senate, Doug Ervin. “But if it wasn’t going to be done in 2018, when education was a top issue, I don’t think it’ll happen this year. We’re prepared.”
But Democrats have other reasons to be bullish. It’s one of two districts where voters primarily supported President Donald Trump in 2016 and Democratic Senate candidate (and now Senator) Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. The other is Legislative District 17, a suburban East Valley district that elected a Democrat representative in 2018 and could do the same in the Senate this year.
Schwiebert is running as a single-shot candidate, allowing the party to consolidate resources to defeat either Bolick or Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale. That strategy proved successful for Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, in 2018, who received more votes in that general election than her now-seatmate, the incumbent Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler.
Even Republicans admit that she’s a strong candidate. A long-time high school teacher running as a conciliatory, pragmatic Democrat, Schwiebert said she’s hoping to appeal to voters who feel alienated by the paralyzing bitterness of the Legislature. She’s offering a slate of standard, though generally popular Democratic policies like protecting health coverage for those with pre-existing conditions and boosting public education spending.
“I’ve lived in this district for my life. A lot of people who have been frustrated who know me through one avenue or another were reaching out,” Schwiebert said. “The other thing, I’ve been calling a lot of independents as well as a lot of Republicans. People are tired of the partisan bickering.”
While she won’t address it head-on, Schwiebert’s significance to the makeup of the House is hard to deny. LD20 is one of a handful of districts where the Republican voter registration advantage is less than 10,000, all of which are top targets for the state and national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Democrats are homing in on LD20, neighboring Legislative District 21, and the northern-Arizona Legislative District 6 as their best shots for flipping the House. If they can hold their gains from 2018 and win just two of those districts, they have a House majority, breaking a Republican trifecta that has held strong since Janet Napolitano’s governorship.
Moneyed interests have taken note. Like many possible swing districts, outside groups at the state and national levels have buffeted LD20 with cash, spending almost $130,000 in support of Schwiebert and just about as much against her. Some of those same groups have spent nearly $200,000 to attack Kern.
Schwiebert has also managed to build up a sizable amount of cash – $158,000 as of the pre-primary reporting period, more than Kern and almost as much as Bolick. That number will in all likelihood skyrocket by the time the campaign files its next finance report.
“The only advantage they have is funding,” said Kern, an influential Republican who currently chairs the House Rules Committee. “The voters are smart out there, they understand it’s a national movement to elect Democrats. But all they have to do is look across the border to California or Colorado.”
Kern – who himself has benefited from nearly $100,000 in outside spending – said he believes that the voters in the district are more conservative than the fundamentals would suggest, and that even Democrats are going to support him.
“I’m the only small business owner in the race, I’m the only experienced law enforcement officer, and I think those are important to voters,” he said.
Kern and Bolick are also willing to campaign in person, which Democrats have largely avoided due to COVID-19. Khalaf said this could provide an advantage, helping to create bonds with voters. Meanwhile, the GOP will paint Schwiebert as a plant from too-liberal national Democrats hell-bent on flipping state legislative houses.
To Kern’s point, Schwiebert is hardly in her party’s leftmost flank.
“I want to make sure that everybody in our community is safe,” she said. “That means making sure that our law enforcement officers have the resources they need, but it also means that we’re making our communities safer for all of us by having good schools and housing that people can afford.”
She also does what she can to avoid embracing the frame that she’s part of any kind of national movement, repeatedly emphasizing that she’s new to politics and not interested in the meta-narratives of her race.
“I’m really appreciative of all the enormous local support we have,” she said. “I can’t speak for other groups. I just know that I’m going to the Legislature to work with everybody who wants to work with me.”
Slugocki, who now appears in national media seemingly every day to discuss the significance of Maricopa County to Democratic ambitions, has no such compunctions.
“The entire Legislature could very well come down to LD20,” he said. “All eyes are gonna be on us. It’s going to show that we can win in these areas that were once very red.”