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LD17 – thin victory margins and a tie

The interactive map above shows precinct-level results of the 2020 election in Maricopa County.

Out in the Southeast Valley, the Loop 202 freeway is often seen as a political compass. To the north of it is dense with Democratic voters; to the south, suburbs that start with a kiss of GOP pink but soon deepen to a solid red.

Political eyes were on the area this election to see whether Democrats had the chance to flip Arizona’s Legislative District 17 blue. In the end, with all votes tallied and certified, the district narrowly chose Democrat Joe Biden for president by 3.7%, or 5,000 votes, but no seats shifted in the state Legislature.

In the aftermath, candidates and community members wait to see what this year’s results, a precinct patchwork of red and blue, spell for the future.

Paula Feely

Paula Feely

Paula Feely is a Democratic precinct committeeperson in Chandler. It was President Donald Trump’s win in 2016 that pushed her, out of frustration, to become more involved with campaign efforts in her community. She represents Germann Precinct, part of a widening stretch of blue bleeding south of the Loop 202.

“I’ve become more aware of the Democrats around here,” Feely said. “They’re less shy now.”

Biden won a handful of precincts around Feely’s turf this year that previously went for Trump, including Lantana Canyon, Laredo and Dobson Park with margins ranging from .6% to 2%, or 10 to 110 votes. Voters in Germann Precinct supported Biden, too, after giving Hillary Clinton a 1% lead in 2016.

Since becoming a committeeperson, Feely has written hundreds of letters, dropped party literature on doorsteps and made phone calls to people throughout LD17. And she has become more comfortable talking about politics with non-Democrats, she said, although “close to the election, I did have to cut myself off from some people.”

Her counterpart in Germann Precinct might be Anne Kirkham, a longtime Chandler resident who is precinct committeeperson for the Republican Party. With new housing going up in the district and people moving in from out-of-state, Kirkham said she sees the ground shifting in the city.

For her, maintaining Republican leadership will depend on finding the right messaging.

“There’s been a lot of outreach to what are called ‘soft Democrats’ and all the independents,” she said. “It all comes down to policies and platforms.”

Despite partisan tensions in Arizona, and the ongoing, if largely dismissed, concerns about the election’s integrity — concerns that Kirkham shares — she refrains from villainizing Democrats. Many of them are her neighbors in this battleground district.

“I have dear friends who look at things differently than I do politically, and I don’t let that get in the way of our friendship,” she said.

To the east of Kirkham and Feely’s precinct is Layton Lakes, a precinct that neither Biden nor Trump could claim. At 253 votes each, they were tied.

Raghu Srinivasan

Raghu Srinivasan

The triangular stretch of land near Queen Creek and Lindsay roads became a precinct in 2017, and is home to 576 registered voters. Raghu Srinivasan, vice chair for District 17 Democrats and an engineer with a penchant for analyzing election data, said Layton Lakes was carved out of Appleby Precinct as a result of new housing in the area.

It wasn’t long ago that the area was mostly farms, empty land and single family homes, he said. But as neighborhoods grow and newcomers arrive, “they’re probably bringing their outlook with them,” Srinivasan said.

Layton Lakes is one of three precincts in the county where Biden and Trump faced a draw. Steven Slugocki, chair of the Maricopa County Democratic Party, said the ties illustrate the closeness of elections here, and how much of the county is “up for grabs.”

One of the most closely watched races in LD17 was for the state Senate seat held by J.D. Mesnard, a Republican.

Democratic challenger A.J. Kurdoglu lost the race, but said he had no doubts that the district is changing. Still, it will take work to decide the political future of the East Valley, he said – liberal and conservative leaders can’t simply wait for the demographics to change.

“I always believe it is our job as candidates or as a party to reach out to your neighbors, your constituency and explain what you stand for,” Kurdoglu said.

Mesnard comfortably won his Senate seat, but doesn’t deny the potential of the region turning blue in years to come. He lost his own precinct to Kurdoglu by 5.3% of the vote, or 277 votes. Biden carried it by a wider margin of 15%, or 827 votes.

The senator said he has no plans to change his policies in response to a constituency that is becoming more liberal.

“I ran for office in the first place under a certain set of principles. I maintain those principles,” Mesnard said. “And if there’s an avalanche of people that come in with different principles, it’ll probably just mean that I’ll lose, eventually.”

He said he hopes to convince newcomers that his policies – and the Republican platform more broadly – have helped make Arizona an attractive place to live.

Even as pundits make predictions for the next election, the competitive status of LD17 could soon recede into history when officials begin redrawing legislative districts next year.

Feely, the Democratic precinct committeeperson, said she thinks the liberal tilt in her neighborhood is a credit to people engaging with the issues more than any sea change in political beliefs.

As a retired school district employee, she said she thinks candidates who are focused on education will find supporters in the East Valley, just as Democrat Jennifer Pawlik did when she ran for the state House two years ago and won. Pawlik was re-elected last month.

“It’s not just a red and blue thing,” Feely said of the political map. “It’s what people think you can do to improve our community.”

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