Behind the Ballot: Riding the wave


Lynsey Robinson
Lynsey Robinson

Democrats are fielding a candidate in nearly every federal, statewide and legislative race this year, using a strategy of saturation that has been successful elsewhere.

But there’s no guarantee the much-anticipated “blue wave” will lead to victory in Arizona.

Still, novice candidates like Lynsey Robinson have learned one thing over the years – they’ll never know whether they can win if they don’t even try.

Robinson’s road to candidacy has not been easy. And she’s hoping her narrative will resonate with voters who share in her concerns for Arizona and the state of politics in the era of President Trump.

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Music in this episode included “Little Idea,” “Funky Element” and “Energy” by Bensound.

Dem election plan puts candidate in nearly every race

Lynsey Robinson
Lynsey Robinson

Queen Creek resident Lynsey Robinson has hit many roadblocks on her way to becoming a Democratic candidate for the House in Legislative District 12.

Robinson, 41, came to the United States from Haiti in 1985 on a visitor visa with her grandfather. However, the pair, who were visiting Robinson’s aunt in New York for the summer, overstayed their three-month visas after her grandfather became sick.

When the grandfather died, Robinson, who was 8 at the time, said her parents and her aunt debated sending her back to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, but instead her aunt took her in.

The decision opened up doors for Robinson that she said she may have never had back home. But without permanent legal status in the United States for nearly two decades, Robinson said she became stuck in a pattern of starting something but never finishing, not because of her abilities but because of her immigration status.

That all changed when she became a legal permanent resident in 2004 and a U.S. citizen in 2010.

Even though her background may not resemble that of the constituents in LD12, Robinson attributes her success to perseverance and a good education, and she said that’s something that will strike a chord with voters in the historically conservative district.

Robinson is one of the 114 Democratic candidates vying for a seat in the Arizona Legislature.

This year, the Democratic Party is by design fielding a candidate in nearly every federal, statewide and legislative race, with the exception of one, a strategy that has paid off in other states.

It’s the first time since at least 1998 that so many Democrats have jumped into the race, and it’s a 41-percent increase from 2016 when 81 Democrats qualified for the ballot. The second highest number of Democrats who have run for the Legislature in the past 20 years was in 2002 when 101 filed for office, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office historical election results database.

Charles Fisher, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said the group’s goal is to saturate the ballot in hopes of getting as many Democrats elected as possible.

Fisher calls it the “reverse coattail effect.” Rather than having a big-name candidate at the top of the ticket drawing in voters, which can have a down-ballot impact, he said he hopes that by having a candidate in almost every legislative race, even in overwhelmingly red districts, it will drive up voter turnout on an off-year election and possibly lead to success at the statewide level and in the U.S. Senate race.

The strategy worked in Virginia where the large pool of Democratic candidates in 2017 led to the election of a Democratic attorney general and governor, he said.

Fisher said the party is also banking on strong showings in federal and state legislative races nationwide, and candidates are inspired by what they saw this year with the “Red for Ed” movement.

But the candidates don’t see themselves as being just sacrificial lambs in the party’s grand scheme.

They are providing a voice to those who may not have had anyone to support in prior elections and to those who are tired of what they’ve seen happening at the Legislature, Robinson said.

While Robinson and Democratic LD12 Senate candidate Elizabeth Brown acknowledge that they’re the underdogs in their respective elections, they seem unfazed by the fact that there are almost 40,250 more active registered Republicans in the district than there are Democrats.

Brown, a two-time candidate who ran for the Senate in 2016, said she thinks she has a better chance of being elected this year than she did two years ago, and she added that the teacher strike and the “Red for Ed” movement boosted her confidence.

Brown said she has spoken with constituents on both sides of the aisle and independents who are less interested in partisan politics and are looking for candidates who will be effective and get work done.

Michelle Harris (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)
Michelle Harris (Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)

That’s something first-time candidate Michelle Harris, of Buckeye, has also heard for years. She’s running as a Democrat for the Senate in Legislative District 13, which spans parts of Yuma and Maricopa County.

Harris said she first became interested in running for office after she and her neighbors’ wastewater rates skyrocketed. She said she reached out to her state legislators and asked them to send a letter to the Arizona Corporation Commission asking that the commissioners meet with residents and reconsider the rate increase, but she never heard back from them.

“I just kind of got the stiff arm from them and that really spurred me to look into the Legislature and was really one of the reasons I decided to run,” she said. “I just thought we deserved better representation, someone who will be out in the community helping people in the district.”

Harris said while meeting with constituents she has learned that many care less about whether there’s a “D” behind her name and are just excited that she’s taking the time to meet with them.

Chandler resident Jennifer Pawlik, who is running as a Democrat for the House in Legislative District 17, said when she ran for the House in 2016 people told her she wasn’t a viable candidate. But that sentiment has changed among constituents she has spoken with this time around, she said.

And Pawlik said that while candidates in very red districts may not win, their candidacy is helping move those districts a bit to the left.

But several long-time Capitol insiders disagree on whether the surge in Democratic candidates and the party’s momentum can translate to real success in 2018.

Democratic lobbyist Barry Dill said while having good quality candidates is more important than having a large number of candidates, in a state like Arizona that has historically had a large drop off in the number of Democrats who vote in off-year elections, fielding a candidate in almost every race can lead to wins if it draws people who normally don’t vote.

“If that trend can be either reversed or mitigated to some degree, then Democrats have a great opportunity of having some success and gaining seats in the Legislature,” he said.

Republican lobbyist and former lawmaker Stan Barnes said in the 30 sessions since he was first elected in 1988, Democratic confidence has never been as high as it is today, even in the 1990s when Democrats were in the majority in the state Senate or in the early 2000s when Janet Napolitano was governor.

Barnes said the key to Democrats’ success is that they believe they can win.

“Democrats believe this is their year and that confidence translates into better candidates coming forward and more candidates coming forward translates into more resources coming into the campaigns of better Democratic candidates. And so it becomes sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy because it starts with genuine confidence by Democrats that they have something significant to gain and that it’s possible,” he said.

He said Republicans are on the defense, a bit demoralized, and there is a so-called “Jeff Flake constituency” of moderate Republicans that are unhappy with what they’re seeing at the federal level.

If you combine that with the number of Democratic candidates running this year and the possibility of national funding flowing into the state because of the U.S. Senate race, Barnes said Democrats could very well win additional seats in both chambers of the Legislature, and either tie the Senate at 15-15 or regain a majority.

And that’s a thought that keeps Republicans awake at night, he said.

Republican political consultant Chuck Coughlin is less convinced that Democrats will see greater success this year. He said one of Democrats’ key issues is education funding, but it was the governor and Republican lawmakers who delivered on the issue this session.

“We’re seeing in data that we’re collecting now that people are giving credit to the governor for delivering on the education package and Democrats walked away from that at the end, which I thought was a mistake because it was the pressure of the teachers that delivered it and that’s a sign of partisan disfunction,” he said. “The credit was theirs to take and they chose to walk away.”

That will make it harder for Democratic candidates in more conservative districts to make their case to voters, he said.

Longtime Capitol lobbyist Barry Aarons said Democrats have to make sure they don’t spread themselves too thin, focusing on a handful of seats they can actually seize instead of on all 90.

Fisher, of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said while past efforts to gain seats in the Legislature have failed because Democrats tried to bite off too much, this year the caucus is much more organized. The Senate, he said, is the top priority.

Aarons said the momentum could also backfire, waking up a dormant Republican majority that has for decades coasted through the election without a primary or general foe.

He said he has spoken with incumbents in what have typically been considered safe districts and they aren’t taking anything for granted this year, ramping up campaign efforts to ensure they are re-elected.

“Democrats have to be careful that they don’t wake up the beast and wake up after the election and find that they’ve lost some seats,” he said.

Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, who is seeking election to the House, said he’s running a strong campaign this year in response to what he sees as a Democratic base that is fired up and energized.

“There’s a saying in politics that you always run scared no matter what and that is especially true this year,” he said, adding that while he doesn’t think his seat is vulnerable, there are others that are.

Early voting an auspicious sign for Democrats, but …

Democrats have consistently led Republicans in returning early ballots this year, raising hopes for some that Arizona will finally shift from red or purple to blue.

But as Democrats lead in turning out new and infrequent voters – for example, those who haven’t voted in the last four elections – Republicans are poised to see an influx of loyal frequent voters on Election Day who could sway the election back in favor of the GOP. 

As of October 28, more than 2 million people have already voted throughout Arizona, according to data compiled by Democratic strategist Sam Almy. Of those, about 841,553 are Democrats, compared to 784,595 Republicans. Democrats have a 8.4 percentage point lead in turnout, and an almost 57,000-ballot lead in early returns. The trend is an inversion of previous elections, in which Republicans generally surge in early voting and see their margins diminish nearing Election Day.

Democrats have already exceeded their 2016 turnout of 47.4% by around 12 percentage points, while Republicans are floating just around their 2016 turnout of 49.3%.

Republican turnout remains healthy, said Paul Bentz, a GOP pollster with HighGround Public Affairs Consultants,  but it’s been dwarfed by intense Democratic turnout. 

Paul Bentz (Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)
Paul Bentz (Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

“Usually what happens in these races is that Republicans turn out early, and then the Democrats and others catch up,” he said. “This is sort of the opposite effect, where Democrats got to an early lead and now Republicans are starting to try to catch up.”

As a result of that inversion, Democratic margins are likely to diminish, a point that the party’s own strategists concede — as of Thursday, Republicans had already inched ahead in Maricopa County, though Democrats still led statewide.

But if they can hold their lead, strong returns could be evidence of significant Democratic turnout that – in conjunction with a perfect storm of other factors – tips the scales in the Legislature and reaches far out into GOP territory. 

Almy, who formerly managed voter data for the Arizona Democratic Party, said he has never seen returns so favorable to Democrats. “Clearly, Democrats are voting like crazy right now, they’re way up,” he said.

One obvious reason, he said, is President Trump, naturally the biggest driver of turnout for both parties in a presidential election year. 

“But in addition to that, Democrats are also up in these newly registered voters that I think are changing the electorate,” Almy added.

Youth turnout far exceeds 2016 numbers: voters aged 18 to 29 have already cast more than 137,000 ballots, compared to a total of slightly less than 89,000 in the 2016 election. But many young voters are still holding on to their ballots, at higher rates than older voters.

Almy’s data shows that roughly 25% of voters aged 18-24 and 28% of voters aged 25 to 34 who requested early ballots have returned them. By contrast, more than 68% of voters older than 65 and more than 53% of voters between 55 and 64 have returned their ballots.

Older voters tend to skew more conservative, meaning disappointing youth turnout could hurt Democratic chances. Liberal-leaning groups like NextGen America, which has spent the election cycle registering young voters and reminding them to vote, are pulling out all the stops to see that the roughly 900,000 young voters who have yet to cast their ballots get to the polls. 

Kristi Johnston
Kristi Johnston

“We’re not taking a victory lap anytime soon,” NextGen Arizona spokeswoman Kristi Johnston said.

NextGen’s efforts highlight one reason why Democrats are doing well thus far – success among low-propensity voters.

Among newly registered voters, 42% of those who have already cast ballots are Democrats, while just 28% are Republicans. As of last week, of voters who have not cast a ballot in any of the last four general elections, 37% of those who have already voted are Democrats, while just 25% are Republicans. (Notably, independents in that category are slightly outpacing even Democratic returns.) 

Of those who have voted in only one of the last four general elections, 43% of those who have already voted are Democrats, while just 28% are Republicans. 

Almy noted that these may not all actually be new voters, as a person’s voter history begins when they register in a new state – so some could have previously voted in another state. 

Either way, Democrats are leading Republicans among these voters, and whether they’re truly first-timers or transplants from California, they’re a big reason for the demographic shifts that appear to be propelling Democrats forward, Almy said. 

“This has an effect down-ballot,” he added – even in districts that look solidly Republican on paper.

“You look at the returns for District 23 and District 11, it mirrors a lot of the state where Democrats are returning at a much faster rate than Republicans,” he added. 

Supporters of President Donald Trump wait in line to attend a campaign rally Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Supporters of President Donald Trump wait in line to attend a campaign rally Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As of this week, Democrats have an almost 17 percentage point turnout advantage in Legislative District 11, and almost 15 percentage points in Legislative District 23. Four years ago, at this point in the election, Republicans handily led in returns in both districts. Democrats now lead at this early stage in LD11, and have significantly closed the gap in LD23. 

By October 27 in 2016, Democrats had returned 18,554 ballots in the Scottsdale/Fountain Hills district. By the same date this year, they had returned almost double that amount – 33,587. 

The tried-and-true Democratic strategy in Arizona is to run to the middle. And while the party is clearly still employing this tactic, the cumulative effect of years of organizing plus new interest from national groups – not to mention ungodly amounts of outside money – has helped unlock new voters.

“Each group has their target voter universe, and we’re seeing all of those efforts come together really nicely,” said Charlie Fisher, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. 

While his organization has largely targeted moderate or independent voters, he noted that others have been working specifically to turn out low-propensity voters who might lean more progressive. 

“It’s encouraging to see those zero-four voters turn out at higher rates,” he said, referring to those who haven’t voted in any of the past four general  elections. 

Iconic singer Cher speaks near a polling station as she campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Iconic singer Cher speaks near a polling station as she campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

However, this is a bit of a double-edged sword.

Democrats have a huge advantage among “4X4” voters who’ve voted in the past four elections, noted Republican pollster George Khalaf – about 69% of Democratic 4X4 voters who requested a mail-in ballot have already voted, while only half of all Republicans 4X4 voters who requested a ballot have mailed it in or dropped it off. 

But because those people will almost certainly cast a ballot, what that shows is that Republicans are waiting to vote on Election Day, and could do so in significant numbers. This also seems to show that Trump’s anti-mail ballot message had some effect on his supporters. 

Of course, that strategy has pitfalls – as many things can happen to prevent voters from showing up on Election Day. But Khalaf said he expects just about everyone to do everything in their power to get to the polls.

“I think people will walk through glass to vote this year,” he said.

While recent developments including the Senate confirmation of now-Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett may solidify support from Trump’s Republican base, Bentz said that isn’t as relevant as Trump’s frequent visits to Arizona. October 28 marked his seventh visit to the state this year, and Trump family members, Cabinet officials and other surrogates have made multiple public appearances in Arizona each week leading up to the election. 

“It’s apparent to me that they know they have a challenge here in Arizona, because otherwise he wouldn’t be here so often,” Bentz said.

But while the battle in Arizona is usually over suburban Republican women who could be swayed to vote for Democrats, the Trump campaign appears to have left that demographic behind, Bentz said. Instead, the president’s campaign appears focused on running up the margins in heavily Republican areas like Bullhead City and the far West Valley – where GOP enthusiasm could push Trump over the top but not help down-ballot Republicans.

Trump is also hoping to win the rural areas by a larger margin to counteract a potential loss in Maricopa County, which makes up roughly 60% of the state’s entire electorate. Diane Douglas, the Republican former-Superintendent of Public Instruction, is believed to be the only person to win a statewide race in Arizona who lost in Maricopa County in 2014. She maximized her efforts in rural areas, where Republicans tend to do well. 

“What could happen is we could see the president eke out a victory, but leave not very long coattails,” Bentz said. “Republicans in some of these swing districts could still lose.” 

At the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking turnout trends in Arizona and several swing states, Chief Strategy Officer Seth Levi said it’s important not to read too much into voting trends. 

 “I think there’s something to be said for enthusiasm, seeing that Democratic voters appear to be returning them faster, but at the end of the day, 100% of Republican voters may end up returning their ballots,” he said. “There’s just no way for us to know that today.”

Lawmaker condemned for saying US might look like South America

In this May 3, 2018, file photo State Sen. Sylvia Allen keeps warm during a late-night session as the Arizona Legislature prepared to adjourn for the year in Phoenix. The veteran Arizona legislator is apologizing while defending herself from criticism for comments she made on immigration and birth rates. The Phoenix New Times posted audio of a July 15, 2019, speech during which Allen said a flood of immigration and low birth rates among whites amid a lack of cultural assimilation mean "we're going to look like South American countries very quickly." The Republican from Snowflake, Arizona, who is white, also said the U.S. has to regulate immigration so the country can provide jobs, education, health care and other needs.   (AP Photo/Bob Christie, File)
In this May 3, 2018, file photo State Sen. Sylvia Allen keeps warm during a late-night session as the Arizona Legislature prepared to adjourn for the year in Phoenix.  (AP Photo/Bob Christie, File)

A veteran Arizona legislator is apologizing while defending herself from criticism for comments she made on immigration and birth rates.
The Phoenix New Times posted audio of a July 15 speech during which state Sen. Sylvia Allen said a flood of immigration and low birth rates among whites amid a lack of cultural assimilation mean “we’re going to look like South American countries very quickly.”
The Republican from Snowflake, Arizona, who is white, also said the U.S. has to regulate immigration so the country can provide jobs, education, health care and other needs.
“We can’t provide that if people are just flooding us and flooding us and flooding us and overwhelming us,” she said.
Wendy Rogers, a Republican running for the state Senate seat now held by Allen, issued a statement Saturday denouncing Allen’s comments as “very racist” and said Allen should retire from the Legislature.
Democratic state Sen. Martin Quezada told the Arizona Republic that the “tone and perspective” of Allen’s remarks on migrants were “insulting, to say the least.”
The Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee in a statement compared the comments to those of former Arizona Rep. David Stringer. In June 2018, the Prescott Republican said there “there aren’t enough white kids to go around” in the United States and called immigration “an existential threat.”
Allen in Facebook posts Friday and Saturday apologized “to anyone who has been hurt by her words.” But she said her comments on immigration and birth rates were largely based on research by a respected demographer.
“Sadly, immigration has become a most contentious issue in our country,” she said in one of the posts, mentioning that she supports legal immigration and that her extended family sponsored a Laotian family “and helped them to assimilate into our country.”
Later, in a comment on her Facebook post Saturday, she thanked people who spoke in support and added, “Verbal Lynching is the political tool used today to silence debate on critical issues.”