Editor’s note: This is a developing story that will be updated as more results become available. This story was first published Nov. 3 at 8:45 p.m. This most recent update occurred Nov. 5 at 7:51 p.m.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez looked far and wide for opportunities to knock off Republican incumbents and take control of the state House. But, at least if results as of November 5 hold, Fernandez missed something right under her nose – the vulnerability of her seatmate.
With an additional 138,000 votes that came in from Maricopa County late November 4, Republicans have solidified their lead over Democratic challengers in most key races in the state House, and in one instance, knocked off a Democratic incumbent: Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Buckeye – Fernandez’s seatmate. If those leads hold, the House will remain in Republican hands with the same slim margin as last session.
As late at November 5, Democrats were still holding on hope that they’ll take control of the chamber for the first time since the 1960s, especially after suffering under a tantalizingly tenuous 31-29 GOP majority last session. Central to this goal is a handful of Republican-held districts with changing electorates that seem primed to elect new leadership, especially with a highly motivating presidential race at the top of the ballot.
In each, single-shot Democratic candidates with tremendous resources are vying for open seats or challenging potentially weak incumbents. The party is hoping to take this strategy to the bank even in ruby-red districts in Scottsdale and southern Arizona, where not long ago fielding any kind of candidate would have come as a surprise.
But only in LD20 has the tactic so far borne fruit. In Legislative District 6, Legislative District 11, Legislative District 21, and Legislative District 23 – the rest of the districts that, to varying degrees, made up the party’s map this year – Democrats have fallen behind their Republican opponents.
These results could change, as Maricopa County alone still has to count hundreds of thousands of ballots. In a reversal from previous cycles, many Republicans held onto their ballots until Election Day, creating a phenomenon in which healthy Democratic leads evaporated in the middle of the night as more results poured in.
But even if Democrats are able to surge from behind in LD6 and LD21, the most they can get in the House is 30 seats, barring a major comeback from Peten.
Fernandez’s detractors within the caucus – a growing group that has coalesced behind Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson – were quick to put the blame at her feet, lamenting that she should have done more to fundraise for Peten, given her influence with the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
“I think we gave it 110 percent,” Fernandez said. “Any time I could raise money for Dr. Peten, I did.”
Ben Scheel, a consultant for Fernandez, pushed back against the criticism, noting that state statute bans direct contributions from one candidate committee to another.
“Everything that Peten could spend, we matched with slate mail pieces etc.,” he said in a text.
“Fernandez gave $26,000 to ADLCC from her account. She also raised huge amounts for ADLCC working with (Rep. Raquel) Teran.”
Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, edged ahead in LD6 with 28% of the vote. Trailing him is former lawmaker Brenda Barton, who is running to solidify Republican control of the northern Arizona district. Latest returns show she has 26% of the vote. Just 267 votes separate her from Democratic Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, who led in early votes and seemed to be comfortably in second place heading into November 4. In fourth place is Art Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor running as an independent, with 20%.
LD6 is a district of political poles with a large contingent of independents. Flagstaff, a college town, is reliably Democratic, as is Sedona and the parts of the district that intersect with tribal nations. Towns like Payson, where Barton’s from, are fiercely conservative, along with the rural sections and the dozens of little unincorporated settlements, retirement communities and census designated places that fill out LD6’s emptier stretches.
Blackman’s seatmate, Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, left the Legislature after last session to run for a seat on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors.
This created an obvious opportunity for the Democratic Party, with Evans as an obvious champion. She led the House in fundraising this cycle, taking in a massive $717,018.25 – a sum eclipsed only by the more than $1 million that Republican LD6 Senate hopeful Wendy Rogers raised, which seems to suggest something about the district’s competitiveness. Evans also benefited from independent expenditure groups, which put enormous amounts into supporting Evans and attacking her opponents.
Democrats led in early ballot returns for much of last week, but saw that lead close as Election Day neared – an inversion of the trend in previous elections, which saw Democrats take the edge late in the game. Republicans went into November 5 leading by roughly 1,500 ballots in LD6, with 60% turnout.
Democrat Judy Schwiebert is leading in LD20 House, a widely-watched race that will serve as a test case of the Democratic Party’s suburban strategy. She has 36% of the vote in the West Valley district, three percentage points ahead of the incumbent, Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix.
Rep. Anthony Kern, the district’s other incumbent, a Republican from Glendale, follows in third place, with 31%. He trails his seatmate by around 1700 votes. Like in LD6, Democrats began early voting with a sizable lead in returns, an advantage that diminished heading into Election Day.
LD20 is one of two districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016, but that supported Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema two years later, a sign to Democrats that they might be able to flip a seat in the Legislature. It’s the kind of suburban district that has peeled away from the GOP in recent years, with demographic shifts that narrowed the Republican voter registration advantage to only around 6,000.
Schwiebert, like Evans, has proven a prodigious fundraiser and a magnet for outside spenders. She’s raised $551,464 as of November 3, surpassing both Bolick and Kern by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In LD21, Republican Beverly Pingerelli sits in first, with 35% of the vote. She’s two percentage points ahead of the incumbent Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, who in turn leads Democratic challenger Kathy Knecht by 1,264 votes.
LD21 is a district of similar characteristics to the neighboring LD20: It spans the suburban West Valley and has new residents that Democrats hope can give them an edge.
But the electorate hasn’t shifted to the same degree as LD20, and the Democratic registration disadvantage has remained relatively stable between last election and this one: around 14,000 voters. LD21 is also the home of deep-red retirement communities like Sun City.
However, unlike LD20, LD21 has an open seat, as Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, chose not to run for re-election. This could make it possible for Knecht to edge out Pingerelli, even if Payne’s seat remains secure. Knecht also has a track record in over-performing expectations. In 2018, she was only around 3,500 votes from winning the LD21 Senate race as an independent.
Knecht, as with most of the other single-shot Democrats running this year, has vastly outraised her opponents – around $300,000 to Payne’s $72,000 and Pingerelli’s $47,594. If either of the Republicans is worried about their chances, that fear isn’t reflected in their fundraising.
Republican Reps. Bret Roberts and Mark Finchem pulled ahead with a solid lead in LD11. Roberts has 34% of the vote, with Finchem not far behind. Democrat Felipe Perez, a medical doctor, has 32% of the vote. He’s separated from Finchem by around 3,400 votes.
The map for Democrats has grown as the election cycle has gone on – or so they believe, at least. LD11, an expansive southern Arizona district that has elected some of the House’s most conservative members, is at the heart of that expansion.
Democrats poured money into the district, especially in the late stages, seeing a potential for gains in the LD11’s increasingly blue Pima County section. Perez raised more money in the third quarter than he did in all of the election cycle previously.
Independent expenditure groups played an outsized role, as the local party infrastructure is largely focused on more achievable districts. They spent almost $300,000 in Perez’s favor, and have invested around $250,000 to attack Finchem – not huge sums compared to LD6, but for a district where Democratic registration lags by almost 20,000 voters, it’s money that has turned heads southward.
However, this money doesn’t necessarily translate into results, and the astronomically high turnout rates of southern Arizona retirement communities like SaddleBrooke could secure the Republican position.
Republican Rep. John Kavanagh and Joseph Chaplik are leading over two-time Democratic challenger Eric Kurland in LD23. Kavanagh has 37% of the vote, leading Chaplik by three points. Kurland is in third with 29%.
Kurland conceded on Twitter November 5, saying that “all of the fine people from Scottsdale, Fountain Hills, Rio Verde and Fort McDowell deserve nothing but your very best.”
Chaplik threw doors to the district wide open when he defeated Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, in the primary.
Kurland has aimed his challenge almost solely at Chaplik, needling him for avoiding debates, suing political opponents and making claims of campaign sign vandalism.
Only Kurland and Chaplik bothered to seriously fundraise, bringing in $266,157.40 and $187,662.76, respectively. (As a note: $80,000 of Chaplik’s haul came in the form of money he loaned his own committee).
Kurland first ran on his “Time for a Teacher” platform in 2018, when he came within 3 percentage points of unseating Lawrence.
Two Public Policy Polling surveys showed Kurland as the first pick of a plurality of LD23 voters, though more voters picked Kavanagh as either their first or second preference.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, has a comfortable lead in LD4, but her seatmate is on track to lose.
Fernandez has 40% of the early votes, while Republican farm business owner Joel John has surged into second, with 31%
He leads incumbent Peten, a Buckeye Democrat, by around two percentage points, or nearly 2,000 votes.
John represents one of the few serious chances Republicans have of flipping a Democratic district this year. LD4 has conservative hotspots around Buckeye and the neighboring exurbs, as well as among the district’s farming communities.
In Peten, the GOP saw a Democratic incumbent who generally has not performed as well as Fernandez, her seatmate, and who has yet to face a serious opponent since her appointment in 2017 and first election the following year.
Republicans have come close in the district before. In 2014, Fernandez defeated Richard Hopkins by fewer than 200 votes. That said, the Democratic registration advantage – which now sits at around 16,000 voters – has grown considerably in the subsequent six years.