Welcome to the third installment of “Let the States Decide”, where I give an overview of competitive state legislatures across the country. This week I’ll be doing things a bit different. Previously I have discussed single chambers, but Arizona has highly competitive elections in both chambers of their legislature. Both chambers elect members with the same districts, and both have a similar path to victory. So I’ll be writing one article for both chambers, where I’ll be discussing individual competitive races and paths to victory by chamber.
If you wish to read my previous installments, here are links to the first and second articles.
The Current Composition
After 2018, Republicans held slim majorities in the Arizona Legislature. They currently hold a 17-13 majority in the Senate and a 31-29 majority in the House of Representatives. The Senate works like most other legislative chambers in the country, electing one member per district, but the House is a bit more complicated. Using the same districts, parties runs one or two candidates in each race, and each voter casts a vote for one or two candidates.
Because of a low tendency for ticket splitting, a district can generally be expected to vote for two candidates of the same party. However there are some notable exceptions. This year, Democrats are running just one candidate in most competitive seats. Although it deprives them of the opportunity to win both seats in a district, it could make winning just one more likely. Aside from possible voter confusion, having one candidate may help consolidate support from independent voters who split their tickets.
Today I want to go over five competitive districts, the 6th, the 17th, the 20th, the 21st and the 28th. Republicans hold all five districts in the Senate, but Democrats hold three seats in these districts on the House level. Usually I’d give a brief overview of each district, but given the added complexity with Arizona’s voting system, I’ll give a more in-depth analysis. Districts are listed in order of most to least likely for Democrats to win.
Based in the northeastern reaches of Phoenix, the 28th district is the only Clinton-won district in the state which a Republican represents in the Senate. Hillary Clinton won it by 5.3 points, and Kate Brophy McGee, the incumbent Republican, narrowly won re-election in 2018. Christine Marsh, the Democrat who ran against McGee, is running again to unseat her. McGee is a self-identified moderate, has consistently survived tough races, and has shown strong fundraising. Despite this, the partisan lean of the district is against her, and a good environment for Democrats could prove tough for her to survive.
qqOf all competitive districts in the Arizona Legislature, this is the only one represented by two Democrats in the House. Democrat Aaron Lieberman unseated incumbent Republican Maria Syms in 2018 to take the second spot alongside fellow Democrat Kelli Butler. This year Butler and Lieberman are running against Republicans Kenneth Bowers and Jana Jackson. Unfortunately for Republicans, their fundraising has been lackluster (Bowers’ only donor is himself). Additionally, Democrats’ partisan advantage may be too big at this point to take out one, let alone two, Democratic incumbents. Thus I consider this to be a longshot target at best for Republicans, if not safe for the Democrats.
Of the four districts I’m covering, the 6th is the only one not based in Maricopa County. Instead it’s based in Northern Arizona just outside the Navajo Nation. The college town of Flagstaff anchors the district, but it also contains a cluster of cities and towns in the Verde Valley wine region. Trump won the district by 10.1 points, but it has shown socially liberal tendencies, such as voting to legalize marijuana.
In the Senate, arch-conservative Sylvia Allen represents the district. Allen faced a tough and expensive primary against Wendy Rogers, in which Rogers ultimately won. Rogers is running on a staunch anti-socialist message and is taking very conservative positions on most issues. Democrat and combat veteran Felicia French is running on the Democratic side. French came within 600 votes of being elected to the State House in 2018 and is considered a strong candide to take on Rogers. Although Rogers has raised a large amount of money, she spent most of it on the primary. As a result of this, French has a financial advantage in this race. This, combined with Rogers’ historical weakness as a candidate, could mean that this is a top pickup opportunity for Democrats.
On the House side, the district is represented by two Republicans, Walter Blackman and Bob Thorpe. Thorpe is term-limited, and running instead is former Representative Brenda Barton, who herself was term-limited in 2018. Only one Democrat is running, Flagstaff mayor Coral Evans. Evans Additionally, there is a left-leaning Independent on the ballot, Coconino County supervisor Art Babbott. Both are running with a focus on education, although Babbott is running more toward the center. Evans would likely consolidate the Democratic vote, and should feel good about her chances of winning. Babbott however, would need to get Democratic voters to vote for him as well, or take away votes from Republican candidates, or both, in order to win. This is more of a longshot, so Democrats’ immediate focus should be to boost Evans and French.
Containing about 70% of Chandler in the Phoenix suburbs, the 17th district was won by Donald Trump by four points. In the Senate, the district is represented by Republican J.D. Mesnard. Mesnard, who identifies as a reasonable conservative, served as Speaker of the Arizona House from 2016 to 2018. In 2018 he was term-limited out of his House seat, so ran for the Senate and won, albeit by a narrow margin. In November he will be going up against Ajlan Kurdoglu. Kurdoglu is a small business owner and a naturalised citizen who immigrated from Turkey. He is running as a pragmatic progressive and an outsider. Democrats failed to beat Mesnard in 2018, but they are hoping that they can use a different approach and a favorable environment to do so in 2020.
The 17th is the only district in the state to have a split House delegation. Represented by Democrat Jennifer Pawlik and Republican Jeff Weninger, both are running for re-election this year. Pawlik gained the seat in 2018, and was the top vote-getter, getting more votes even than Weninger. The only other candidate on the ballot in November will be Republican Liz Harris. Only one Democrat on the ballot means that Democrats are unable to take Weninger’s seat, however it may help protect Pawlik’s seat. Given the partisan lean, Pawlik won’t be completely safe, but should feel good about her chances.
Although very urban, the 20th district will be a tough district for Democrats to get a victory in. Taking in some of the more Republican parts of Phoenix and Glendale, Trump won the district by 8.9 points.
In the Senate, the district is represented by Republican Paul Boyer. Boyer defeated Democrat Douglas Ervin in 2018, and now Ervin is running again in a rematch against Boyer. Boyer is a fiscal conservative, running on reduced expenditure, while Ervin is running on education, healthcare and the economy. Ervin failing to win an open seat race 2018 may lead experts to believe that Boyer has the advantage. However, while Ervin lagged behind in fundraising in 2018, he now has a 2:1 advantage over Boyer in fundraising, suggesting the environment might be better for him this time around. Time will tell, and it’s still an uphill climb for Ervin, but he still has a shot in this light red seat.
In the House, two Republicans represent the district, Shawnna Bolick and Anthony Kern. Democrats are running just one candidate, Judy Schwiebert. Schwiebert has a fundraising advantage over both Republicans, and may benefit from being the only Democrat on the ballot. At the moment I’d put her chances of being elected at about 50/50, due to this built-in advantage.
21st District: Sleeper Potential?
Also in the Phoenix suburbs, the 21st district will be interesting to watch as a potential sleeper House race. In 2018 Senate incumbent Rick Grey faced a close race against independent challenger Kathy Knecht. Although Grey is running unopposed this year, Knecht is running for the House, this time as a Democrat. She will be the only Democrat on the ballot, and she’ll be facing two Republicans, including incumbent Kevin Payne. While this seat is a lot redder than the other competitive seats (Trump won it by 14.9 points), Knecht has good fundraising and an independent brand on her side.
Path to Victory
Democrats have a realistic path to a majority in both chambers of the legislature. In the Senate, winning the 6th and 28th districts would tie the chamber and Democrats would only need the 17th district to win the majority. While the 20th district is within reach, it is unlikely to be a tipping point race.
In the House, Democrats need just two seats to win a majority rather than three. The 6th is the easiest target, followed by the 17th. Beyond that, they also have reach opportunites in the 21st and the other seat in the 6th district.
You may be asking: which of the two chambers is a better target for Democrats? While some could make the argument for both cases, I would say the House of Representatives is an easier flip. Although there are fewer highly competitive seats, Republicans have a narrower majority for them to overcome, and the several seats where there is only one Democrat could benefit them in November.
The Arizona Legislature: What’s at Stake
Arizona’s Republican Party, which has a trifecta, is one of the most conservative state parties in the country. They gained headlines in 2019 when they picked arch-conservative Kelli Ward as their chairwoman. Ward has made repeated gaffes in her time as chairwoman, and Democrats are aiming to use this weakness, and the Republicans’ rightward shift, to their advantage. Come 2021, Democrats could have anywhere from no control to total control in the legislature.
Additionally, if Democrats do well this year in Arizona on all levels, and we expect them to, they should set their sights on the governorship. With incumbent Governor Doug Ducey unable to run again, and first-term Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in an ideal position to make a step up, this will be certain to be a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats. If everything goes well for Democrats, a Republican trifecta could turn into a Democratic trifecta in the space of two years.
Arizona stands out from the rest of the country, in that no other state is this likely to see the whole legislature flip control this year. Until November, the five districts listed above will definitely be worth looking at for any developments.
As usual, I will be giving weekly coverage on the state of play in state legislatures. Next week I will be talking about the Michigan House of Representatives. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, email me, or send me a direct message on Twitter.
Special thanks to Ballotpedia, CNalysis and Raghu Srinivasan for providing useful information on these races.