“Oh, the crazy news anchor, lady.”
That was the first answer I got when I asked multiple people in Arizona their thoughts on Kari Lake. The woman in that conversation explained how she voted for Trump and her local conservative Congresswoman (Debbie Lesko). She described her issues with Lake, with her “firebrand” personality being a significant concern.
I then talked to several other people on my trip to Arizona who said similar things, with one of her dissenters being a heavily conservative man who questions the fairness of the 2020 Presidential election. None of the people I talked to were fans of her Democratic opponent either. Many described Katie Hobbs, the current Arizona Secretary of State, as uncharismatic and with “Skeletons in her closet.”
I then turned my attention to the Senate race, where at the time, the likely candidates were Masters as well as initial frontrunner Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich and businessman Jim Lamon. All the Republicans I talked to supported the AG and said they would help him over Kelly. However, when I asked about Masters, there was much less enthusiasm and confusion. There was a lack of name recognition, with only half knowing who he was. The ones that knew of him did not have huge opinions either, with one person I talked to asking if Masters was a Democrat. Every voter I spoke to liked and respected Mark Kelly; however, the conservative-minded ones told me he was too liberal and should be more like Sinema.
These conversations were from early January. Since then, there have been many changes. Senator Kelly has appeared as a frontrunner for re-election (however, the race is tightening significantly). In contrast, Secretary Hobbs has seen her support fall and is now slightly trailing Lake. Many thought Hobbs would outperform Kelly earlier this year, with many being surprised by this change.
The race’s dynamics shifting led me to check in with some of the voters I talked to earlier. While many have not changed their preferences, they have acknowledged different tides in the Grand Canyon State. Many of the problems I highlighted earlier this year have taken a forward position, while others have yet to transpire.
I started an expedition to determine why Blake Masters failed to take the lead in his race while Lake was has seemingly take a lead over Hobbs. There are many theories, with some having more substance than others. Like every election, every little thing matters, as just a small number of votes can change the electoral outcome. However, some have more weight than others. While many reasons for this are candidates’ decisions, others are just fundamental issues. A relevant issue for Masters is simply due to this.
While 1996 showed President Bill Clinton winning Arizona mainly on the backs of blue-collar rural residents, no Democratic Presidential candidate had managed to win the state until 2020. Biden’s win was propelled mainly on the backs of suburban voters and seniors, two groups that have been trending blue in the state for quite some time now. Biden’s win in the populous Maricopa County allowed him to counter Trump’s strength in rural areas.
Nationally, it has become apparent that college-educated white-collar suburban voters are trending heavily to the left. Data shows they are shifting red less than most demographics in the lead-up to the midterms. It has also become apparent that Hispanic voters are trending red; however, in Arizona, they trended to the right less than in other states. If there were the same trend to the right in Arizona as in Texas with Hispanic voters, Trump would have likely won the state.
While Democrats flipped a Senate seat and a house seat, their gains down-ballot were more marginal. Democrats managed to convert a couple of statewide offices, but they failed massively with dethroning Republican Governor Doug Ducey. Ducey won by double digits and won areas that comfortably went blue federally. Ducey was a strong and uncontroversial incumbent, but the Democratic candidate almost won statewide in 2014. The trend also showed downballot, which affirmed a slight boost for legislative and statewide Republicans.
Like other Sun Belt states like Texas and Georgia, Arizona tends to vote more Republican downballot. This tidbit is likely why Democrats are polling better for the federal races this year (both on the Senate and Congressional level) than state and legislative races. Many voters tend to be socially liberal but still conservative regarding fiscal policies. This leads many to split their ballots, as local taxes significantly deter many. Roe v. Wade is also likely accelerating this, with voters being scared of federal anti-abortion legislation but not seeing it as much as a threat locally. Other voters may want to vote blue federally but red down-ballot as a check on the blue (similar to how Republicans manage to win seats in southern California that are much bluer for federal, statewide races).
The electorate is a fundamental barrier to Masters and a benefit to Lake. While Democrats see the opposite in blue-collar rural areas where they once enjoyed dominance (West Virginia, Kentucky), it is the Sun Belt states where the Democrats get the benefit federally. However, this trend is not linear and is likely not a significant cause of the discrepancy.
Besides looking at the overall political geography of Arizona, it is essential to discuss the candidates themselves. It is hard to quantify candidate quality, but different metrics can help decipher the range of quality of the candidate. Candidate quality could help explain why the people who are leading are leading.
A historically accurate metric has been fundraising. Candidates must file their fundraising information with the FEC (Federal Elections Commission) every quarter. Candidates with larger war chests have typically triumphed; however, the age of hyper-partisanship has diminished the truthfulness of that. In the 2016 Presidential Election, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton outraised GOP nominee and future victor Donald Trump by roughly 2-1, but ultimately it did not save her.
In the latest quarter (July 14th-September 30th), Sen. Kelly outraised Masters by $21 million to $4.7 million. Furthermore, Kelly reported $13 million cash on hand (cash the candidate still has after spending) compared to Masters’s $2.8 million COH.
These numbers, at first glance, are brutal. If this election were even just a decade ago, it would be nearly unanimous that Kelly would have the upper hand. While that statement is likely true, money raised correlates to victory at a different rate now.
Hobbs is also leading in fundraising, but she only outraised Lake by around $2.2 million ($9.6-$7.4 million). While that is a modest edge, it does not factor in outside groups, which have heavily been spending on Lake’s behalf. Namely, the Republican Governors Association (RGA) has been spending big for Lake. Besides the race’s closeness, it could also be due to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey wanting his Governor’s mansion to stay in GOP control.
Masters has privately urged to raise more money, and it is obvious money is a field where Kelly bodes a significant advantage. With the election so close, it is unlikely Masters will be able to dent Kelly’s fundraising edge unless outside people and groups give him significant monetary support. With the Governor’s race being much closer in terms of cash, Hobbs’s soft edge is unlikely to give her an enormous boost.
Every state’s geographic distribution between rural and urban communities is different. In many states, one of these groups has a clear edge in influencing a state’s electoral outcome. However, in some states, the geographical distribution of people in urban vs. rural communities is roughly even, which is where suburbs come to sprawl. While rural areas have gotten redder, suburbs have gotten bluer.
Arizona is an urbanized state, where Maricopa and Pima County outvote the state heavily. Out of the two, Maricopa is the one to watch. While the county (home to Phoenix and suburban sprawl) has historically been reliably Republican (Trump +2.9, McCain +15.7 in 2016), the County voted blue in 2018 for some races, and those races happened to be the ones Democrats won statewide. Maricopa is a strong bellwether for the state, with Trumpist politics and an influx of residents from blue states (California especially) putting this county on the map. In 2022 statewide, Democrats will likely need this County to win statewide.
Maricopa’s importance is a problem for Katie Hobbs, as Kari Lake’s background is being a popular former news anchor in the Phoenix area. Lake established an edge in name ID early, despite her opponent being a statewide official. This edge is incredibly dominant in the Phoenix area, where many of the people I talked to remembered her face from tv.
The other geographical base of concentrated votes is in Pima County (Tucson and Tucson’s suburbs). This area has and is much more liberal than their Maricopa neighbor to the north. The Tucson suburbs turning even more blue has only accelerated this. Most candidates in statewide races hail from Maricopa, but some come from here. The problem with statewide office seekers from Pima is that they usually lose primaries to Maricopa-based candidates (the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary is a good example).
One candidate who has managed to buck the trend is Kelly. A significant factor due to this is the fact that his wife is Tucson-area former congresswoman Gabby Giffords. She was tragically shot in the head and had to end her tenure due to unfortunate circumstances. Giffords’s likeability in the area and Kelly’s past as an astronaut helped him gain fame before the race, especially in Pima. On the other hand, Masters is not heavily consolidating bonus points from his Phoenix base.
These boosts will likely be marginal in the new era of polarization, but they could prove decisive in close contests.
After 2020 I was convinced that candidate quality was less important than it was. Many entrenched incumbents went down due to polarization, while scandal-plagued candidates landslide in friendly turf.
One scandal-plagued candidate was Rick Roeber, a Missouri state house candidate (and victor) running in a marginal seat based around the Kansas City suburbs. He was found and later expelled for molesting his children when they were nine and five years old. Many were shocked at the win, including many Republicans. Another example from 2020 is Aaron Coleman, a now former state representative across Roeber seat in the Kansas City suburbs. He was accused of domestic violence, among other things, beating a Democratic incumbent in the primary. While he was wiped out in the primary earlier this year, he still won in 2020 when the incumbent ran in the general as a write-in candidate, and his history found out.
While the height of candidate quality is less critical than a decade ago, it can still matter. In Arizona, none of the candidates are particularly horrific, but Kelly and Lake are arguably ranked higher in candidate quality. Fundraising can be a good metric for this. However, this is just a minor factor. With no candidates having significant scandals, the little things may come into play.
Katie Hobbs had taken a hit because she fired an African-American policy advisor when she was the State Senate minority leader. While she has faced heavy criticism from Talonya Adams’s firing, there have been no direct links that she factored race in her firing decision. In the two civil suits Adams would win against the State Senate, Hobbs was never named a defendant. Hobbs did testify during the trial that Adams’s decision to care for her out-of-state son and take emergency leave caused Hobbs to “Lost Trust.” Adams got awarded $351,000, which has caused accusations that Hobbs cost Arizona taxpayers money due to the lawsuit. The validity of this statement is up to one’s judgment, but it has caused Hobbs damage to her image.
There have also been more minor scandals, such as when Masters grabbed a 73-year-old man’s neck during a campaign event who was donning an array of liberal attire. Lake also faced controversy when she endorsed an anti-semitic candidate for an Oklahoma State Senate election, an endorsement she later withdrew.
All these scandals likely will not make a big impression, but any minor thing could matter in a close race. That said, all races can bring unpredictability, which is the last point.
Anything can Happen
While polling averages, early voting data, and endorsements to candidates can all be a decently good marker of a race’s state of play, anything can happen.
Earlier this week, Marc Victors, the libertarian candidate for the Senate race, dropped out and endorsed Masters. While many are probably overhyping the benefit this brings to Masters’s campaign, it will likely provide a slight boost. Victors also gained headlines in 2012 for potentially being a spoiler to Republican Jeff Flakes’s Senate campaign.
Furthermore, polling is showing a final stretch boost to both Republicans, with Lake going from a toss-up race to her leading within just a couple of weeks. These races will likely be within 5%, and anything in the final days can matter.
As for the people I talked to as I was writing this piece, I got a text from one of the Republicans who previously told me she was committed to Kelly and Hobbs. In the text, she told me she was now undecided in the Governor’s race because “Hobbs is such a disappointment and Kari Lake is a wacko.”