Last year’s election cycle was one many Arizonans would just as soon forget. Hours-long waits at the polls, wrong dates on Spanish-language voter cards, and voters whose names were missing from the rolls or who found themselves registered to political parties they didn’t support gave the state’s already bruised reputation another black eye. It didn’t help that Russian hackers targeted the state’s voter registration system, fueling questions about the sanctity of the electoral process just as the nation’s eyes were trained on Arizona, which had emerged as a battleground state.
Conversely, forgetting this year’s cycle will be a snap. The only measure of excitement – and, trust me, characterizing it that way still feels like a stretch – came from a sole primary race in Phoenix, where City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, an outspoken conservative, squeaked past his challenger, Kevin Patterson, to win re-election for District 6.
So we turn our eyes to 2018, where we find a full cupboard of talking points 10 months ahead of the primaries – an eternity in politics. We talked to pollsters, campaign consultants and political operatives; read Jeff Flake’s book and President Trump’s tweets; and played match after match of political dominoes to flesh out a trail of possibilities that runs from the Phoenix mayor’s office all the way to the United States Senate. By this time next year, the following five burning questions will have been answered.
Question 1: Will Flake survive the primaries?
On fiscal issues, Senator Jeff Flake is a rock-ribbed conservative. Club for Growth, the handsomely funded free-market advocacy group, gave him a 96 percent lifetime score based on his record through last year’s legislative session. So far this year, Flake hasn’t disappointed: Nine in 10 of his legislative votes have been in line with President Donald Trump and his conservative agenda. Most tellingly, Flake backed the attempt to repeal Obamacare, an effort derailed by his senior counterpart in the Senate and fellow Republican, John McCain.
The problem is that Trump not only doesn’t seem to care for Flake, he has very openly criticized Flake, in the same caustic language that has inspired bullies and white nationalists everywhere. Trump has savaged Flake on Twitter, calling him “toxic,” “a non-factor in the Senate,” “ineffective” and “weak on borders and crime,” a claim that he echoed during a rally in Phoenix in August.
Flake hasn’t backed down, though, and his strategy has the hallmarks of a do-or-die political gamble. He released a book this summer, Conscience of a Conservative, in which he decried the “politics of anger” that has defined the beginning of the Trump era and described its approach of tossing red meat to rile up the Republican base as “the spasms of a dying party.”
Flake has also been vocal in his defense of the roughly 800,000 young immigrants whose permission to live and work in the United States is under threat by the ending of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The position may go over well with some moderate Republicans and progressive, independent voters, though if he’s counting on them to stay in office, he’ll have to provide some credible rationale for his Obamacare vote.
More pertinently: Flake has very likely alienated far-right Republican voters in Arizona, and they represent a far greater existential threat to Flake than any Democratic voting bloc – because those are the folks who reliably turn out to vote in the primaries, especially in an off-year election.
An August survey of likely voters by the Phoenix public affairs firm HighGround hints at the depths of Flake’s troubles: He placed 14 points behind Kelli Ward, a former state senator from conservative western Arizona who speaks the same language as President Trump on several issues, including immigration enforcement. She once called on then-Governor Jan Brewer to deploy the Arizona National Guard along the border to “prevent busloads full of illegal aliens from entering” the state. Like Trump, she’s also been known to embrace the odd conspiracy theory; in one instance, offering her constituents a forum to voice their concerns about so-called chemtrails.
If Flake makes it past the primaries – and he’s still widely considered the favorite to do so, right-leaning polls notwithstanding – he’s likely to have another tough fight in the general election. Kyrsten Sinema, a three-term congresswoman with a centrist voting record, is coming after his seat.
Question 2: Will Sinema become Arizona’s first Democratic U.S. Senator since 1995?
On a YouTube video punctuated by purple banners, U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema confirmed in late September what a lot of people suspected she would do: run for Flake’s Senate seat in 2018.
The purple was not coincidental. Sinema wants you to know that she’s not afraid to cross the aisle, to be a swing vote, and her track record proves it to some extent – according to a running tally by online stat-cruncher FiveThirtyEight, she’s crossed the party line on almost half of her votes. The record surely won’t hurt her as she vies to become Arizona’s first Democrat in the Senate since Dennis DeConcini’s retirement in 1995.
“It’s time to put our country ahead of party, ahead of politics,” Sinema says in the video. “It’s time to stop fighting and look for common ground.”
Among political analysts, Sinema is seen as a careful strategist who has steadily migrated to the political center to expedite her career. In 2000, as a graduate student and social worker, she backed ultra-liberal Green Party candidate Ralph Nader for president. It’s an association she appears to regret. Last year, she skipped Hillary Clinton’s rally in Phoenix, the first time in 20 years that a Democratic nominee for president made a campaign appearance in the state days before the election.
A self-identified “Mormon apostate” and bisexual not known to invoke faith on the campaign trail, she also embedded a subtle entreaty to religious voters in her September candidacy video. Recalling some tough times during her childhood in Florida, when – according to the candidate – she lived with her single mother in an abandoned gas station for two years, Sinema credited “church” for helping pull the family through.
“She does as much as possible to erase the liberal Kyrsten Sinema of the early 2000s and craft the moderate, Republican-friendly Kyrsten Sinema of today,” says Barrett Marson, a public affairs consultant who works primarily with Republican candidates.
Sinema has represented Arizona’s 9th congressional district since it was created in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Census, and it’s been a good fit. Republicans hold a slight registration edge over Democrats in the so-called “competitive” district, which spans parts of north-central Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa and Ahwatukee, but left-leaning independent voters – coupled with weak GOP challengers – have allowed Sinema to hold reign there anyway, re-upping every two years with minimal campaign headaches.
That could change in an instant if Republicans ever fielded a viable, well-funded District 9 challenger – a fact that surely figured into Sinema’s calculus when she decided to run for Senate. Mix Flake’s apparent vulnerability in the primary with the superior job security and prestige of the Senate – you run every six years instead of two, after all – and 2018 is the time. Make no mistake, Sinema would much rather see Tea Party favorite Ward in the general election than Flake. To that end, there’s already speculation that Democratic purse-masters will funnel PAC money into Ward’s campaign facilitate to create such a match-up in November 2018. Naturally, the Republicans will counter with their own dark-money shenanigans, likely to be spent poking holes in Sinema’s history and expose the liberal political persuasions of her past. Flake has already signaled that this will be part of his strategy. A tweet from his official campaign account posted shortly after her announcement called Sinema “a radical progressive who is out of touch with Arizonans.” The question, then, becomes: Will Sinema “be able to define herself to an electorate that is largely unfamiliar to her,” says Chuck Coughlin, president and chief executive of HighGround Public Affairs, or will “Republican third-party groups define her in ways that are unacceptable to Arizona’s general electorate?”
A motley assemblage of low-profile Democrats has also declared its candidacy for Flake’s seat in 2018, including airshow pilot Bob Bishop and Muslim attorney Deedra Abboud, but none is a serious challenger to Sinema. The primary election will take place on August 28.
Question 3: Whither Stanton?
Late this spring, Yellow Sheet Report, a subscribers-only Arizona political tip sheet, ran an item headlined, “Stanton for something in 2018.” That pretty much sums up Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix: He will not see through his second and last term, which ends after the August 2019 election. It’s been the worst-kept secret in town for a while now.
As this issue went to press, Stanton had not yet made an official announcement, but speculation was rife that he would go after Sinema’s soon-to-be open District 9 seat.
He’s positioned himself as a viable contender in the eyes of Democrats, vocal against President Trump on immigration and strong on the environment. If he does run for District 9, Stanton should expect a stiff fight from the Republicans, who see an opening with Sinema’s departure. Retired Navy captain Dr. Steve Ferrara appears to be the right kind of Republican candidate for the mixed district – a physician who volunteered for combat during the Gulf War and later became the chief medical officer for the Navy. Ferrara filed his candidacy last spring and has more than $250,000 in his campaign war chest, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Though Stanton created a committee to run for Arizona Secretary of State, challenging embattled Republican incumbent Michele Reagan has always sounded more like a Plan B. Yes, Reagan is vulnerable – she held the ultimate responsibility for last year’s chaos at the polls – but Congress is a sexier gig. That is, unless Ducey takes a job in Washington, in which case the sitting SecState becomes our next governor. Just sayin’.
Question 4: Who will get to run our schools? (And why it matters.)
When it comes to power, Diane Douglas, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, knows how to make noise – and headlines. Soon after taking office last year, she battled school board members whom she felt stood in the way of fulfilling her sole campaign platform: abolishing the federal education standards known as Common Core. She battled state legislators, who eventually drafted a bill to reign her in, and battled Governor Ducey, who signed the bill into law.
Douglas came into the job with a weak résumé and, by most accounts, a weaker sense of purpose. Though hers is mostly an administrative position, it’s also an influential bully pulpit – one she’s been curiously reluctant to use on the issue of school vouchers, one of the most consequential and far-reaching matters facing modern Arizonans.
When Ducey signed a law in April allowing any student to use taxpayer money to pay for private-school tuition and other education expenses, the best she could do was issue a statement of support. When
anti-voucher activists successfully put a voter referendum on the 2018 ballot to block the law, she was mum.
At least three fellow Republicans have announced that they will be working to unseat Douglas. One of them is Frank Riggs, a former U.S. representative who has pledged to be “fully transparent, responsive and accountable to parents, educators and taxpayers” – in other words, everything that she has struggled to be. Still, Riggs, Douglas and Tracy Livingston, who is married to a conservative state legislator, are all after the anti-Common Core crowd. It’s possible, then, that they would split the vote and leave the door open for Jonathan Gelbart, a political neophyte who, at 28, oversaw the expansion at Basis, the high-performing charter-school chain that is a darling of Ducey’s.
As expected, the leading Democrat in the race is pushing a different vision. David Schapira – a former high school teacher, college professor and state legislator who runs a public technical-school district in Tempe – has vowed to “fight vouchers that take money from public schools” and hold charter schools to the same standards as traditional public schools.
The fact that voucher opponents were able to collect more than 111,000 signatures over the summer to halt the program’s expansion signals that he has a shot.
Question 5: Will Latino voters tip the scales in 2018?
Which is to say: Can they flip a congressional seat? Propel a candidate to statewide office? Help the Democrats chip away at the Republicans’ still-sizable advantage in the Arizona State Legislature?
History tells us that midterm elections often favor the party that sits outside the White House. In 2006, Democrats swept to power in the U.S. House of Representatives, stymying President George W. Bush in the middle of his second term. In 2010, Tea Party voters returned the favor for President Barack Obama.
In Arizona, where Republicans have held political sway for 40 years, the most dramatic gains by Democrats have typically coincided with the midterms. In 2002, Democrat Janet Napolitano seized the governor’s chair in the middle of Bush’s first term. The same year, Terry Goddard – also a Democrat – was elected Arizona Attorney General.
The midterm elections of 2018 will present such an opportunity for Democrats, and Latino voters – who now account for 22 percent of all eligible voters in Arizona, the fourth-largest such concentration in the nation – could hold the key. To wit: If the Republican-led Congress fails to reach a resolution on immigration and the deferred-action program does actually come to an end in March, as the Trump administration has said it will, Latinos, a younger and less participative electorate, could come out in greater numbers and use their votes as payback. They may also get excited by the gubernatorial candidacy of David Garcia, a Democrat who came close to becoming state superintendent of public instruction last year.
They could also mobilize if the question over the expansion of the school voucher program gets to the ballot. A leading argument against the expansion is that vouchers syphon money away from the state’s public schools, which are already majority Latino, and disadvantage poorer districts that lack the tax base to redress funding shortfalls. Congressionally speaking, a spike in Latino voters would have little effect in strong Republican districts held by the likes of Rep. David Schweikert (R-Scottsdale) and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Glendale), but they might tip a competitive seat like Tucson’s District 2, currently held by Republican Martha
But here’s the reality: Even when they occupy the White House during midterms, Republicans tend to do pretty well in Arizona. According to voter data provided by U.S. News and World Report, the GOP actually increased its statewide registration advantage by a percentage point during the midterms in 2006 over the previous cycle. One possible reason is that Republican and conservatives in the state tend to have grown up in homes where voting is practiced as a civic duty – “it’s something you do,” HighGround president Chuck Coughlin says.
Even if Latinos don’t unleash a Democratic revolution this year, there’s a shift underway. Every month for the next 20 years, approximately 2,000 Latinos turn 18 in Maricopa County and become eligible to vote. By 2030, one in four eligible voters in Arizona will be Latino, according to an analysis by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Inflamed by aggressive immigration enforcement in the state, they’re also likely to be politically engaged.
But who says they’ll be Democrat? Traditionally, Latinos match up nicely with some core values of the Republican Party – family, religion, entrepreneurship. If Republicans can square with Latino viewpoints on education and immigration, the coming wave of brown voters may be a windfall for the GOP, not their friends across the aisle.
The McCain Factor
In July, Senator John McCain revealed that he has glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. It was news that some in the world of politics seemed to conflate with an obituary – including U.S. Senate candidate Kelli Ward of Arizona, who immediately went to Twitter to lobby for the six-term lawmaker’s seat. (Ironic footnote: Ward is a physician.)
As they say, “fake news.” McCain has remained engaged and effectual in Congress – most notably, by returning to Washington two weeks after brain surgery to cast the vote that doomed the so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare.
But McCain concedes that he has a “very poor diagnosis,” inviting at least the possibility that he’ll step down before next year’s election. PHOENIX explores the many McCain scenarios:
He stays in office through 2018…
and beyond? McCain’s six-year term ends in 2022. If he leaves office at any point before November of that year, the Arizona governor appoints an interim replacement, who would serve until the next two-year congressional election cycle, when voters would select a “permanent” replacement to complete McCain’s original term. (Read: If he steps down in 2019, the seat would be up for grabs in 2020, and then again in 2022 when the original terms ends.)
He steps down after May 30 of next year.
Governor Ducey would appoint a replacement, who would serve until the 2020 election cycle. May 30 is the deadline for candidacy filings in Arizona – after that date, the seat would carry to the next cycle.
He steps down before May 30.
In such a scenario, candidates from any party would be invited to circulate petitions to get on the ballot, and the seat would go through a primary and general election phase in 2018 like any other office.
So Arizona could elect two Senators at the same time?
Yes. But candidates would be required to stipulate the seat for which they are running. According to Arizona Secretary of State spokesman Matt Roberts, the respective Senatorial candidacy petitions “would have to indicate when the term is ending,” per Arizona bylaw. The petition for Flake’s seat would read “2024”; McCain’s “2022.”
Could any current Senate candidates change their preferred seat?
Yes. Before May 30, and with the necessary petition signatures. If Ward decided to run for the 2022 seat, for instance, she would have to circulate a new round of petitions with the correct term date.
Could any factors besides his immediate health weigh in McCain’s decision?
Perhaps. If McCain has a good relationship with Ducey and trusts him to pick an ideologically appropriate successor, the Senator might be more likely to stay on the job past May 30. If not, he might step down before May 30, to ensure that voters have the final say come November.