Missed Connections

Stephen LemonsNovember 1, 2022
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Photo Illustrations by Izabella Hernandez
Photo Illustrations by Izabella Hernandez

Resigned to a midterm drubbing, Arizona Democrats brought their B game to the state’s Congressional and Legislative races. Can #Roevember save them?

In 2022, abortion is one issue Arizona Republicans cannot escape, much as they might like to. Just ask Juan Ciscomani.

In a video posted September 28 to Twitter by a pro-Democrat group called Indivisible, Ciscomani – the Republican candidate for southeastern Arizona’s newly redrawn 6th Congressional District – is confronted by an unseen individual who identifies as an independent voter and asks for Ciscomani’s opinion on the “abortion ban” in the state following the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Though Ciscomani, a policy adviser to Governor Doug Ducey and vice-chair of the governor’s Arizona-Mexico Commission, has declared himself anti-abortion – save in cases involving rape, incest and a health risk to the life of the mother – the Congressional contender looked to two aides to come to his rescue, then apologized, pointed to his phone and scrambled away.

Online, Ciscomani’s opponent, Democrat Kirsten Engel, immediately pounced, tweeting, “Yikes… you know your position on abortion is indefensible when you’d rather run away than answer a voter’s question.”

A former state senator and state house member who teaches environmental law at the University of Arizona, Engel is unabashedly pro-choice and has attempted to capitalize on the angst wrought in Arizona in the wake of the June SCOTUS decision in Dobbs v. Jackson, which revoked a woman’s Constitutional right to an abortion and threw the issue back to the states. 

Indeed, the abortion issue appears to have boosted Engel’s prospects in a competitive district that leans Republican by 2.4 percent – and where Ciscomani has outraised and outspent her 2-to-1. A mid-August survey by the polling firm GQR showed the race neck-and-neck, with Engel leading 49 to 47 percent, and a margin of error of plus/minus 4.38 percent. 

Without abortion, Engel’s chances against a moderate Hispanic Republican in the GOP-leaning CD-6 – with inflation still top of mind for many voters – might have been nil. It’s an example of what wags on Twitter optimistically call #Roevember, the backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and the Republicans’ embrace of harsh abortion policies that put women’s and girls’ lives at risk. Along with the election denialism of many Republican candidates, it may help save Democrats from strategy missteps that, pre-Dobbs, seemed certain to doom them when voters hit the polls on November 8.

Post-Dobbs, the doomed outcome now seems merely likely.

The Arizona Democratic Party’s poor scheming and ground game applies both to high-profile Congressional races and to down-ballot races in the state legislature, where the balance of power, and the legality of abortion itself in Arizona, hinges on a handful of seats. But the get-’em-next-time strategy – not fielding candidates in certain districts, fielding poor candidates in others, with conflicted messaging – may have been by design. And pre-ordained.

In part, the Democrats’ woes are a product of being skunked during the 2021 redistricting, with Republicans playing Democrats better than Lizzo played James Madison’s crystal flute last month.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC), which redraws the state’s Congressional and Legislative maps every decade, is supposed to remove partisanship from the process. But Democratic and Republican consultants still maneuver to affect the outcome long before its five members – two Democrats, two Republicans and one registered Independent as chair – are chosen. 

The new Legislative and Congressional maps approved by the AIRC in January favor Republicans. Of Arizona’s 30 legislative districts (LDs), the new map created 12 strong-Democratic districts, 13 strong-Republican districts and five supposed toss-ups, though four of those favor Republicans, handing the GOP an advantage in 17 LDs total.

The issue: Democrats and Republicans are registered in roughly equal numbers in Arizona, with the GOP holding a slight 2- to 3-percent advantage. The seats should theoretically be equal. 

The disparity is even more pronounced with the new Congressional maps, which decide who will represent Arizona in the U.S. House of Representatives. Six out of nine Congressional districts favor Republicans, including the new CD-2 spanning much of Northern Arizona. Moderate Democrat incumbent Tom O’Halleran – who won three consecutive terms representing the GOP-leaning region thanks to his Blue Dog politics and knack for working across the aisle – is running in CD-2, which this time was drawn with a sizable 7.2-percent advantage for Republicans. That’s a hole even O’Halleran may not be able to crawl out of, facing a die-hard Trumper in political neophyte Eli Crane. 

Despite the unfairness of the maps, the Redistricting Commission’s vote on the final Congressional map was unanimous – though Shereen Lerner, one of the two Democrats on the commission, later claimed she had “made an error” in voting for it. 

As for the AIRC’s legislative map, Lerner and the other Democrat on the commission, Derrick Watchman, voted against it, with the AIRC’s Independent Chair, Erika Neuberg, voting with the two Republican members in favor of it. 

Despite the unanimous vote on the Congressional map, Arizona Democrats later asserted they’d been robbed on both counts. Charlie Fisher, the party’s executive director, fired off a letter to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich demanding that he investigate the Commission for “resurrecting” the practice of “incumbent

Democrats should’ve seen this coming like a Russian winter. Before the AIRC started work, David Daley, author of the book Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, was penning stories for Salon.com, warning that Governor Doug Ducey and other Republicans were gaming the system as payback for the 2011 redistricting, when the maps were rewritten to be more competitive. (Actually, the 2011 maps also favored the GOP, but Democrats were able to capture the middle by appealing to Independents and alienated Republicans.)

Arizona Republicans were furious that the legislative supermajority they enjoyed at the time was imperiled. They removed commissioner Colleen Coyle Mathis, an Independent, and filed multiple lawsuits to overturn the results. Ultimately, Mathis was reinstated, and the maps she helped create were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Naturally, more competition was good for Democrats, who made the new 9th Congressional District – itself written with a slight GOP advantage – a stronghold, first for Kyrsten Sinema, then for Greg Stanton, with Sinema using the position to catapult herself to the U.S. Senate.

Initially faced with a 5-3 Republican advantage in Congress, Democrats ultimately flipped the now nine-seat Congressional delegation to 5-4 in their favor. Moreover, both U.S. Senators sport Ds next to their names; the Republican supermajority in the legislature is past tense; and Joe Biden carried the state in 2020 by around 10,000 votes, the first Democrat since Bill Clinton to do so.

Photo Illustrations by Izabella Hernandez
Photo Illustrations by Izabella Hernandez

However, the Arizona Democratic Party (ADP) did not enter 2022 with an optimistic, winning mindset, and who can blame them? Redistricting was a disaster, inflation was rising and President Joe Biden was running at historic lows in job-satisfaction polls.

In short, the 2022 election had all the makings of a classic midterm bloodbath – and the Democrats started playing like a party that expected a drubbing.

Most notably, the ADP – led by chairperson Raquel Terán, a state legislator representing West Phoenix and Glendale – chose to employ a so-called “single-shot” strategy in key swing districts, running just one Democrat against two Republicans in Arizona House races where voters in each legislative district pick two representatives. In retrospect, the strategy will almost certainly ensure continued Democratic minority in the state House.

That strategy has faced intense criticism from Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts, who lambasted it as “political malpractice,” bemoaning the possibility of an even more radical Republican legislature, led by a faction unswervingly loyal to Donald Trump.

Asked about the controversy over the strategy, Arizona Democratic Party spokesperson Morgan Dick replied via email that, “In Arizona, we have seen over the last decade that a single-shot strategy is a successful way to get a Democratic foothold in a swing district.”

Apparently, the idea is that Democratic voters will rally behind one Democratic candidate, leaving the remaining two Republicans to fight for votes, especially from Independents. But even Democratic strategists express skepticism of single-shotting, while admitting it can work in some instances.

Tony Cani, who was deputy director of Biden’s 2020 campaign in Arizona and managed Kate Gallego’s successful 2019 mayoral campaign, explained the risk inherent in the strategy: i.e., urging Democratic voters to vote for one candidate, when they have two votes. “It’s not easy to convince voters not to vote, which is what you have to do,” he says.

Bill Scheel, a founding partner at the Democratic firm Javelina Consulting in Phoenix, viewed the single-shot strategy as part of the Democrats’ early belief that the midterms would end poorly for them. All indicators were that this was supposed to be a “terrible year for Democrats,” he says. “I think there’s some rationale for playing defense, but the way it’s evolved, I think it would’ve behooved the Democrats to be a bit more aggressive on their team.”

For his part, Mike Noble, managing partner for the non-partisan polling firm OH Predictive Insights, doesn’t buy the single-shot strategy at all, seeing it as a poor excuse for the Democrats having what he calls a “thin bench.” Noble concedes that “Democrats have had the most success here in Arizona in the last four years than they’ve had in decades,” but says now they’re encountering growing pains.

“The problem is, they’re struggling to keep up with the growth of their party,” he says. “And I think that is a bit of a missed opportunity this election cycle for them in the candidate recruitment standpoint.”

He also points to the race in Republican incumbent David Schweikert’s Congressional district – now known as CD-1 –where the Democrats are running newcomer Jevin Hodge. Sanctioned on the House floor in 2020 for campaign-finance violations, Schweikert seemed ripe for the picking in newly drawn CD-1, which favors Republicans by a mere 2.6 percent. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC, or D-Triple-C), the official campaign arm of the House Democrats, threw its support behind the fresh-faced, 28-year-old Hodge, who lives outside the district’s boundaries in Tempe and remains an unknown quantity to many of its voters.

Hodge’s greatest accomplishment as a politician was when he ran for Maricopa County Supervisor in 2020 and came within 403 votes of Republican Jack Sellers, scoring nearly 212,000 votes total. It was a promising debut – but not one that the average voter in CD-1 would be remotely aware of.

Schweikert, on the other hand, is a six-term Congressman with high name recognition. A contentious GOP primary saw the district awash in Schweikert signs, whereas Hodge’s road signs were first sighted going up around the beginning of October. In a conversation with PHOENIX in late September, about six weeks before the election, Hodge promises that “a very comprehensive TV plan and mail plan and digital plan” is on its way.

“You’re going to be tired of seeing me after a while,” he laughs.

As this issue goes to press in mid-October, voters are just receiving their first anti-Schweikert mailer touting Hodge.

Is it too little, too late? A high-profile contender with strong local connections like Democrat Hiral Tipirneni – a physician who ran unsuccessfully against Schweikert in 2020 – would certainly have been a better bet. Well-liked within the party, with a reputation as a good fundraiser, she lost to Schweikert in 2020 by a mere 4.4 points, in a district that was more heavily weighted toward Republicans than the new CD-1.

However, Tipirneni quietly terminated her campaign account with the FEC in April 2021. Democratic Party insiders told PHOENIX that the DCCC would have liked for her to run again, but that the Glendale physician decided against it for personal reasons. Attempts to contact Tipirneni for comment were unsuccessful.

Bob Lord, a former Democratic candidate for Congress in Arizona and now a senior advisor for the Patriotic Millionaires, a left-leaning group of wealthy Americans who advocate for a fairer tax system, lamented the Democrats’ mistakes this cycle. One of them, he says, is failing to run a Congressional candidate against Republican incumbent Debbie Lesko in the new 8th District, which is based in the West Valley and heavily GOP-weighted.

“They certainly should have had someone running against Lesko,” he says. He concedes that whoever ran would likely lose in the deeply red district, but “you still want people out there knocking on doors bringing out the vote,” because it “helps legislative and statewide candidates.”

It’s a sentiment that could easily be applied to state House races as well. Two factors have lifted the Democratic tide as November approaches: anxiety over abortion access in Arizona and Arizona Republicans’ insistence on nominating the most extreme purveyors of the “Big Lie” that Biden lost the 2020 election.

Regarding abortion, Noble conducted polling in September showing that 91 percent of Arizonans wanted the procedure to be legal, with only 9 percent believing there should be a total ban. Noble’s polling also showed that a reversal of Roe and a slight rebound in Biden’s approval ratings helped Democrats close an “enthusiasm gap” with Republicans.

“Republicans had a double-digit advantage on voter enthusiasm, voting in the midterm by about 11 points roughly. Post-Roe [being overturned], what we’ve seen consistently now is Democrats’ enthusiasm is matching Republicans,” Noble explains.

As a result, Democrats with the money to do so – like Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, U.S. Senator Mark Kelly and attorney general candidate Kris Mayes – have been hitting their Republican opponents on abortion and other issues as “too extreme” for Arizona.

Donna Gratehouse, an Arizona Democratic Party stalwart and pro-choice pundit, pointed to Kansas voters’ overwhelming rejection in August of an attempt to gut the right to an abortion as enshrined in that state’s constitution. She said there was “a lot of anger” and “genuine terror” among women over Dobbs.

Thus, despite Arizona Democrats’ historical affinity for self-sabotage, fate has granted Democrats a dire, near-apocalyptic reason to vote in the form of abortion and a wedge issue in the form of election denialism to appeal to Independents and disaffected Republicans.

Still, this is no guarantee Democrats will dodge disaster. As Democrat James “the Ragin’ Cajun” Carville famously said ad nauseam in 1992 while masterminding Clinton’s dark-horse presidential run: “It’s the economy, stupid.” And, lo and behold, as the 2022 election enters the home stretch in mid-October, a New York Times/Siena College poll shows that independent voters and women are inching back toward Republican candidates over inflation and economic worries.

Back down in Tucson, Republican congressional candidate Ciscomani has started hitting back on his Democratic opponent, Engel, with ads questioning her views on police reform, and the “enthusiasm gap” becomes an issue again. Politico reports that the House Majority PAC is cutting back on prospective ad buys to help Engel.

Still, Democratic booster Lord holds out hope that his party should do “pretty darn well,” due to the extreme Arizona GOP line on abortion and conspiratorial Trumpism.

“If [the Democrats] can’t pull this off, with the three or four goons that are running at the top of the Republican ticket, then they’re hopeless,” he says.