Cracking Arizona’s Red Wall

PHOENIX — ARIZONA hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 30 years.

It has never sent a woman.

Kyrsten Sinema, the 42-year-old third-term bisexual, bespectacled congresswoman, has positioned herself to defy both of those historical trends this year in a state that's been reliably Republican for decades.

Her success – against a GOP opponent to be determined in Tuesday's primary – will likely be judged as a test of whether the blood red Grand Canyon State is finally cooling to a blue hue.

That would be a mistake.

Having led in every public poll this year against a trio of GOP opponents, Sinema enters the fall the favorite to flip the seat of retiring Sen. Jeff Flake.

But her advantage has been established through a carefully honed effort to present herself as a nonpartisan pragmatist who hardly ever acknowledges her party affiliation 16 years after aligning with the Green Party and then becoming a liberal state legislator.

"Party labels – well, any labels – have never really mattered to us," she recently told a local television station.

She is not a member of the "resistance." She steers far clear of polarizing controversies that embroil cable news and national personalities that dominate the Democratic Party and instead trains her attention on issues where she sees potential for compromise, like fixing health insurance exchanges.

Sinema, who has spurned both Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer as party leaders, even goes out of her way to praise President Donald Trump – "The work that the president has done on veterans issues has been great," she told reporters at a food bank – while leveling it out with criticism of his tariffs on international goods. She mindfully serves up something for everyone.

She's also purposefully keeping her campaign local, eschewing national reporters and withholding her schedule to avoid answering a question that uncorks an unnecessary landmine.

Even Republicans admire her strategy.

"She has done a great job of reinventing herself and basically telling a narrative of being very moderate, a centrist, a Blue Dog Democrat," says Mike Noble, the chief pollster of OH Predictive Insights, who is a Republican. "She's been playing her hand pretty much exactly how you should."

But if Sinema's blueprint proves to be a winning one, it will say more about the Democratic Party's need to balance its national swerve to the left with middle-of-the-road candidates in order to claw their way back to power across the country.

Arizona is "definitely not a blue state," says Tom O'Halleran, who left the GOP in 2014 and in 2016 as a Democrat captured a U.S. House seat representing a vast portion of eastern Arizona. "This state and [Sinema's] district and my district are not progressive districts. It doesn't mean you don't understand the needs of the progressive wing, but you don't channel all your energy there."

"When the voting population looks like the demographic population, then we have a better idea of Arizona's voice. I do believe that voice is purple."

For one race does not make a state blue. But Sinema could turn it a light shade of purple.

David Garcia, the Democratic Party's leading candidate for governor here, already believes Arizona is purple, even if its current composition of voters is not.

"The voting population demographically does not look like Arizona. And in my opinion, when the voting population looks like the demographic population, then we have a better idea of Arizona's voice. I do believe that voice is purple with a nice blue tinge to it," he says.

Garcia, a Hispanic-American, Army veteran and college professor, is running as an unabashed progressive in his primary to take on first-term Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. While he's attempting to mount a single-issue campaign targeting education funding – "Day One, we're going to focus on education. Day Two, we're going to focus on education," he told a forum on Tuesday – he's taken considerable heat for attending the liberal Netroots Nation convention and calling for replacing Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a system that "reflects our American values." (Never did he use the precise words "abolish ICE.")

An OH Predictive Insights poll places Garcia up 15 points in the Democratic primary and Republicans are already priming to run against him, having cued up pre-emptive attack ads.

But his competitor, Steve Farley, a moderate state senator who prides himself on partnering with former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to expand Medicaid to 400,000 people, says the GOP is essentially right when they contend Garcia is too liberal to win a general election in Arizona.

"I don't think he can beat Doug Ducey. I'm very concerned about that," Farley says. "He's giving them stuff that they can use and I don't. ... I speak really good Republican, so I actually can talk with folks in a language they understand. It's not a matter of, like, being as far on the left as you can in your tone. You can actually advocate for progressive ideas in language even Republicans agree with."
There is ample disagreement about whether Garcia or Farley is the better candidate to take on Ducey, whose approval numbers have slumped into the 30s and 40s this summer.

But while they are distressed about Sinema's strength in the Senate race, Arizona Republicans believe Ducey remains the favorite to be re-elected against either Democrat, even as he confronts a blue wave.

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at a campaign rally in Tempe, Arizona.(MATT YORK/AP)

While Democrats have seized on lingering anger among teachers from this spring's clash over education funding, amid enormous pressure and protests, Ducey ended up signing into law a staggered 20 percent raise for teachers that will take full effect by 2020.

Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican consultant in the state who worked against Ducey in 2014, says the governor now holds a persuasive argument to take to voters on the Democrats' top issue of education.

"They can argue all day long about how it happened. He parred the hole. He got it done. He delivered and teachers are now getting a 10 percent pay raise this year," he says.

"I think he'll love running against David Garcia."

But much like Sinema, Ducey is walking a political tightrope, just on the other side of the aisle. He's striving to stay focused on the state's business and economic climate while keeping safe distance from the daily hysteria and scandal ensnaring the Trump administration.

Asked on "Good Morning Arizona" this week if Trump would be a drag on him if he campaigned in the state, Ducey replied neutrally, "People have their thoughts on the president."

"He's conservative, but also not extreme by any stretch," Noble says of the governor.

Noble's polling shows a plurality, 49 percent, of Arizonans still identify as conservative compared to just 35 percent who identify as liberal. But drilling down into the issues, he's found that the 15 percent who identify as moderate are essentially Democratic-leaning voters.

For years, Democrats have held up an accumulating Hispanic population along with younger voters as the key to turning the tide.

But the voting rolls have stayed largely stable. New registration numbers released by the secretary of state on Thursday showed Democrats gaining 1 percentage point since March, adding about 21,000 voters to their fold. Republicans lost 5,300 voters, a negligible change, but still hold a 4-point registration advantage statewide.

"Nobody can predict where that line is going to cross, where we move more right of center to left of center. The real issue is, are these people going to come out and vote, those to the left of center?" says Richard Carmona, a self-described independent who lost the 2012 Senate race as a Democrat to Flake by only 3 points.

There are morsels of promising news for Democrats.

They are over-performing their early returns by about 5 percentage points as compared to the final result in 2016, according to Coughlin's consulting group, Highground, surpassing turnout in 146 precincts. Meanwhile, the Republican early vote is lagging, trailing their 2016 numbers in every precinct.

The party holds high hopes April's 5-point special election loss in the 8th Congressional District – showing a 32 point swing in their favor – is another harbinger of sustained gains on traditionally red turf.

The battleground 2nd District in Tucson that is being vacated by Rep. Martha McSally is favored to flip to Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, who has previously held the seat.

What's more is Democrats have fielded far more legislatives candidates than in recent years and have drafted statewide ballot initiatives pursuing renewable energy development and an income tax on the wealthy that they think will juice motivation on their side.

A Sinema victory would amount to the first crack in Arizona's red wall. A Ducey defeat would shatter it and immediately place the state in play in the 2020 presidential election.

But even if that dream scenario for Democrats comes true, the state will still look like a faint shade of purple, not blue.

Source: usnews

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