Rim Country voters may very well end up in control of the Arizona Legislature.
All right. Maybe that’s a teeny bit of an overstatement.
But how else do you explain the astonishing flood of money into the Senate and House races for state legislative District 6 — which sprawls from the Grand Canyon, through Rim Country and into the White Mountains.
District 6 remains one of the most competitive state legislative districts in the country, with independent voters accounting for 29.57% of the registration. Republicans account for 38.9%, Democrats for 30.7% and Libertarians for .83% of registered voters.
In 2018, more independents voted Democratic than Republican — but that still assured Republicans of a narrow win for all three seats.
However, the 2018 election weakened the once iron-fisted Republican control of both the Senate and the House. Republicans have a 31-29 margin in the state House, which means Democrats will gain control for the first time in a generation if they can flip two seats. Republicans control the Senate by a more comfortable 17-13 margin.
And that makes District 6 the epicenter of the struggle to control the state Legislature — especially on the House side.
The campaign spending reports on file with the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office hint at the crucial stakes in both the House and Senate races, with an extraordinary amount of outside money flooding into the district.
Total contributions for the District 6 Senate race have averaged just $44,000 for the past 20 elections — including an unusual $236,000 in 2018, according to Ballotpedia.
But donations this year have risen to a whole different level — just in the primary.
Three candidates this year have already raised nearly $1 million and outside groups have spent an unprecedented $400,000. So the $1.4 million donated just in the primary has exceeded the cumulative total for the last 10 elections.
The bare-knuckle brawl for the Republican nomination in the state Senate race has already shattered spending records — both in money controlled by the candidates and outside expenditures.
Retired Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers has challenged longtime incumbent Sylvia Allen for the nomination, with what amounts to a national campaign aimed at an outraged and active Republican base. She was able to rely on the contact list she gathered from her unsuccessful 2018 run for Congress. The one-time fighter pilot and consultant won a slashing, gut-wrenchingly personal primary battle for the Republican nomination but lost to former police officer and school board member Tom O’Halleran — the Democrat now running for re-election in Congressional District 1 — which encompasses much of northern Arizona.
Rogers has raised an eye-popping $526,000 so far, with a constant stream of fundraising appeals attacking “socialist” Democrats she says hate the country, want to confiscate everyone’s guns, throw open the borders to drug cartels and just generally destroy the country. She has so far spent $337,000, according to the Secretary of State’s website. Ads attacking Allen for allegedly not doing enough to support the police run constantly on The Arizona Republic’s website.
Moreover, independent, outside groups have spent another $117,000 supporting Rogers plus $101,000 attacking Allen.
The astonishing totals so far sound more like a congressional primary or a statewide office primary than a rural legislative district.
Sen. Allen’s no slouch with fundraising, and her numbers would look impressive in a normal primary. She has raised $106,000 and spent $48,000.
But outside independent groups have dwarfed her spending. Those outside groups have spent $71,000 supporting Allen and $101,000 attacking her.
Democrat Felicia French is one likely beneficiary of this Republican civil war in the bitterly contested primary.
Her campaign spending report also included some surprising numbers.
French has so far avoided campaigning much in person due to concerns about the pandemic. However, she’s raised $214,000 and spent just $52,000. French is a retired Army and National Guard colonel, who started her military career as a nurse and became a medivac helicopter pilot and served a combat tour in Afghanistan. She also has a degree in Sustainable Solutions from Arizona State University. She ran against Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff) in 2018, losing by about 500 votes. She’s unopposed in the Democratic primary and will face the winner in the Rogers-Allen bloodfest.
So far, outside independent groups have spent $34,000 attacking French.
District 6 House Race
The campaign spending forms have revealed some pretty big numbers in the District 6 House race as well — although that’s perhaps less surprising since a Republican loss in those two seats could flip control of the House, with a dramatic impact on state politics.
Snowflake Republican Walt Blackman, a retired, career, Army sergeant, is running for reelection — after narrowly winning the seat two years ago. He has so far raised $62,000 and spent $52,000 — leaving him without much in the bank to start the general election campaign. Outside independent expenditures in his race so far total just $910 to support him and $441 against him.
Former Rep. Brenda Barton — who relinquished her seat two years ago due to term limits — is now running unopposed in the Republican primary to regain her former seat. She has raised $11,000 and spent $4,000, figures much more typical of primary election for a state legislative race.
However, Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans has raised $198,000 and spent just $21,500 in her uncontested bid for the Democratic nomination. Outside groups have spent $6,500 to attack her. But this means she’ll likely have a sizable financial advantage heading into the general election, unless Blackman and Barton pick up a lot of money in the final reporting period.
Evans has stressed education and health care, but her campaign has so far been invisible outside of Flagstaff, which has the biggest concentration of voters in the district.
The District 6 House race has another interesting wrinkle this year in the form of Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott’s bid as an independent. This means he doesn’t have a primary challenge, but also meant he had to get far more signatures than any of the other candidates to get on the ballot at all.
So far he’s raised $53,000 and spent $14,000. Independent groups have spent $1,700 opposing him.
Babbott’s a Flagstaff businessman who’s been heavily involved in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative and says he’s running as a pragmatic problem solver, stressing education, health care, forest restoration and local solutions.
He established a strong presence early enough to deter Democrats from putting up a second candidate for the seat, since each district gets two House members. It’s unclear how having an independent in the race will affect the dynamics, since a third of the voters are registered independents.
If most Democrats vote for both Babbott and Evans and Babbott also does well among the registered independents, he could easily emerge as the top vote-getter. If independents mostly break Republican as they did in 2018, then Blackman and Barton may do well — despite their current financial disadvantage.
Of course, the statewide and national picture looms over all the more local races.
The statewide U.S. Senate race pitting former astronaut Mark Kelly against incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally could conceivably determine control of the U.S. Senate. Kelly has maintained a comfortable lead in the polls for months, but a tidal wave of out-of-state money will crash into that race once the general election starts.
Moreover, Democrat Joe Biden has also established a narrow lead in the Arizona polls over President Donald Trump, which means the Arizona presidential race will get far more money from both sides than normal.
The impact all that statewide spending will have on local races like District 6 remains unpredictable.
Moreover, the pandemic and the recession it triggered hangs over everything in what ranks as one of the most volatile political years in state history.