A strong turnout in the primary could spell trouble for Republicans in the general election — and an avalanche of political ads in Rim Country and the White Mountains.
The First Congressional District seat held by Democrat Tom O’Halleran will likely be one of two heavily contested congressional races in Arizona.
Meanwhile, Republicans will face a strong, well-financed challenge when it comes to holding onto the two state House and one state Senate seats in District 6. The outcome could determine whether Republicans retain control of the state House.
The conversion of Arizona into a battleground state in both the presidential race and the U.S. Senate race will also prompt a vast flow of national money into the state, with impact all up and down the November ballot.
All this takes place against the backdrop where shifting Arizona demographics and political trends accelerated by the pandemic have turned Arizona into a swing state. That’s reflected in the primary by a surge in Democratic registration and turnout.
So first, the trends in the primary.
Republicans hold a registration advantage statewide, although independent voters still hold the decisive hand, depending on which way they break. The state has about 4 million registered voters, 35% Republican, 32% Democrat, 1% Libertarian and 32% “other.”
However, the primary election eroded the Republican advantage.
Democratic registration grew 9% between the 2016 and the 2018 primary elections. Ahead of this year’s primary, Democratic registration grew another 16%.
Republicans also gained voters — a 7% increase before the 2016 primary and a 10% gain ahead of this year’s primary.
Turnout for Democrats increased even faster, despite a primary ballot with few contested Democratic races and no statewide contests to drive higher turnout.
Democratic turnout rose from 24% of registered voters in 2016 to 29% in 2018 and finally to 38% this year, according to a tally of mail-in balloting tracked by Data Orbital.
Republican turnout went from 30% in 2016, to 33% in 2018 to 35% this year, effectively neutralizing the normal Republican turnout advantage.
This could have a decisive effect on both the presidential race in Arizona as well as the high-profile contest between Democratic challenger Mark Kelly and Republican incumbent Martha McSally. To stoke Democratic hopes further, Kelly as of mid-July had $21 million cash on hand — nearly double McSally’s $11 million.
This will likely play out in the high-profile local state legislative and congressional races.
District 6 State House and Senate
The big race locally pits Democrat Felicia French against Republican Wendy Rogers, who unseated longtime Republican incumbent Sylvia Allen, in a slashing, no-holds-barred primary battle.
Rogers raised more than $550,000, as of the most recent campaign spending report. But she spent almost all of that to win the nomination, according to preelection campaign spending reports. Independent groups spent another several hundred thousand dollars in a race that could determine control of the state House.
French is a retired Army colonel, helicopter pilot and nurse with a degree in sustainable solutions from Arizona State University. Rogers is a retired Air Force colonel and fighter pilot with a Phoenix business who has waged a string of vigorous but unsuccessful congressional campaigns.
French spent a sizable chunk of her time during the primary election on the Navajo Reservation, providing nursing and case management services as a volunteer during the pandemic. Nonetheless, her campaign raised more than $200,000, most of which remains for the general election.
Rogers blasted Sen. Allen as insufficiently conservative and insufficiently supportive of police and crime victims. She spent most of what she raised on political consultants and a barrage of ads and mailers, blasting “socialist Democrats” who will “destroy the country” and winning handily against Sen. Allen. The campaign produced a bitter split among Republicans in the district, which stretches from Flagstaff to Snowflake.
Republicans have a four-vote majority in the Senate — 17-13. So the District 6 race likely won’t shift control to Democrats, even if French wins.
The two House seats in the district present a much more attractive target for Democrats, since Republicans have a wafer thin two-vote margin in the state House. The two challengers in District 6 head into the race with a sizable financial advantage.
Incumbent Walt Blackman (R-Show Low) raised $68,000 and spent $67,000 in his uncontested primary. Independent groups spent $1,800 to support him and $4,700 against him, according to preelection financial reports.
Former Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) won her uncontested primary, raising $16,000 and spending $5,000. Independent groups spent $1,800 on her behalf.
So both Blackman and Barton will start the campaign at a rare, serious financial disadvantage with the Democrats.
Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans raised $219,000 and spent $26,000. Independent groups spent $6,500 against her.
Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott will appear on the general election ballot as an independent. He raised $55,000 and spent $15,000, with independent groups spending $1,700 against him, according to preelection filings. No other Democrats ran — so most of the Democrats in the district will likely vote for both Babbott and Evans. Once again, the independents will decide who wins — since they actually outnumber Democrats in the district and come in just behind Republicans for total registrations.
Other key state legislative races that could shift control of the House or Senate to Democrats for the first time in decades include District 21 in the northeast Valley, District 20 in the West Valley and District 28 in Paradise Valley. All represent seats held by Republicans in which Democrats have made big gains in registration and have fielded strong, well-financed challengers. The Republicans have fewer chances at picking up seats, especially given the shift in voter registration and turnout and polling data suggesting voter distress about the pandemic and the economic slump.
Congressional District 1
Incumbent Democrat O’Halleran heads into the general election with a huge financial advantage over challenger Tiffany Shedd, a rancher from Pinal County. O’Halleran had raised $2 million in the election cycle, with $1.4 million on hand in the July 15 report, according to the website Opensecrets. Various Political Action Committees accounted for about half of his donations.
His Republican opponent Tiffany Shedd has raised $624,000, and spent most of it on a vigorous primary in the sprawling district that takes in almost half of the land area in the state — including the Hopi, Apache and Navajo reservations. The district includes all of Navajo and Apache counties and the southern half of Gila County. She finished the primary with about $214,000 cash on hand compared to O’Halleran’s $1.4 million, according to the July 15 report.
O’Halleran’s top contributors in 2019-20 included Lone Pine Capital ($22,400), Eb5 New York State ($22,400), Bain Capital ($16,800), Costco Wholesale ($14,000) and Ledbetter Law Firm ($14,000).
The top categories of donors include retired ($259,000), securities and investments ($170,000), Leadership PACS ($148,000), lawyers ($94,000) and Democratic groups ($90,000).
The district remains one of the most evenly split in the state, with the Democratic north dominated by reservations and Flagstaff offset by the more conservative White Mountains and Pinal County portions of the district.
The Republican National Committee will likely provide funding for Shedd in what amounts to a swing district, although national handicappers say the Republicans face a steep, uphill struggle to wrest control of the House from Democrats.
The other congressional race to watch in Arizona is the Scottsdale-based District 6, now held by Republican Rep. David Schweikert.
Democrat Hiral Tipirneni already has a financial advantage, having raised $2.5 million and spent $1.3 million in the primary. Schweikert raised $1.3 million and spent $1.2 million. So the Republican incumbent has $230,000 cash on hand compared to Tipirneni’s $1.3 million.
Republicans still hold a 12 percentage point registration advantage in the district. However, Schweikert recently pleaded guilty to 11 ethics rules violations. The House reprimanded him and he must pay a $50,000 fine.
The other seven Arizona congressional seats will not likely change hands.