Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in Arizona since 2008.
When the Democratic state corporation commissioners who won that year, Paul Newman and Sandra Kennedy, lost their re-election bids in 2012, it was the first time in Arizona history that there was not a single Democrat holding statewide office.
The Democratic nadir was 2014. The Democrats ran what I thought was the finest and best-qualified slate of candidates for statewide office – from governor to state superintendent – in my lifetime, and perhaps in state history.
They all got swamped – except for David Garcia in the superintendent race, who was narrowly edged out by Diane Douglas.
What explains the drought for Democrats?
This Democratic electoral desert is a recent phenomenon. For the state’s first century, there was always at least one statewide elected Democrat in office. For most of the state’s history, Democrats actually dominated. Republican voter registration in the state didn’t surpass that of Democrats until 1986.
As late as 2006, Democrat Janet Napolitano smashed her Republican opponent for governor and Democrat Terry Goddard comfortably won re-election as attorney general.
So, what explains the Democratic drought since 2008, since it hasn’t primarily been from a lack of well-qualified candidates?
With the rise of independent registration, those remaining registered Republican or Democratic tend to be pretty brand loyal. There is not nearly as much crossover voting – a Republican voting for a Democrat or vice versa – as there used to be in the state.
And brand-loyal Republicans dominated the turnout. Since 2008, Republicans have been more than 40 percent of the general election turnout every year except 2016, when it dipped to 39 percent.
A Republican candidate with 40 percent of a brand-loyal vote doesn’t need to do all that well with independents to get over the top.
Democrats haven’t really closed the registration gap that much. The Republican registration advantage has actually grown by 40,000 voters since 2008.
2 reasons to bet on a blue wave
But Democrats had high hopes of significantly narrowing the turnout gap this election, with the advent of the much ballyhooed blue wave.
There were two principal reasons for this renewed optimism: President Donald Trump and the grassroots #RedforEd movement.
Since his election, Trump has proved to be a turnout machine in special elections … for Democrats. He polls poorly among independents. And there is a segment of Never-Trump Republicans, giving Democrats hope for a greater than usual crossover vote in their favor.
There was reason to believe that these factors were in play in Arizona, given the results of our own special election to replace resigning U.S. Rep. Trent Franks last April. Despite the district being a GOP stronghold, the Republican candidate, Debbie Lesko, only eked out a 5 percentage point victory over Democratic challenger Hiral Tipirneni.
There is a rematch this election.
For state offices and the Legislature, #RedforEd made education the issue du jour, which tends to advantage Democrats. And #RedforEd provided an impressive display of grassroots energy that Democrats hoped would carry over to the general election.
To a certain extent, these factors do appear at work this election. But, at this point, it doesn’t seem that independents and Never-Trump Republicans are inclined to vote against Republicans up and down the ticket to express their disapproval of Trump.
If the polls are to be believed – a big if – Republican Doug Ducey is winning the governor’s race handily. If true, that creates a huge seawall to a down ticket anti-Trump blue wave. The extent to which #RedforEd grassroots energy can be transferred into producing votes in a general election in a particular legislative district is unclear.
3 reasons to bet on a red backlash
Meanwhile, it appears that a red backlash has arisen to counter the blue wave. It consists of three parts: the Kavanaugh confirmation spectacle, the caravan and Trump.
Even Never-Trump Republicans were appalled at the behavior of Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Social conservatives are a volatile GOP voting bloc in terms of turnout. Nothing is more important to them than the Supreme Court. The Kavanaugh confirmation spectacle gives them a reason to vote in this election.
And for the Never-Trump Republicans, and perhaps some independents as well, the behavior of Senate Democrats gives pause as to whether the right way to express disapproval of Trump is to put this bunch in power.
Immigration is a turnout issue for the Trump GOP base. The caravan of immigrants moving inexorably toward our border is a stark and memorable image capturing our inability to control our borders and enforce our immigration laws.
You don’t have to be an immigration restrictionist, or hard-hearted toward the plight of those making the trek, to be bothered by the seeming helplessness of our country to control who comes here, when, why and how.
The caravan elevates immigration as a voting issue and puts a new light on some Trump policies, such as seeking authority to detain families for more than 20 days and even building a wall.
Trump might have overplayed the immigration hand politically by calling for an end to birthright citizenship and even asserting the authority to do so by executive order. But my guess is that the image of the caravan overrides caviling over what Trump proposes to do about it.
Trump is short on policy depth, but he is a genius at animating his base. And I suspect that polling underestimates the size of that base. I get the feeling that a reasonably large segment of the Trump base refuses to talk to pollsters as a matter of principle.
Trump has capitalized on the Kavanaugh spectacle and the caravan to frame the issues and the stakes for this midterm election. He has paid close attention to Arizona, appearing here personally and sending a tag-team of surrogates in the closing days of the election. That will influence turnout.
So, it’s a Blue wave vs. a Red backlash. Which will prove more powerful in Arizona this election?
There’s only one way to find out: count the votes.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.