Arizona Democrats expected a blue wave. They hit a red wall instead

Andrew Oxford
Arizona Republic

Democrats spent a lot of money in Arizona to lose a lot of races.

The party has had rougher years here, of course, but 2020 was supposed to be different.

Sure, Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat and will deliver Joe Biden 11 electoral college votes.

The party aimed higher, however, working to try to win control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since the 1960s — a feat that would have only required poaching two Republican seats. Win three state Senate seats and they would have claimed control of the Senate, too. A congressional seat was in play. Winning the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and a majority on the five-member Arizona Corporation Commission even seemed like a possibility.

And why not? A presidential election assured high turnout and Biden had led in the polls along with Senate Democratic nominee Mark Kelly. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic had tanked Gov. Doug Ducey’s approval rating as voters grew frustrated with his handling of the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. 

Donors from across the country lined up, lavishing Democrats with more money than these sorts of races have ever seen.

They could have lit that money on fire and may have gotten nearly the same result.

The party won a second seat on the Corporation Commission and flipped one seat in the state Senate along with one in the House. But they lost a House seat, too. That leaves Republican majorities intact at the state Legislature and on the Corporation Commission, where the GOP won two races.

The Democratic county recorder lost his job overseeing elections. And the Democratic nominee for county attorney lost despite national attention in a year when criminal justice was a prominent issue. Seats on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors stayed in GOP hands, along with the assessor and treasurer roles.

Democrats and their consultants are now casting blame and looking for answers.

What went wrong for Democrats

Was it a big mistake to suspend door-to-door canvassing while Republicans kept it up? Should the party tack further to the middle or more to the left? Is Arizona not really turning blue, but just a slightly lighter shade of purple?

Whatever the case, candidates and their consultants acknowledge that they misjudged this election and some argue that their resources were pointed in the wrong direction, allowing Democrats to run up the score at the top of the ticket while losing crucial races down the ballot.

“The concern was Kelly’s race and nobody else’s,” said Democratic Corporation Commissioner Sandra Kennedy, arguing that the party’s coordinated campaign to organize voter outreach overlooked down-ballot candidates as it focused on electing a U.S. senator.

The Democrats’ Mission for Arizona should have applied the same energy to races for the Corporation Commission and Legislature as it did to the race for U.S. Senate, she argued.

Kennedy noted Kelly won in Legislative District 17, where outside groups spent $1.3 million campaigning against state Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, only to see Mesnard win by a larger margin then he did two years ago when he faced a Democratic opponent who was not nearly as well-funded.

“Kelly won that district, so should the Democratic candidate. That candidate should have walked away with a 'W,'” she said. Biden won that district, too.

The party, though, has touted the resources expended down ballot, such as in battleground legislative districts.

The coordinated campaign’s job was never to build name recognition for legislative or municipal candidates, but candidates in competitive races would have a hard time arguing there was not support, said Charles Fisher, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

“Clearly we misjudged something significantly with the electorate, with who was going to show up, with the enthusiasm Trump is still able to muster with his base,” Fisher said.

Meanwhile, many voters who turned out to lodge their protests against the president did not necessarily break with the Republican Party down ballot.

The committee had discouraged its candidates from making their races about Trump, and instead, campaigns focused on issues like health care and education.

“It’s not enough to break through the constant din of the presidential campaign,” Fisher said.

What Republicans did right

But Republicans didn’t hesitate in raising issues like “defunding the police” or otherwise seizing on elements of the national political zeitgeist in legislative races from Sun City to Chandler.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, argued that this hurt Democrats.

“In terms of policy, candidates matter, and some of the policies of the Democratic caucus in general — whether or not individual candidates ran on it — rubbed people the wrong way,” he said.

Plenty of Democrats have countered, however, that voters did not reject left-wing policies at the ballot box.

Propositions legalizing recreational marijuana and raising taxes on higher income earners both passed at the ballot box. The voters who approved those measures might not be easily pigeonholed as conservatives or liberals, however.

Both propositions carried several legislative districts where voters also elected Republican legislators, such as in District 20, where Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, has consistently opposed legalizing marijuana and was handily reelected.

That proposition won a majority of votes in all but three of the state’s 15 counties.

State Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, argued that it wasn’t the policies that doomed campaigns.

What is really key, he argued, is “the clarity of the candidate, the clarity of the message.”

Plenty in the Democratic Party — mainly, those who won something — don't take such a dim view of the election's outcome.

State Chair Felecia Rotellini said last week she will not seek another term leading the Arizona Democratic Party, but the announcement still described her as "going out on top."

And in Maricopa County, the Democratic Party touted the fact that it ran candidates for each major office, the outcomes notwithstanding.

Steve Slugocki, chair of the Maricopa County Democratic Party, believes that Republicans won in the county in part because of the number of Democrats undervoting on down-ballot races, along with Republicans’ and independents’ decisions to vote for Biden and Kelly but stick to Republicans down the ballot.

He said it was hard for down-ballot candidates to get their name out there when competing with presidential and Senate races. Democratic Recorder Adrian Fontes, who lost to Republican challenger Stephen Richer, said his campaign couldn’t afford TV advertisements because they had become so expensive.

Slugocki said that the results “cement the fact that Maricopa County is absolutely a battleground for the future.”

He said he feels good about the prospects for Democrats in elections to come.

“We have to find a way to get more attention on down-ballot races,” he said. “I think the party is in a good position for the future and that we have shown that we can win here.”

Other states saw same phenomenon

The problems in down-ballot races were not limited to Arizona, either.

Democrats eyed the possibility of winning majorities in legislatures from Texas to North Carolina.

In their disappointment, Democrats have diagnosed problems that may resonate just as much in Phoenix as in Fort Worth, Texas, or Tampa, Florida.

In Texas, former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said in a recent message to supporters that candidates and their campaigns needed to talk with voters year-round, pointing to organizers working in communities where Democrats have won important but often overlooked local races. Such work by advocacy groups in Arizona was hailed as a key part of the state's leftward political shift over the last decade.

O’Rourke also argued the party needed to be more effective on social media, citing conversations with voters indicating Trump and Republicans had a ferocious game online, particularly in targeting new and young voters.

Candidates and their campaigns needed to find ways of canvassing more at voters’ doors, he said, contending it can be done safely even during a pandemic. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., raised the same concern in an interview with The New York Times immediately after the election.

From the Biden campaign on down, many Democrats stopped knocking on doors as concerns mounted about COVID-19, though community organizers and labor unions often continued that work.

Fisher said talking to voters face to face is the cornerstone of organizing but that suspending such canvassing was the only responsible decision, particularly as Republican candidates from the president on down showed disregard for the threat of the pandemic.

“I feel pretty strongly that was the only responsible decision, and I feel it would have been hypocritical to do otherwise,” he said.

Contact Andrew Oxford at andrew.oxford@arizonarepublic.com or on Twitter @andrewboxford.