Eyes on 2018: Arizona Senate Race

Arizona has a Republican governor and two Republican senators. Its attorney general and treasurer: two Republicans. Republicans hold clear majorities in the State Senate and State House. A Democratic candidate for president has only taken Arizona one time since 1948. But Jeff Flake, who currently holds Arizona’s open senate seat in 2018 but is not seeking reelection, is the second least popular senator in the country (ahead of only Mitch McConnell, nothing to be proud of). An intense debate over immigration, the lack of an incumbent, and the candidates themselves make Arizona’s race one of the most interesting to follow as the year progresses.

The Picture:

Though this is a seat Republicans should in theory have an advantage in taking, the current picture puts it in Lean Democratic territory. If the Democrats want to regain control of the Senate, they need to win Arizona and Nevada. If they don’t, they’ll have to flip Tennessee or Texas to achieve a majority. And that’s all assuming they hold onto their seats in Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana, and Florida, none of which are guaranteed.

While five candidates have declared their candidacy on the Democratic side, the only one with any prior political experience – and any plausible chance of winning – is Kyrsten Sinema. Representing Arizona’s 9th district since its creation in 2012, Sinema has established herself as a moderate legislator who has achieved bipartisan support. Her district, with a Cook Partisan Voting Index of D+4 is by no means safe, yet Sinema has defeated her Republican opponents by 4, 13, and 22 percent in 2012, 2014, and 2016, respectively. While she should be considered a strong candidate regardless of her opponent, her moderate voting record should lend her an extra boost should her opponent be someone from the far-right. Luckily, all three legitimate contenders on the Republican are portraying themselves as exactly that.

The Republican primary will be a bit more interesting, as former State Senator and unsuccessful McCain challenger Kelli Ward, Rep. Martha McSally, and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio all have some chance of earning the nomination.

In his twenty-four years as Sheriff, Mr. Arpaio attracted national attention due to accusations of detaining Latino Arizonans without any evidence that had broken the law. After being convicted of criminal contempt of court, he was pardoned by President Trump last August. His tough-on-immigration reputation makes him a hero in the eyes of some primary voters and unconscionable in the eyes of others, making him extremely unlikely to earn more than 30 to 40 percent of the vote, even if he runs a strong campaign. Arpaio’s path to victory requires Ward and McSally to split votes cleanly enough to allow him to win with a narrow plurality, unlikely but certainly not impossible.

Ms. Ward, who in 2016 offered Sen. John McCain his first legitimate primary challenge in over a decade, insists on her website that she’s learned her lessons from that campaign and is prepared to take the nomination this time around. Though inevitably more of an insider than Arpaio, she portrays herself as a conservative non-career politician. Emphasizing her private sector career as a doctor in addition to her hardline stance on immigration, Ward hopes to earn the Republican nomination with a cohort of traditional conservatives and Trump Republicans.

Rep. Martha McSally is the most moderate of the three, though this classification is only comparative. As Ms. Ward has attacked her over her prior support of DACA, she has tightened her stance on immigration and tried to portray herself, too, as a conservative political outsider. Last month in the lead-up to the government shutdown, she loudly opposed the passage of a clean Dream Act sought by Senate Democrats. Her announcement video proudly declares that during her time in the Air Force, she “absolutely refused to bow down to Sharia law,” and that she’s tired of “PC politicians and their BS excuses.

In a race where all three candidates are positioning themselves as right-wing outsiders, attacks are likely to get personal. It remains to be seen whether Arpaio has staying power in this race and how effective McSally’s attempted shift will be, but one thing is certain: Arizona’s Republican primary will be a tough-fought battle that will almost certainly leave its eventual nominee weakened, many moderate Republicans disenfranchised, and its base divided.

Where the Race Stands:

While the competitiveness of the general election will depend largely on who the Republican nominee ends up being, Sinema should be considered a narrow favorite, at least for now. While the Republican nominee will likely emerge from the primary low on money and the subject of attack after attack, Sinema appears set to coast to victory in her primary.

A November poll from Arizona-based OH Predictive Insights finds Sinema topping both McSally and Ward, though the results of both hypothetical general elections are within the margin of error. Ward leads the name recognition game for now with 79 percent, but Sinema (72 percent) and McSally (60 percent) aren’t too far behind. Sinema enjoys 16 percent net favorability, compared to 6 percent for McSally and -5 percent for Ward. Also notable from the survey is the large percentage of voters who consider “illegal immigration” to be their number one issue, setting up a battle to the right on the issue during the primary and the potential for a heavily partisan one in the general.

A January ABC15/OH Predictive poll shows a tight three-way primary race, with McSally earning 31 percent of the vote to Arpaio’s 29 percent and Ward’s 25 percent. While the race is still young and these numbers will likely change as voters become more familiar with the candidates, these results underscore the competitiveness of the primary.

McSally should be considered the favorite for now, as Ward and Arpaio are closer together both ideologically and personality-wise and therefore likely to split votes, but no outcome should come as a surprise.

Regardless of whom her opponent ends up being, Sinema should hope that Congress finds a fix to the DACA debacle soon, as immigration is an issue on which most Arizonans disagree with her. If DACA expires and a solution is not found come November, Sinema will be faced with the difficult choice of focusing on the issue, alienating moderate White voters who might be uniquely inclined to support her in this race – or largely ignoring it, depressing Latino turnout key to Democratic successes in the state. Sinema should hope to avoid turning the election into a referendum on “amnesty,” as it would divert attention away from issues on which she is likely winning, such as healthcare and education – both of which many voters say they consider important.

Sinema is the favorite in this race because she has a history of impressive fundraising numbers and a moderate voting record. She’s an impressive orator and should coast to a primary victory, a sharp contrast to whoever comes away victorious from the Republican primary.

While an Arpaio primary win would all-but hand her a general election victory (Arizona is no Alabama), she is also a favorite in a race against Kelli Ward. Ward captures neither the enthusiasm on the right that Arpaio does nor the ability to appeal to moderates like McSally, leaving a clear path for a Sinema win. McSally would no doubt be the most formidable challenger for Sinema because of her ability to make inroads with moderate voters, though many far-right Republicans would likely stay home following a vicious primary campaign.

The race is in Lean Democratic territory because Sinema is a clear favorite against Arpaio and Ward and about even with McSally. And while this is a race where things can and likely will change quickly, it is one of the Democrats’ best chances for a gain in the battle for the Senate.

RACE STANDING: Lean Democrat

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: DACA, economy, polling, Republican primary

STRONGEST OPPONENT: Martha McSally

 



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