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Arizona race sets stage for Senate battles to come

State faces potentially competitive Senate races in 2022 and 2024

Arizona voters may not want to hear it, but Election Day won’t mean the end of campaign ads in the Grand Canyon State.

Millions of dollars have flooded the state’s airwaves, since both parties view Arizona as a top battleground in the fight for the White House and for the Senate. Democrats are bullish about their chances in the state after they flipped a Senate seat in 2018, two years after President Donald Trump won Arizona by just 4 points.

The Phoenix media market has seen the most political TV spending in the country this election cycle, a whopping $246 million for all candidates, according to Advertising Analytics. From Sept. 8 to Oct. 18 alone, some 52,456 ads were aired, the Wesleyan Media Project found.

That works out to 1,311 ads a day. And this year may only be the beginning of things to come with competitive Senate races likely again in 2022 and 2024.

“We’re ground zero,” Republican Sen. Martha McSally said at a Trump rally in Prescott this week. “This state will decide to send President Trump back for four more years. This state will decide the Senate majority.”

McSally, who was appointed to the seat of the late GOP Sen. John McCain, is in a hotly contested race against retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who is married to former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and has been a prolific fundraiser. The winner will serve out the final two years of McCain’s term and then have to run in 2022 for a full six-year term. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who defeated McSally in 2018, is up for reelection in 2024, setting up another competitive battle. 

Democrats, and even some Republicans, believe Kelly has the advantage this year. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Senate race Tilt Democratic. If Kelly wins, it would be the first time in almost 68 years that Arizona would have two Democrats in the Senate. 

“It’s shocking,” Chuck Coughlin, a veteran GOP strategist in Arizona, said of the prospect of two Democratic senators. It’s a dramatic shift for a state that was once a Republican stronghold and produced two of the party’s presidential nominees, McCain in 2008 and Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964. 

Turning blue?

The question for both parties is whether the state’s competitive nature is a long-term move to the left or a specific reaction to Trump and McSally. 

Arizona political strategists believe the state has been slowly becoming more competitive as it grows more racially diverse, but Trump accelerated that shift by alienating independent and GOP-leaning voters in the state’s more affluent suburbs, especially in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix.

While Republicans may no longer be dominating, Arizonans cautioned that the state isn’t exactly turning a deep shade of blue.

“You win by coalition building here, and the combination of getting moderate voters as well as Latino voters out to vote,” said Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, who represents Phoenix. “You’re not going to be able to just run by hitting just one vein.”

Gallego said McSally made the incorrect calculation that she lost in 2018 because Republicans didn’t turn out and so she needed to focus on turning out Trump supporters in 2020.

“She or her consultants, whoever, just totally misread what was really occurring: that the state was growing more and more moderate and more diverse,” Gallego said.

The electorate has grown since 2016 and registered Democrats have surpassed voters not registered with any party. But Republicans still account for 35 percent of registered voters, the largest share of the electorate. 

Former Arizona GOP Chairman Robert Graham said the recent competitive Senate races are more a product of Democrats ramping up their voter turnout efforts.

“I wouldn’t suggest to anybody that our state’s turning one color or the other,” Graham said. “What it comes down to is the execution of strategic plans.”

A source close to McSally’s campaign said Republicans have expanded their field operation since 2018, working in conjunction with the Trump campaign, which has poured resources into the state. But some of McSally’s critics say she still faces the same issues that were problematic in her run two years ago, most notably her votes to repeal much of the 2010 health care law and her support for Trump. 

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Some Republican strategists said Trump and McSally have lost GOP-leaning voters in the suburbs who may have supported McCain in the past. 

University of Arizona professors Samara Klar and Christopher Weber reached the same conclusion. They wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that while Arizona’s demographics have been shifting, “What has changed is that more Republicans aren’t voting for the party’s candidate in elections for national office.”

Looking ahead

Whoever wins this year’s Senate race will have to quickly ramp up their campaign to prepare for a tough race in 2022. And so will any potential Senate challenger.

The national environment in two years depends in part on who wins the White House this year. Should former Vice President Joe Biden defeat Trump, Democrats could be facing a difficult cycle in two years, since the president’s party historically struggles in the first midterm election. It’s also traditionally more difficult for Democrats to turn out their voters in nonpresidential years. 

“In 2022, we need to have an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Gallego said. But he added that recent victories could bring more national money to the state, boosting Democratic voter registration and turnout efforts. 

Potential 2022 Senate candidates remain mysteries for both parties. Democrats were loath to suggest names, preferring to assume Kelly will win this year. Republicans also struggled to name potential candidates if McSally loses. 

“I think Kelly is in pole position for next time,” Arizona GOP consultant Chris DeRose said. “I don’t know who’s going to run against him and beat him.”

Some GOP strategists suggested Gov. Doug Ducey could run for Senate since he is term-limited as the state’s top executive. But they noted that his favorability has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some suggested a statewide GOP candidate would have to come from outside politics.

Whoever runs for the Republican Senate nomination in 2022 or 2024 could face a similar dilemma that hampered McSally in her 2018 race: a lengthy and divisive GOP primary. Should McSally lose this year, Republicans in Arizona say their party may have to do some soul searching ahead of 2022.

“We will have reached a reckoning point,” said Coughlin, the GOP strategist. 

“The Goldwater era has come to an end. The McCain era has come to an end,” he said. “So what’s next?”

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