The latest Arizona vote count — with hundreds of thousands of votes still outstanding — has Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema with a narrow lead as she and Republican Rep. Martha McSally duke it out for Sen. Jeff Flake’s open Senate seat. Sinema is trying to turn the state’s Senate seat blue — something that hasn’t happened since the 1980s. It’s a goal that Democrats have long eyed, and many wonder if this could be the year that they finally pull it off.
A confluence of factors including demographic shifts, anti-Trump enthusiasm and the strength of Sinema’s candidacy suggest that it very well could be.
Sinema — a former Green Party supporter who’s rebranded herself as a moderate Blue Dog Democrat — has impressed many by racking up blockbuster fundraising numbers and holding her own against McSally, a former Air Force fighter pilot. She’s done well in the polls and sought to emphasize her bipartisan bona fides in an effort to reach the state’s wide swath of independent voters.
What remains to be seen is whether all of this will be enough.
“There are three states that we constantly discuss in terms of their blue potential: Georgia, Texas and Arizona,” Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said, ahead of Tuesday’s election. “You could make a case this year for all three but I also wouldn’t be surprised if none of them win.” (There is no Senate seat on the ballot this year in Georgia, but there is a contested governor’s race that’s still being decided featuring Stacey Abrams.)
Arizona’s enduring conservative bent has stymied Democrats in the past. The last presidential election the state voted Democratic was the Bill Clinton-Bob Dole race in 1996. And although Trump’s approval ratings in the state have sagged, they continue to clock in around 47 percent — 5 points higher than the national average.
Experts say that the current political climate and more dedicated efforts to turn out Latino voters could enable Democrats to gain a firmer foothold in Arizona — though this is far from the first time there’s been speculation along these lines. In 2016, Hillary Clinton even campaigned in the southwestern state, but the victory she was hoping for didn’t ultimately materialize. Here are five signs this year’s Senate race could potentially be different.
1) The state’s demographics are (still) changing
There are two key demographic shifts that could very well push Arizona further into the blue. That is, if Democrats were able to figure out how to properly harness them.
The first is the growing number of Latino residents in the state, who now make up 30 percent of Arizona’s population, but have historically comprised just 18-20 percent of the voters casting ballots, according to Politico.
The second — which includes some overlap — is an uptick in residents moving to Arizona from more liberal states. According to a recent Census study, Arizona gained nearly 80,000 new residents in the span of a year, making it the fifth-fastest growing state in the country. Many of these new residents came from states like California as they sought a lower overall cost of living.
Both could be a boon for Democrats if the party was able to conduct effective outreach and mobilize them for the election. “This state is in flux. It has been for many, many years,” says Republican campaign operative Nathan Brown. “[There are] Latinos being fired up to vote against Donald Trump and people coming in from liberal states because we have less taxes.”
It’s still unclear, however, if these two groups of voters can give Democrats enough to get over the top. In 2016, Latino voters were also seen as key to a Democratic victory in the state, but experts say that the party didn’t connect with them in a way that ultimately spurred turnout.
“They’re on the precipice of being able to change elections,” Lisa Sanchez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy told Arizona Public Media, of Latino voters. “But at this point, if there’s not some sort of mobilization efforts that are really stepped up, they’re not going to turn out.”
2) Recent elections have gotten closer and closer
Two recent elections also bolster the case that the state could be trending in Democrats’ favor. While Hillary Clinton did not win Arizona in 2016, she did come much closer to doing so than Barack Obama in the previous election. In 2012, Mitt Romney won Arizona by 10 percentage points over Obama, while Trump won the state by just 3.5 percentage points over Clinton.
Democrats have pointed to this narrowing margin as an indication of how the state has moved to the left. A special election that took place in the state’s Eighth Congressional District earlier this year has also been cited to support this argument. In an April race to fill a congressional seat vacated by Republican Rep. Trent Franks, Republican Debbie Lesko edged out Democrat Hiral Tipirneni — but she did so by only 5 percentage points.
For the Eighth District — which leans heavily conservative — a margin like that was a major departure from the 2016 election when Franks won over his Democratic rival by more than 35 percentage points. That special election might just be the “canary in the coal mine,” says Mike Noble, a chief pollster at OH Predictive Insights, a firm based in Phoenix.
If that degree of Democratic enthusiasm holds for the general election, Democrats in tighter races — like the Senate one — could very well benefit, though not everyone is convinced.
“In my opinion, you can’t take special election data and throw out historical voter turnout. Our numbers in registration for both parties,” says Derrik Rochwalik, chair of the Maricopa County Young Republicans.
3) Independents could tip the balance
Arizonans love to talk about their independent streak and that’s something that’s also reflected in voters’ political affiliations. As of this past August, the state had roughly 1.3 million registered Republicans, 1.1 million registered Democrats and 1.2 million registered Independents, according to the Arizona Secretary of State.
“We’re about a third, a third, a third — Republican, independent, and Democrat, in that order,” says Rochwalik, “It’s the independent voter that makes the decision in Arizona.”
Swing voters could very well shift the scales in favor of Democrats this cycle, since many are displeased with Trump’s policies and rhetoric. In a June NBC News poll, independent voters in Arizona said their vote in November would act as a check on Trump and not an effort to support his agenda — by a 21-point margin.
“Most of the independents see themselves as sort-of Democrats and sort-of Republicans,” says University of Arizona political science professor Thomas Volgy. “This doesn’t appear to be case this year — it looks like they’re heavily moving away from the Republican Party.”
If enough independents voted for Sinema, that bloc of voters combined with the existing Democratic base could be sufficient to overcome the numeric advantage that Republicans have in the state — particularly if the Republican base had a depressed voter turnout. An October poll from ABC/OH Predictive Insights found that 48 percent of independent voters were backing Sinema, compared to 36 percent backing McSally.
4) Some moderate Republicans could be peeling off as well
Independents might not be the only group that broke for Sinema. Polling data suggests that she could have picked up some moderate Republicans as well. The October OH Predictive Insights poll found that 15 percent of Republican voters who said they “lean conservative” were supporting Sinema.
This dynamic was present in the Eighth Congressional District special election earlier this year as well. As the Arizona Republic reported, some polls showed Tipirneni, the Democratic candidate, garnering as much as 15 percent of the Republican vote in that April election.
While experts remain skeptical of how large this party defection could actually be, McSally herself alluded to this phenomenon during an interview earlier this fall. “We need Republicans to vote Republican,” she said during an appearance on The Jeff Oravits Show. “We’ve got some moderate Republicans who have seemed to have drank Kyrsten Sinema’s Kool-Aid in the polling and we need to bring them back home.”
Sinema’s campaign has also sought to capitalize on these potential voters. It previously announced the launch of a coalition of Republican supporters aimed at reaching undecided Republicans.
5) Sinema seems uniquely suited to the state
Much of the Democratic hope for the Arizona Senate seat rests on the strength of Sinema’s candidacy. Sinema was considered a top recruit as Democrats angle to retake the upper chamber, and her centrist positioning and voting record has enabled her to appeal to voters across the spectrum — even as it’s raised questions among members of her own party.
During a fiery debate with McSally in October, she was able to simultaneously point to her vote against an Obamacare repeal and highlight how she worked with Republicans on certain measures related to border security — further underscoring her branding as an “independent” voice.
“She’s a prolific fundraiser and she’s almost embarrassingly talented and qualified for this job,” Don Bivens, a former chair of the state party, told RealClearPolitics. As USA Today reports, Sinema had outraised McSally by roughly $500,000 in the last quarter ahead of the election.
“I don’t think there’s been a Democrat that’s actually been good at fundraising and actually good at running a political campaign in a really long time. I think that’s huge,” says Brown, the Republican operative.
Sinema’s powerhouse fundraising and independent image, paired with an enthusiastic Democratic base, might finally result in a win that the party’s been looking for in the state. “You’re really not going to find a better year for Democrats,” Noble says.
More Info: vox.com