Outsiders think of Arizona as one of the reddest states. From Barry Goldwater to anti-immigration hawks like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, our most famous politicians tend to be Republicans. But traditionally, Arizona is rather purple and regularly features tight statewide elections.
In the past 45 years, Democrats have held the governorship as often as the Republicans. But in the last decade, the GOP consolidated their hold on power due to the unprecedented organization of the Tea Party and the Left’s hyperbolic anti-Arizona rhetoric in the wake of the illegal immigration debates. (“Vote for us, you dumb racists!” wasn’t the winning message Democrats expected.) Last Tuesday, the pendulum finally swung back to the center.
Many non-Arizonans wonder how decorated fighter pilot Martha McSally could have lost to a progressive-turned-moderate like Kyrsten Sinema. Excuses like “Trump lost the suburbs” and “Democrats cheat” miss the point. Instead, here are five local reasons this race turned out as it did.
McSally’s Prevent Defense
McSally is no stranger to razor-thin votes. She lost the 2012 congressional race by less than 2,500 votes and won the 2014 rematch by just 167. A major reason for this is her campaigning style.
The Pima County Republican is very cautious. Very cautious. Instead of barnstorming the map and mixing it up with all comers, she carefully issues press releases and attends controlled events. She wouldn’t even agree to a debate with Sinema for months and then only participated in one.
Her style is reminiscent of the much-derided “prevent defense” in the NFL. A football team wants to protect a lead, so they stop trying to score and merely attempt to prevent the other team from scoring. It backfires so often, it’s often parodied as the “prevent-you-from-winning defense.” It definitely backfired for McSally.
Negative Ad Burnout
Most Arizonans would agree that the 2018 Senate race was the most negative statewide campaign they had ever seen. Traditionally, candidates buy a mix of positive and negative ads, a proven strategy that Sinema held to. But McSally and the outside groups supporting her were nearly all-negative, all-the-time. Focusing on the Republican’s remarkable achievements in the military and also in politics would have gone a long way to define a woman few in the state knew much about. Sure, there were a few ads like that, but not nearly enough to match Sinema’s seeming optimism.
McSally hails from Pima County, home to Tucson, while Sinema is from Maricopa County, home to Phoenix. More than half the state’s population lives in the latter, so they didn’t know much about the Tucson-based candidate. She needed to spend a lot more time defining herself since Sinema was already defined to a big chunk of Arizonans.
The McCain/Flake Hangover
Arizona conservatives have been frustrated with their Republican senators for many years. Jeff Flake and John McCain campaigned as rock-ribbed right-wingers every six years only to vote with Democrats in DC on crucial issues.
Since McSally had been very friendly with McCain, many conservative Republicans were turned off from the start. Late in the campaign, McSally embraced Trump, so moderate Republicans were turned off. To much of the GOP, a vote for McSally seemed like a requirement but was nothing to get excited about.
The Left Was Motivated — and Organized
The Right in Arizona had been well-organized for the past decade, but the Left finally caught up. What began as a grassroots effort to increase teacher pay in early 2018 was quickly professionalized by the state Democratic party and outside groups. Through social media and text messages, the movement activated hundreds of thousands of Arizonans and resulted in a 20 percent salary increase.
What do you do with all that contact info? Keep promoting Democratic causes of course. Tom Steyer’s NextGen America was notable in this case, flooding info to the young, while other players flooded everyone else.
Sinema Ran a Great Campaign
Whether its genuine or an act, Sinema has focused on cultivating her moderate bona fides for years. In the House and now in the Senate campaign, her mailers and ads are nothing but waving flags and smiling veterans. She barely mentions her party but stresses her “independence” and willingness to work with “literally anyone” on conservative issues.
She is also well liked on both sides, cultivating working relationship and friendships with political opponents for years.
All That Said…
As frustrating as it was to watch McSally’s weak campaign, I thought Arizona remained a bit redder than it actually was. At the start of the year, I predicted she and Sinema would win their respective primaries and McSally would prevail in a squeaker. But instead of the R winning by a point, the D did.
Gov. Doug Ducey defeated his Democratic challenger by double digits, but his appeal wasn’t matched in other statewide races. If the GOP wants to win in the Grand Canyon State, they can’t rest on their party registration advantage and old trends. Instead, great candidates need to run great campaigns and, at the very least, keep up with Democratic GOTV innovations.