Arizona Politics in Flux

By Jim Ellis

May 16, 2017 — The Grand Canyon State is looking to be a focal point for the 2018 election cycle. Sen. Jeff Flake (R) stands for re-election amid poor approval numbers within his own Republican Party vote base, while an interesting movement is occurring in what promises to be a competitive re-election effort for 2nd District sophomore Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-Tucson).

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Tucson)

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Tucson)

The Democrats have a fundamental non-correctable problem facing them in the 2018 US Senate cycle. That is, they must defend 25 of the 33 in-cycle seats with arguably only two conversion targets. In Nevada, which should be their top opportunity, Republican Sen. Dean Heller has yet to even draw a serious opponent, though it is still early. Therefore, the impending Arizona contest, highlighted by the public feud between Sen. Flake and then-candidate Donald Trump, becomes a more viable Democratic target than one would normally surmise based solely upon Arizona voting history.

The Senate race has already drawn early cycle attention, generally involving potential statewide candidate Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix), the 9th District congresswoman. Seeing her raise almost $700,000 in the first quarter and holding $2.8 million in her campaign account was commonly interpreted as amassing funds for a statewide campaign.

Within the past 10 days, while being interviewed on a Phoenix radio show, Rep. Sinema indicated that she is running for re-election, seemingly removing herself from a Senate race. A day later her spokesperson claimed that nothing had changed and Sinema could well run statewide.

Now further news suggests it will be next year before Sinema makes her final decision. Apparently, she wants to see if Sen. Flake will draw a strong Republican primary opponent before launching her own campaign. This makes perfect sense, as Flake’s real danger of falling into a potential losing general election campaign would probably come only after a bruising primary that divides the GOP base. At this point, only former state Sen. Kelli Ward is an announced Republican challenger, but other stronger potential candidates, such as state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, wait in the wings.

Rep. Sinema, however, is not the only Democrat looking toward the Senate race. State Rep. Randall Friese, the surgeon who saved then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from the gunshot wound she sustained to the head that ultimately forced her retirement from Congress, confirms that he, too, is considering entering the next year’s Senate race and he would be a formidable statewide candidate.

There are also recent developments potentially affecting the southeastern Arizona congressional race. Rep. McSally represents a marginal political district, originally drawn for Giffords, that hugs the far southeastern corner of the state. Winning the closest election of the 2014 cycle, a 161-vote victory over then-Rep. Ron Barber (D-Tucson), McSally scored an impressive 57-43 percent re-election victory last November.

But a new development suggests that Arizona’s 2nd District could rocket to the upper reaches of next year’s Democratic target list. Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff), who represented the sprawling eastern Arizona 1st District for three non-consecutive terms, having lost her first re-election attempt in 2010 before returning in 2012, has recently moved to Tucson after her US Senate loss to incumbent Sen. John McCain (R). Though not yet deciding to challenge Rep. McSally, she admits to be considering the race.

But, even here Kirkpatrick would not have a clear path. Already in the 2nd District race is former state Rep. Bruce Wheeler, along with businessmen Billy Kovacs, Jeff Latos, and Charlie Verdin, while 2016 nominee Matt Heinz is a possible candidate.

Though Arizona politics will require a long formulation period, we can count on seeing a very active campaign cycle here, and one that will greatly affect the national mid-term elections.

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