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Democrats Were Expected To Win Arizona's House Of Representatives — Here's Why That Didn't Happen

Democrats’ promises to take the majority in either the state Senate or the House of Representatives fell short again this year, even as the party claimed victories at the top of the 2020 ticket.

As of Monday, legislative Democrats were poised to win just one additional seat in the state Senate; Democrat Christine Marsh has a slim lead of just about 622 votes over Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee in Legislative District 28. Her win would shrink the partly split in the Senate to 16 Republicans and 14 Democrats.

Democrats were unable to flip targeted seats in the House. Incumbent Rep. Geraldine Peten is actually losing her seat to Republican challenger Joel John in LD4, and Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans is behind in the LD6 House race.

Evans’ race as well as Democratic hopeful Kathy Knecht’s in LD21 were among the party’s targeted contests needed to flip control of the House.

The failure to deliver at the Capitol and elsewhere — including at the Arizona Corporation Commission, where just one Democatic candidate, Tolleson Mayor Anna Tovar, pulled off a win — may be surprising this year. After all, President-elect Joe Biden and Sen.-elect Mark Kelly rallied enough support to turn the state blue at the top of the ticket.

That leaves the question of what exactly went wrong for Democrats at the local level.

Chad Campbell is a Democratic consultant who previously served as House minority leader. He told KJZZ’s “The Show” Republicans who did not vote for Trump appear to have stuck with the GOP elsewhere, while Democrats may have stopped at the top of their ballots.

“My guess is that we’re going to see, probably, a higher number of Democratic voters that did not fill out their entire ballot as opposed to Republican voters,” he said. “And then, at the end of the day, I think that probably the Democrats — and a lot of this is due to COVID I think, too — probably didn’t localize the elections enough in some degree.”

The sting of this shortfall may be all the worse because of the record amount of dollars pumped into legislative races this year. Left-wing donors pumped millions into campaigns for Democrats challenging vulnerable Republican incumbents up and down the ballot.

That may have worked for candidates like Marsh, who was up against the senator considered most vulnerable this year. But it failed for others, like Dr. Hiral Tipirneni in her race for U.S. Rep. David Schweikert’s seat in Congress.

Schweikert entered the race at a disadvantage, having faced a long ethics investigation that found repeated campaign finances violations. In July, he agreed to pay a $50,000 fine and admitted to 11 violations to end the probe before the House Ethics Committee.

And Tipirneni held a significant fundraising lead over the incumbent — a lead that traditional campaign logic says should have also meant a lead in votes.

Chad Campbell told The Show the higher-than-usual spending did make some difference in closing the gap, even if it didn’t translate as expected at the state Legislature.

“But, you know, the money can only go so far in these races,” he said. “So, I go back, again, to the field. ... Anybody who runs a legislative race will tell you: The way to win legislative races is knocking on doors.”

And that was not possible at the scale campaigns would have liked because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not a crushing defeat, necessarily,” Campbell added. “But it was short of the expectations Democrats had, for sure.”

Now, Democrats must regroup before heading into what is sure to be a tense 2021 legislative session.

On Tuesday, Democratic members of both chambers are holding their leadership elections, which have yielded their own surprises.

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez announced Saturday that she will not run to keep her position. Instead, she endorsed current Co-Whip Rep. Reginald Bolding to succeed her and Rep. Kelli Butler for the assistant leader post.

Rep. Diego Espinoza announced his intent to run against Fernandez earlier this year — under the assumption they would be running for the House speaker’s seat. His slate also includes Rep. Jen Longdon and Rep. Andrea Dalessandro.

Senate Minority Leader David Bradley will retire from the Legislature, as he is termed out. Sen. Rebecca Rios is likely to replace him.

Legislative Republicans have already elected their leaders, or rather re-elected them: House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann, whose re-election was announced Monday afternoon, will continue to lead their party.

The 2021 legislative session begins on Jan. 11.

Campbell joined The Show to talk more about why Democrats fell short in down-ballot races.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.