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Roll Call

Arizona Evolves Into Battleground in Fight for House Control

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Barber is still waiting to see whether he will return to Congress next year. Ballots in the 2nd District are still being counted.

Arizona looks to be a central battleground in the fight for control of the House over the next decade, as the competitive nature of its independent commission-drawn districts proved earlier this month.

Redistricting created three competitive House seats that most Arizona political strategists say will be contested until a new map is drawn after the 2020 census. Three seats are in play — the 1st, the 2nd and the 9th. Demographically, all three slightly favor Republicans, but Democrats carried at least two of the three in 2012. Ballots are still being counted in the 2nd District.

“Even in a year where the Republicans won the presidential race [in Arizona] by around 10 points, those three seats were very competitive and voters are going to have choices,” Arizona Democratic operative Rodd McLeod said.

Republican and Democratic operatives do not see other Arizona seats coming into play. Headed into redistricting, Republicans held five of the state’s eight seats. Post-redistricting, there are four safe Republican seats, two safe Democratic seats and three tossups.

Democratic Reps.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick and Kyrsten Sinema and the winner of the 2nd District race — Democratic Rep. Ron Barber or Republican Martha McSally — will begin the 2014 cycle as top targets for defeat. Kirkpatrick and Sinema were unable to break 50 percent in their final counts, as a libertarian candidate took votes in each race.

“That’s a very weak position to enter office, and I think it’d be like any other competitive district across the country where you have to go out and recruit candidates, raise money and not take anything for granted,” one Republican operative said.

A litany of problems dogged state Republicans this cycle, and operatives argue that the GOP will be in better shape next time around.

Democrats will concede some of those points, but they say the state GOP has deeper problems. In the past several years, state Republicans have built up a harshly conservative brand. The Republican-led state government’s hard-line immigration law did nothing to ingratiate the party to the growing Hispanic population. And like elsewhere in the country, moderates have a difficult time getting through GOP primaries without having to tack hard right.

The Republican operative said it could be easier to sort out primaries going forward because there won’t be multiple open seats — which draw a large field of candidates — because of redistricting.

“I think you would have a different situation, less people stepping up to the plate to challenge an incumbent,” he said. “That changes the whole primary situation.”

On the Democratic side, the party is placing an emphasis on targeting mail-in ballot voters and the Latino vote as well as cultivating a bench.

McLeod, a New York state transplant, was one of the busiest operatives in the cycle, having worked for Richard Carmona’s Senate bid, as well as the Sinema and Barber campaigns.

“Campaigns matter. Individual candidates matter. Campaigns make a difference,” he said. “If you’re an interesting person and you run a good campaign, you can win.”

President Barack Obama did not perform as well in Arizona this year as he did in 2008, when he faced native son Republican Sen. John McCain. Despite that, there are many predictions that Arizona will shift into the competitive presidential category in cycles to come. If that happens, the repercussions extend beyond the usual coattail calculations.

The Phoenix media market was saturated in 2012, even without presidential ads. Two of the competitive House races are covered by the market. Throw in hypothetical competitive Senate and presidential races in 2016 and Phoenix could rival Cleveland and Orlando, Fla., in election-year TV ad rates.

Any candidate who wants to run for office in the Phoenix market will have to know how to raise money, and the national parties will have to be prepared to spend heavily.

It only illustrates the complex nature of Arizona politics that Obama could lose the state by about 10 points while Democrats are postured to take control of Arizona’s House delegation if Barber wins. If he loses, Republicans will be one for three in competitive races in the state this year.

Barber won a June special election to replace his former boss, former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But on last week’s ballot, he faced a stronger nominee in McSally, a retired Air Force colonel.

“Martha McSally has overcome obstacles and exceeded expectations her entire career, and that extended to this campaign,” the national GOP operative said. “No matter the outcome of this race, she’s going to be a major force in Arizona politics.”

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