Political Dominoes

Phoenix Magazine – December 2017

Mike O’Neil

In a blockbuster announcement taking everyone by surprise, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake dropped out of his race for re-election.

A multitude of ambitious Republicans in Arizona looked in the mirror the other day and wondered if they were seeing the reflection of Arizona’s next US Senator. The number of possible candidates is staggering.

The Back Room. The public will not have access to the most interesting of the discussions about what happens next; all are being held in private. Overnight, the race has become attractive to our sitting Governor and five incumbent Republican congresspersons, and a couple of recent ones. These key Arizona Republican elected officials have reportedly agreed that they will not oppose one another but will settle on a consensus candidate to oppose Kelli Ward. Ward is still widely regarded as unelectable, despite outpolling Flake and garnering the support of Trump Svengali Steve Bannon. No one sees her deferring to any other candidate; she is likely in for the duration.

Governor Ducey’s position is critical. Flush with Koch organization backing, most think he could pre-empt the non-Ward primary field. It would also solve a major problem for him: in running for re-election as governor, he would have to say how he can provide funding for what the public sees as massively underfunded education without breaking his pledge to CUT taxes every year. Actually doing both is impossible, but a verbal finesse is not. If he were re-elected my guess is it could well be his last elected office ever. As a Senator, he could largely sidestep this problem. And he would not have to take the always unpopular step of resigning to run, since he is in the last year of his gubernatorial term. He has indicated he’s not likely to run for the Senate, but the denial was unconvincing.

Martha McSally. If Ducey opts out, the Southern Arizonan congresswoman would likely find the race irresistible. She is rated as only a tossup in her current congressional district, one of the most genuinely competitive in the country. On the other hand, in a statewide election in a nonpresidential year, any Republican starts out with a nearly insurmountable 12% lead. A bit over a third of this is due to Republican voter registration, the remainder is due to the greater fallout of Democratic voters in nonpresidential elections. So, McSally would have at least as good a chance to win the Senate seat as re-election in her current district. (Democrat Kirkpatrick, her current opponent, might even send a check to McSally’s Senatorial exploratory committee; it would seem a sound investment.) McSally’s problem is being nominated. It is not clear if she is hard-right enough for Republican primary voters.

The Other Congressmen. Arizona has four other Republican congressmen. All are in safe seats, with a high probability of being elected indefinitely. According to Republican consultant Chuck Coughlin, both Gosar and Schweikert have taken themselves out of consideration. That leaves Trent Franks, who is sufficiently extreme that he might have Kelli Ward-level November electability problems and a newly-elected Andy Biggs. If Biggs is willing to part with a lot of his Publisher’s Clearing House windfall, he could make a go of it. And former congressman John Shadegg would be formidable, though it is not clear he wants the job. Former congressman Matt Salmon is another possibility.

The Others. Jay Heiler, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, evidently has the support of former Governors Fife Symington and Jan Brewer. These are impressive backers, especially given that Heiler has never run for anything and I doubt his name recognition would crack 1%. Arizona state Treasurer Jeff DeWitt and party operative Robert Graham have floated as trial balloons even before Flake bowed out. Either they were not interested or garnered little support. And nothing could stop any self-funded multimillionaire from seeing a Senate seat in his future.
Kirsten Sinema will likely coast to the Democratic nomination, unless Democratic liberals bolt, angry about the fact that she voted with Republicans more often than almost every other House Democrat. Opponent Deedra Abboud is seen as having no chance to win in November. Sinema was clearly hoping to face either an injured Jeff Flake or an unelectable Kelli Ward in November. The latter is still a possibility, and is clearly her best hope.

Kirsten Sinema’s Worst Nightmare is Martha McSally. Both have occupied swing districts and tended to cross party lines more than the average congressperson. But McSally appears to have done so without incurring the wrath of President Trump, who is said to enjoy a cordial relationship with her. McSally and Sinema thus occupy similar positions in their own party: each has a reputation for working across the aisle, at least more than most of their peers. To the extent that they are mirror images of one another, that translates to McSally starting out 12% ahead. That is a tough margin to overcome. Sinema needs a far-right opponent, like Ward, to win in a statewide Arizona race.

Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.