Arizona Republicans are on defense to hold the Legislature, but here's where they see opportunity
Looking only at the numbers, Legislative District 4 would seem like a tough place for Republicans to win in November.
The district stretches from Goodyear all the way south to Yuma, extends east along the border and curls up into the southern side of Tucson.
Voters registered as Democrats significantly outnumber those registered as Republicans.
A Republican has not even run for state House in the district since 2014.
But the GOP is barely holding on to a 31-29 seat majority in the House and winning only the seats they currently hold won't be much of a victory. Passing any controversial legislation would require unity in their own caucus and that can be hard to muster.
Republicans know they need to gain ground. They see an opportunity here.
For one thing, the Republican candidate for state House was only a couple hundred votes short of winning six years ago.
This time around, their nominee, Joel John, had raised more money through mid-summer than Democratic incumbent, Rep. Geraldine Peten. And as President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign seeks to boost turnout beyond Maricopa County and register new or irregular voters to offset losses in and around Phoenix, the strategy could buoy candidates down the ballot like John.
Meanwhile, conservative groups are pumping tens of thousands of dollars into defeating Peten, in one ad casting her — the only Black woman in the Legislature — as divisive.
“They’re trying to paint me as the stereotypical angry Black woman and it’s horrible,” said Peten, D-Goodyear.
Who are the candidates?
Peten suspects Republicans targeted her district after seeing she had not raised much money.
A retired school superintendent, Peten was appointed to the House in 2017 to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Rep. Jesus Rubalcava and ran unopposed in both the primary and general election in 2018. This year, she has mostly quarantined amid the COVID-19 pandemic, participating in the Legislature’s proceedings remotely before it adjourned due to public health concerns.
The issue could resonate with plenty of others in the district.
The West Valley was hit particularly hard by the pandemic and months after the first cases emerged, more than 5,700 Arizonans are dead and Peten sees COVID-19 as remaining a priority.
“Here we are 6 months out and people are still dying. That’s a tremendous disappointment,” she said.
Peten has supported increasing the state’s unemployment benefits, which are among the lowest in the country, and has called for more testing as well as contact tracing, which has been lacking for months.
Meanwhile, all of this makes for a particularly unusual election year for John’s first campaign for public office.
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A lifelong resident of the Buckeye area and father of four, he worked as a music teacher in the Buckeye Elementary School District and now runs a small irrigation company.
Both jobs have given him a ground level view of two big issues in his district — water and education.
John said he left teaching to earn more money as his family has grown and would support giving districts more control over educational policy.
“I very much want to let local districts make a lot of decisions in the districts and make sure they have the funds to be successful,” he said.
Though some candidates for Legislature draw clear connections between their campaigns and the national issues electrifying the presidential race, John talks largely about local issues — how small businesses, for example, are an outsize part of the economy in rural areas like his and are feeling a particular economic pinch right now.
How the race shapes up
This is still a very Democratic district — on paper.
Peten's seatmate in the House is the chamber's Democratic leader, Charlene Fernandez of Yuma.
And voter registration statistics show there are about 40,000 voters registered as Democrats in the district and about 24,000 registered as Republicans. Those numbers have increased at a similar rate over the past several years, too. And most of the voters — about 50,000 — are in Yuma County.
But there has been outsize growth in the number of voters in Maricopa County, and the district's voters in they county include more Republicans than Democrats. Moreover, more than one-third of voters in the district are independents or affiliated with other, smaller parties.
The most recent campaign finance reports, which cover the period through mid-July, show John had raised more money than Peten. By that point in the race, he had raised nearly $40,000, mostly from individuals, and had spent about $18,000.
Peten had raised about $15,000 and spent only about $4,000.
The Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is lending a hand to Peten, though the spending comes as the committee is largely on the offensive for Democrats trying to pick up wins in Republican-held districts.
Arrayed against her are tens of thousands of dollars from other groups.
The Arizona Free Enterprise Club and Republican Legislative Victory Fund reported spending a combined $43,646 on the race in September.
A portion of the money has gone into mailers, some of which seize on national politics.
One mailer from the Republican Legislative Victory Fund said “we need leaders in our country who believe in our founding principles of liberty, justice and equality for all.”
The fund, which supports Republican legislative candidate across the state, features some of its attack ads on its Facebook page, but not this one. The mailer doesn't cite any of Peten's votes or bills. Instead, it accuses her of being divisive, quoting comments she has made about racism, such as that America “was not built on equality … it was built on enslavement.”
Peten described the ads as race baiting.
Representatives for the fund did not respond to a voicemail message.
Will presidential race have an effect?
Meanwhile, the district is has captured the attention of the presidential campaign.
Trump visited Yuma twice this summer and his re-election campaign has sought to boost registration and turnout among voters in exurbs and areas beyond Maricopa County to make up for losses in more established suburbs there.
Democrats have dismissed that tactic’s impact on their efforts to win legislative districts like this one and another, District 6, which spans from Williams to Flagstaff, Sedona and Snowflake.
“We’re not nervous about the Trump campaign’s statewide strategy in Arizona,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which campaigns for Democratic candidates at the state level across the country.
Contact Andrew Oxford at email@example.com or on Twitter at @andrewboxford.