(CN) – The race to replace U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who announced his retirement an entire year before the election, has thrust Arizona to the forefront of national politics ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
“If the Democrats are going to take the Senate, it goes through Arizona,” said Tomas Volgy, a former Tucson mayor and City Council member who has been on the University of Arizona faculty as a political science professor since 1971.
Traditionally the Democratic National Committee has not done much in Arizona or the West, preferring instead to focus on southern Democrats. But that picture is changing as the Latino population continues to rise in the West, Volgy said.
With just three or four chances nationwide to flip Senate seats from Republican to Democrat, Volgy sees Flake’s seat as the best bet for Democrats. Arizona has a long history of Republicans in office, but there have been cracks in the armor. Bill Clinton won Arizona in 1996, and had John McCain not been the GOP candidate in 2008, Volgy believes Obama would have won here.
Flake, who was elected in 2012 to serve alongside McCain, announced last fall that he was stepping down in frustration over his party’s failure to rein in President Donald Trump.
Arizona has 3.6 million registered voters almost evenly split among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Primary turnout here has been 27-30 percent since 2010, or between 870,00 and 990,000 votes, according to the secretary of state website.
Volgy expects turnout to be high Tuesday and in November, largely because of controversy over the president, and he thinks that will help Democrats.
Three candidates will be on the ballot for the GOP nomination Tuesday: U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, who is vacating her seat in Congressional District 2; Kelli Ward, a small-town physician and state senator who is an ardent Trump supporter; and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of misdemeanor contempt of court for ignoring a federal order to stop racially profiling drivers and later pardoned by Trump.
McSally, 52, is an Air Force Academy graduate and a 26-year Air Force veteran. During one of her six deployments to Middle East combat zones, she was the first woman to fly a U.S. combat mission and later became the first to lead a fighter squadron. She has consistently backed Trump’s policies. She advocates a strong border and is a member of the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.
Arpaio, 86, is a longstanding stalwart of the Arizona GOP. He was sheriff of urban Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, for 24 years. His tent city for housing jail inmates gained national attention, as did his contempt conviction. He has vowed to be a reliable conservative vote for Trump.
Ward, 49, is a physician who had a family practice in the small western Arizona town of Lake Havasu City. She entered politics in 2012, when she was elected to the state Senate. Ward is also ardent Trump supporter, calling herself the strongest “America first” candidate. She recently made national news after announcing a bus tour this weekend with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, and conservative social media personalities Tomi Lauren and Mike Cernovich, who was a major promoter of the Hillary Clinton Pizzagate conspiracy theory about a child sex trafficking ring.
Two Democrats will be on the Senate primary ballot: Deedra Abboud, an immigration activist and attorney; and U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona State University social work lecturer who represents Congressional District 9.
Abboud, 45, is a native of Arkansas who has been in Arizona more than 20 years. She lists eliminating corporate influence in politics and creating a single-payer health care system among her top issues. She vowed not to take money from political action committees, and favors boosting higher education by lowering student loan rates, expanding current free community college education programs, and expanding vocational programs.
Sinema, 42, grew up poor in Tucson and lived for three years in an abandoned gas station with no running water or electricity. In Congress since 2012, Sinema has consistently voted against Obamacare repeals and bills that reduced coverage for Arizonans. She is a longtime supporter the DREAM Act, and believes young adults brought here as children illegally should be citizens.
Although control of the Senate will hinge on Arizona’s race in November, Volgy deemed the House races more important nationally because Democrats have a better chance to retake that chamber.
Nine House races are on the ballot in Arizona. Among those, Volgy expects McSally’s Congressional District 2 in southern Arizona to flip from Republican to Democrat.
In 2012, McSally won the newly drawn district, which covers most of former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords’ district, by fewer than 200 votes after losing a special election to replace Giffords. The district has wavered from GOP to Democrat more than once, Volgy said.
Now there are five Democratic primary candidates, including former Assistant Secretary of the Army Mary Matiella; physician and former state legislator Matt Heinz; and former U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who represented District 2 then a redrawn District 1 from 2005 until 2017, running against four virtually unknown Republicans.
“I think it’s possible the Republicans’ have written off CD 2. My belief is that it would take a heroic effort for Republicans to keep that district,” Volgy said.
In the governor’s race, one-term incumbent Republican Doug Ducey faces Prescott oil company owner Ken Bennett. Democrats on the ballot include Steve Farley, a Tucson artist and longtime state legislator currently representing state Senate District 9; Kelly Fryer, the CEO of the YWCA of Southern Arizona; and David Garcia, an Arizona State University lecturer.
Volgy sees Ducey as vulnerable, especially if front-runner Garcia wins the Democratic nomination. That would give Ducey a formidable Latino candidate from Maricopa County, a rarity for Democrats in Arizona.
National politics play into all elections this year more than other years, Volgy said.
Trump has brought politics into focus in ways that other presidents haven’t, and many voters of every stripe – especially independents and Democrats – are angry. That could trickle down catastrophically for Republicans in Arizona.
“If (Trump) wasn’t a sitting president, he would have been indicted. He has become an unindicted co-conspirator, and that is very bad news for any Republican candidate virtually anywhere,” Volgy said.