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What the Devil won't tell you

Showstopper: Ala. result means Senate control will rest with Az voters

2 branches of government on the line; 2 Senate races possible here next year

Hey, Arizona. It just got real, yo.

The political world is about to descend on us just as soon as the pundits figure out what is what as they digest the last of their grits and catch that flight out of Birmingham, Ala.

Alabama flipped blue for a moment in time — but it was the right moment. Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore and the political ground shook. The Yellowhammer State just thumped the ground and Grand Canyon State is dangling over the edge.

We'll have at least one hotly contested U.S. Senate race here next year, and it's a distinct possibility we'll have two happening at the same time. And control of the U.S. Senate will be on the line.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake announced in November he would not seek a second term in the Senate, just as hard-charging Democrat Kyrsten Sinema stepped up and conservative insurgent Kelli Ward, a former state representative, surged forth in the polls. Were it not for the Jones win in Alabama, Democrats could win Arizona's Senate seat but in the best-case scenario, that would still leave the party in a 50-50 tie with the GOP. Vice President Mike Pence would break the tie and let the Republicans organize the majority. Arizona would be relevant but less than decisive.

Well, that all changed Tuesday night.

The road for control of the Senate now runs down Speedway, up Central Avenue, traces along Montezuma in Prescott and threads through Broad Street in Globe to the railroad tracks in Flagstaff.

Arizona stands to play the cumulative role of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania in the 2018 Senate sweepstakes. Voters often fail to grasp how the majority controls what gets to the Senate floor, including who sits on the federal bench. So that's two — count 'em — branches of government Arizonans could control.

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Easy as one, two, three ...

Here's what I mean.

The 2018 Senate map looks horrible for Democrats. Before they can gain a seat, the Dems have to hold Montana, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Florida, West Virginia, Indiana, and North Dakota. Then they have to figure out how to turn a red state blue, despite the remaining red states being blood red, ruby red, Lenin red.

Just two months ago, the nature of the map cut off all Democratic paths to advance beyond one seat, when they need three to take over. One state, Nevada, looked like it could be poached. Flake may have been vulnerable to a long shot. Perhaps. The party's prospects ended there. In fact I told a prominent Republican not too long ago Republicans couldn't lose the Senate.

"I can count to two seats to give Democrats 50 seats with Arizona but show me the third state. How do Democrats get to 51. Is it Wyoming? No way. Is a Democrat going to win in Utah? Hardly. Might as well just expect a Democrat to win in Alabama."

And voila! The gods proved snakebit political parties in snake-infested years keep stepping on rattles. Alabama is in the blue bank. The Republican majority is down to 51. Nevada is doable. That's a 50-50 split with Pence breaking the tie. Arizona is the Democratic party's last, best and — face it — only chance to get to 51 seats.

Three things have to happen for Republicans to lose the Senate; let's start with the hard one first.

First, they have to whiff on eight shots to take out incumbent Democrats serving states that Trump won. That seems improbable on the surface until you look at history. Wave elections protect incumbents of the cresting party. Republicans rolled in 1994, 2010 and 2014 and never lost a single incumbent senator. Democrats crashed into power in 2006 and held onto every single Senate seat no matter how vulnerable. That's right. In the last four wave elections, no incumbent belonging to the victorious party lost a Senate seat. A gross loss of zero is highly possible if politics keeps following the resurgent Democratic trend.

Second, Democrats have to pick up seats, though the pickings are slim. Nevada is the lone viable swing state represented by a Republican. Events are shaping up nicely there for the Democrats because incumbent Sen. Dean Heller is facing a tough primary challenge from Danny Tarkanian, who is running as a conservative insurgent pledging loyalty to Donald Trump. The winner will emerge tied to an unpopular president who lost Nevada in 2016. That's an extra winnable race with that pair duking it out to prove who will suck up to Trump more.

Finally, Democrats must steal a seat and, well, that's more likely Arizona than it is Texas, Mississippi, Wyoming, Nebraska, Tennessee or Utah.

Until Roy Moore came along, there was that fourth deal-breaking requirement: Abscond with an unwinnable race. Alabama just opened a path to Democratic control of the Senate and the race here could be double trouble for the GOP.

Forget about who is up and who is down after the Alabama race. The fundamentals of that race can't be replicated. What matters is who is front and center and, well, hello world.

One seat, two seats ...

No Democrat has been elected to the U.S. Senate from Arizona since 1988 but we have been inching into the purple.

A lot of smart people on the right are going to dismiss the Sinema threat. They're kidding themselves. I'm not her biggest fan, but she is very smart, she works her ass off and she's moved in Congress from the far left to the hippie-punching middle. She's lost liberal friends but those butt-hurt lefties have seen the fruits of treating former friends like abject enemies. They got Donald Trump. Trump's been nothing but kicking them in the ribs for going on a year. To fight back, they'll have to vote for Sinema. So liberals will likely show that minimum degree of horse sense. I'm reaching, but we're seeing it in Virginia and Alabama.

I have yet to mention U.S. Rep. Martha McSally for an uncomfortable reason. I have no doubt that we've seen the last of her re-election bids for the U.S. House of Representatives. Lea Marquez Peterson, head of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is a McSally supporter running for her House seat. Like everyone else, I'm making the obvious assumption that Peterson got the congresswoman's "all clear."

The question is (shift in my seat and figure out how to phrase it) whether McSally seeks Flake's seat or holds out for U.S. Sen. John McCain's. Captain Straight Talk is not doing well. A nasty strain of cancer has struck his brain. How much longer will he be in office? It would be terrible if illness cut his life and career shorter than it would be otherwise, but if happens Arizona is out two incumbents.

McSally could be appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to take McCain's seat and then have to stand for election at the soonest possible date. The good news for her would be that McSally could ascend to the Senate without facing a primary against "Chemtrail" Kelli Ward or a general election race against Sinema. But that seat may also be put before the voters next August (in the primaries) and November (to determine who'll fill out the remainder of the term, through 2020).

Sinema can take Ward, who is running as Trump's affirmation.

I get that would be a preferable path on one level but it's less than ideal. I can't imagine McSally would enjoy being caught waiting on McCain and depending on Ducey to appoint her. That's a lot of moving parts and some icky karma.

But it's a very possible scenario and it also explains why she's taking so long to announce her bid.

The point is: Arizona could have two Senate seats on the ballot in the same year with control of the Senate on the line. That would be a political showstopper.

CD 2 down here in Baja Arizona will be high-profile again, especially if it's an open seat. The GOP-leaning CD 8 might attract some attention with Trent Franks having chased himself out of office (setting up two elections in quick succession next year there), and the vast swath of CD 1 will be looked at hard by Republicans looking for a pickup there.

But it's the Senate race(s) that'll dominate the headlines — and the money-chase.

In the increasingly unlikely event McCain stays healthy and in office, McSally would have to duke it out with Ward in a nasty primary. Already, the culture warriors and laissez faire conservatives are lining up for Ward and against the Tucson Republican. The big-business guys at Club for Growth and the Koch brothers' Freedom Works are already on board for Ward. Ken Cuccinelli and the godfather of the Religious Right, Richard Viguerie, have pledged to beat McSally because she doesn't suit up for the culture war (she just fought in real ones, but that's not enough).

As an aside, Arizona's almost certainly going to send our first female senator to D.C. We've sent 12 men over the century Arizona's been a state, and this time, all of the top-level candidates are women: Ward and McSally on the GOP side, and Sinema and political newcomer Deedra Abboud for the Dems. What remains to be seen is which other candidates might yet jump in, especially on the Democratic side if that second seat is in play, but they'd face an uphill climb.

No matter how many senators we're electing next year, Trump has become the litmus test for Republicans. Stand with the unpopular president and prove yourself worthy. Oppose him and prove yourself a traitor to the cause.

That test has a sane political rationale. The only way to improve the GOP's prospects next November is to improve the president's job approval and that won't be helped with Republicans looking for ways to distance themselves from him. On the other hand, nothing scares a congressional incumbent more than an unpopular president in her own party.

Polls pop up intermittently as to Trump's job approval in Arizona and the most recent show Trump in the low 40s. The pollsters hardly skew left. A Morning Consult Poll, which consistently tracks the president above other major polling operations, pegged Trump's Arizona support at 44 percent. A High Ground poll, conducted by an Arizona Republican consulting firm, put it at 42 percent a few weeks prior. And Trump won Arizona by just 5 points in 2016.

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Civil war to come

It's possible the hard right will look at what happened in Alabama, take a breath and examine how they are presenting themselves to the voters. If history is any indication, the hard right never apologizes. Steve Bannon is far less likely to say, "Wow, I was wrong," in championing Moore than he is to say "establishment Republicans screwed Moore out of a Senate seat. Now it's war." And that war won't be with Democrats but a civil war within the GOP.

The losers in that family battle may not vote Democratic but they could stay home.

Here's an interesting development in the waning days of the Alabama campaign. Bannon spoke to a bunch of Moore supporters and seemed to dismiss to the pending tax cut as "a corporate tax cut," rather than tax relief for Middle America. Might the coming war devolve into the Bannon camp disparaging the president's lone legislative achievement as a crony capitalist gift to big business?

Stay tuned.

A lot of smart people are going to be trying to sound smarter than they are by detailing exactly what Jone's victory means for the midterm elections. I kinda doubt Democrats are going to be lucky enough to face Republicans as flawed as Moore. There are only so many mall-trolling, tween-chasing candidates who are nostalgic for the days of slavery.

Say what you want about Kelli Ward but she ain't that.

I'm going to go with the one analysis I trust. That's from Alabamian and former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines. That's right. The great grey flagship of the media elite was once run by a good-old boy from the South. Raines makes the case that Moore represents the fading glory of George Wallace's Alabama. Much less eloquently, Charles Barkley hit the note with Trumpian aplomb telling Alabamians,"At some point, we gotta stop looking like idiots to the nation." That would seem to be a Deep South thing aimed at the suburbs.

Moore was never that popular with Alabamians and the president picked Election Day to send out the most vile tweet of the Trump era. He called a sitting U.S. senator a slut performing sexual favors for campaign cash. Y'know,  just in case women in suburban Birmingham were on the fence.

The effect of Alabama's vote in a unique race will be overstated. Democrats can roll back into control of the House with the kind of turnout they showed in Virginia and Alabama. The Senate hasn't been in play until now.

At some point in the coming months, the national political press will look at the map and their eyes will fall down to the bottom left side. They'll be on a plane for Sky Harbor, about to learn the glory of bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Arizona votes may just matter like they never have before.

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have your say   

Latest comments on this storyRead all 5 »

5
2 comments
Dec 14, 2017, 7:17 pm
-0 +1

Many people say Sinema is a lock for the nomination. Not so fast. She isn’t liked by a large block of progressives for pro-Trump votes she has taken and the disabled community for her sponsorship of HR620. Deedra Abboud has been building a grassroots network of supporters all over Arizona. One thing is clear, it looks like Arizona’s next senator is going to be a woman. The question is will it be one who puts the people first or corporate donors. Deedra has signed #CandidatesWithAContract not to take ANY PAC donations. Can the others say the same?

4
536 comments
Dec 13, 2017, 4:31 pm
-0 +1

Among the possibilities is that McSally is awaiting an appointment to McCain’s seat, with the ability to run as an incumbent. And she hasn’t formally said she’s not seeking her House seat again.

Lea Marquez Peterson told me this afternoon that if McSally does run for re-election, she’ll drop out of the race.

3
8 comments
Dec 13, 2017, 4:17 pm
-0 +0

Right off the wall let me ask: is McSally actually angling for a presidential appointment rather than getting into a Senate campaign in which she might have a tough time beating Ward and then Sinema?  Is her declining to run for re-election in CD 2 a sign she doesn’t think she has a future there or is it confidence that better things lie ahead?  I can’t think of a good reason to delay an announcement if she is going to run for anything.

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Sinema, McSally, Ward, Abboud.

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