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What the Devil won't tell you

No gimme: GOP may not benefit from Kirkpatrick's retirement

This oughta be a gimme.

Ann Kirkpatrick has announced her retirement from the U.S. House of Representatives. She’s a Democrat. The president is a Democrat. The 2nd Congressional District of Arizona is of the swinging variety. Put one on the board for the GOP. Picking up Kirkpatrick’s seat would give the Republicans 1/5 of the seats they need to flip the entire House to their control.

I wrote as much about eight seconds after Donald Trump's "American Carnage" speech and three years before we could all observe "oh, that carnage." It was clear Martha McSally, then Southeastern Arizona's congresswoman, was in trouble.

This isn’t partisan. It’s midterm math. The party that won the White House just doesn’t turn out two years later in the numbers of the losing party that wants revenge. The base of the president’s party can also be disappointed very few campaign promises have been kept and is sulking over the results.

It’s what happened in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Arizona voters also have a way of remembering they lean Republican once they see a Democrat doing liberal stuff in the White House. Democrats got wiped out here in 1994 and 2010. 

What’s worse for Democrats in particular is how wildly their numbers can drop off from presidential to midterm.

In 2008, nearly 70 million people voted for Obama. In 2010, Democrats won just 40 million votes in House races. In 2012, the numbers fell from 67 million to 34 million. They were nearly cut in half.

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Republicans are a bit more consistent. In 2004, they won 62 million votes. In 2006, GOP House members received just 36 million. That’s their worst showing in modern history and it’s still about 60 percent of their previous presidential turnout.

Clearly some crossover is happening. People who voted one way in the leap year voted another two years later. Independents can switch sides. But the biggest driver in midterm results is fall off, not turn out. There's always some. Which side gets it worse decides the victor.

Trump being Trump and trolling the Democratic base inspired those voters in 2018. Democratic fall-off was only 10 percent from 2016. Republican fall off was 20 percent (a great number but not great enough).

Same thing should work the other way. It’s like predicting high-pressure weather cells versus low-pressure cells. We know what’s coming.

Except … I don’t know about this one and no one else does either.

There are just too many moving parts. The national condition could go either way. The Republicans could have trouble finding good candidates for CD 2, which has an aversion to Trump and Trumpism. Redistricting … God, who knows what the district will look like. And how much will voters remember – or will Democrats be willing to remind them – that the GOP is the party of insurrection? Will there be more attacks like 1/6?

Both parties are their own worst enemies, but the biggest story in American (and local) politics is radicalization and fringifying of the Republicans. Bernie Sanders has nothing on Q.

I would not be overly shocked if Democrats lost 100 seats. I would not be stunned if they gained 8. It’s not going to be somewhere in the middle. It’s probably going to be “either/or.”

Going viral

Let’s start with the national landscape.

President Joe Biden’s relative popularity right now doesn’t mean a damn thing. Obama held high approval ratings at this point in his first term. The Republicans seemed lost, and devastated by their defeat six months previous. George W. Bush had found, according to Karl Rove and many of the pundits, a “permanent majority” in 2004 and at this point in 2005 the Democrats seemed to be floundering for a way to appeal to values voters.

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What’s coming is key. Trump was going to keep being Trumpy and spend two years trolling the opposition. Obama’s economy was going to continue to tank for a couple years.

Democrats held an advantage in polls of the generic House vote during the summer of 2010 and lost 65 seats. The economic numbers just didn’t turn around.

In 2006, the situation in Iraq got worse and worse. Had Bush done his troop surge in 2005, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might not have taken the gavel the next year.

Bill Clinton just seemed to foundering in 1993 and 1994, as his promised national health care plan sunk into the depths bumming his base.

Ronald Reagan presided over a steep recession in 1982 and in 1986, voters just had enough of Republican rule and handed the Senate back to the Democrats.

However, the GOP blew off all public opinion warnings about impeachment in 1998 and lost seats when everyone expected them to gain a bunch. Democrats failed to decipher the post-9/11 landscape and threw in with Bush on the war in Iraq in 2002 as their base abandoned them. The Cuban Missile Crisis saved Kennedy in October of 1962.

Biden could be on track to beat the coronavirus by 2022 and most economists are forecasting a post-pandemic boom. It’s hard to hate Biden because it’s hard to hate your boring grandpa.

If he just seems like an old salt, who knows how to get things done, he could be rewarded. Contrast that against the prospect of Trump declaring war on every Republican who crossed him, and turning the GOP primary process into a referendum on January 6 – and any Republican who wants his support had best have been in favor of halting the count of electoral votes.

What if Republicans decide not to get vaccinated as a partisan statement? History shows voters will blame the Democrats because they won, they are in charge and failed to convince people to change their minds.

Also, will senators like Kyrsten Sinema give Mitch McConnell a veto over everything so the Democratic agenda dies for lack of 60 votes to break a filibuster? Or will that provide incentive for the base to turn out and flip a few more flippable Senate seats?

No one knows.

Republicans have to find a candidate for one of Southern Arizona's seats in Congress. That ought to be fun.

Ordinarily, I think this is an over-rated step in the wave. Voters tend to trust the Republicans to vet their candidates during the primary. So a guy like Jesse Kelly can say he would abolish Social Security and voters won’t think he’s actually that fringe.

It’s just that Trump has put his brand on the GOP and that brand works in Southern Arizona about as well as snow boots.

Trump lost Pima County by 20 points in 2020. Mitt Romney lost the county by 6 points in 2012. Pima County voters dominate CD2. So if the R’s run a QAnon conspiracy fantasizer who denies coranavirus, Republicans will run straight into an Orange Wall.

Former vanquished presidents are usually smart enough to abandon the stage and not continue to demand absolute loyalty. This particular vanquished president is almost solely responsible for turning Arizona purple years ahead of schedule.

That’s not saying some Republicans could pretty easily snag the seat.

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Pima County Supervisor Steve Christy is what passes for what had been a normal Republican. He could do alright. Former Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier seriously outperformed the party in his losing bid for re-election and with Cochise County likely to break hard for the Republicans, he’s a possibility. Beth Ford, anyone? The Pima County treasurer has quietly won re-election-after-re-election.

They could do OK here if they don't have to swear a blood oath to the occupant of Mar-a-Lago.

The problem is that the Republicans in Pima County keep picking candidates who run Trumpy. Lea Marquez Peterson could have performed stronger against Kirkpatrick but she chose the Trump train. Brandon Martin never gained any traction in 2020 attempting to ride the same rails.

Republicans haven’t solved the political knot of running Trumpy enough to win the primary but independent enough to win the general in Arizona – at least in federal races.

McSally seemed adept at threading the needle. She was conservative. She was critical of Obama at every turn. She was not a QAnon anti-vaxer howling night and day about voter fraud. In today's definition, she was a RINO. But even she got tied too closely to Trump for the taste of Arizona voters.

A candidate could probably win. A crackpot would probably lose.

Socialist edge over QAnon

State Sen. Kirsten Engel has jumped into the race and may clear the field of non-Kirstens from the Legislature. It's what happened for Giffords in 2006.

Honestly, who the Democrats tap is less important, because it's the Republicans who hold the key in candidate selection. 

A solid moderate Democrat would face an uphill struggle against a solid conservative Republican. Democratic socialists, however, probably beat the Proud Boys.

That's lucky for them. The Pima County Democrats have taken a hard left turn in the last 18 months, nominating candidates more in line with Bernie Sanders than Gabby Giffords.

Three candidates who could make that kind of noise just took new jobs just a couple of months ago. County Attorney Laura Conover and Pima County Supervisor Matt Heinz just got sworn in to their new roles. Are they going to up and quit to run for Congress? 

Heinz has run four times for the seat and lost. How much is he going to be like Golum chasing his precious? County supervisor is a good job. A seat in Congress is not.

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The one I find fascinating is Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cazares-Kelly. She’s young. She’s smart. She’s the first Tohono O’odham to serve countywide office. She’d be a tough candidate in a Democratic primary and don’t underestimate her in a general election.

Then again, she’s about four minutes in at her new gig as a first-time elected official.

Redistricting

My handicapping of the race presumes the 2nd District remains largely as is following redistricting, and so it might prove inoperable.

The Southeastern Arizona congressional seat has undergone little change since 1982. It’s your basic competitive seat running from the Northwest Side, across the Foothills, along the East Side of Tucson, down through Green Valley to Nogales and out to Cochise County to the New Mexico line.

But we are doing redistricting this year and the GOP’s prime directive seems to be minority rule. They’ve found gerrymandering like a death row inmate finds Jesus. It's technologically possible to use hyper-accurate mapping to carve up the state’s congressional voters to give Republicans a 7-3 edge in the upcoming expanded delegation we'll send to D.C.

Democrats won the sum of all House races by 1,629,000 to 1,608,000 – or about 21,000 votes. So they just move some R’s over here. Slop some Dems over there and presto. Republicans are picking their voters.

But you gotta do it on a map and not in some random-number generator. They can’t move Kirkpatrick’s soon-to-be-former district west because there’s nothing but Democrats in Midtown Tucson. They can’t move it south because that’s Mexico and east is New Mexico. They can only go north to the East Valley of the Phoenix megalopolis or up into Gila and Navajo counties.

Kirkpatrick won by 40,000 votes. So say they take 60,000 Republicans out of Andy Biggs safe East Valley district. Problem: He won by 80,000. So it’s not safe anymore. He could steal 10,000 Republicans David Schweikert up in Scottsdale but Schweikert only won by 18,000. Now you have three competitive districts that Democrats could nab all for themselves.

Grabbing Republicans out of the 1st District would just undercut inevitable efforts to turn Tom O’Halleran’s rural Democratic district red. God knows Paul Gosar has more than enough Republican votes to spread around having won by 160,000 votes (hint: Gosar ain't winning swing voters). He's is on the opposite side of the state.

Republicans could take away one of Tucson's two districts and just make it one big Democratic blob, handing it to Raul Grijalva. More than 60 percent of his current voters are outside Pima County. Grijalva won Pima County by 44,000 votes. He won the rest of his district by 36,000 but the commission must follow what's left of the Voting Rights Act and just having one Latino-heavy district may not pass muster.

Tucson developer David Mehl is one of the two Republicans on the commission. I’m not sure he’d go that way. Kirkpatrick’s district is the Tucson district. 

As it stands Pima County has about 14 percent of the state's population but just 12 percent of the representation, after figuring in the percentage of the vote the county accounts for in the two congressional districts representing it. 

Plus the commission will likely have to find room for a whole new district. 

It’s possible to use big data to carve Arizona into a bunch of safe Republican seats. It’s just not going to be easy without a united effort bent on doing it.

IRC Chairwoman Erika Neuberg has shown some early independent thought and action. She voted for a Democrat to serve as executive director but Democratic commissioner Derrick Watchman vetoed the choice (apparently, his foot was there and he had a pistol). So she then switched and voted with Republicans.

As we’ve seen, MAGAs treat any independence as the work of a total enemy worthy of total destruction.

We’ll see if they drive her into coalitions with the Democrats.

Suppression as strategy

Let's talk voter suppression.

Again, I think it’s over-rated short term and under-rated long-term. 

Short term: Republicans can change rules to try to limit voting but if the rules are set, organizers can follow them.

Long term: If the GOP goal is to pass laws that ensure their victory ahead of the election, they will eventually pick that lock and won't stop until they do.

Voter purges are a much bigger immediate problem.

Fastballs aren't fair

The issue does get to the nub of a bigger challenge for Democrats: the Democrats. The members of that party in Congress can stop voter suppression by passing laws. But some Democrats insist they will only undo the GOP's top national priority if Republicans join them in undoing their top national priority.

I'm sorry. What?

Reverse the parties. Republicans would need about four nanoseconds to steamroll — unilaterally and with Democratic parts in their treads — any Democratic effort to marginalize their voters. 

And they would be right to do it.

Name one Republican in 2017 who refused to vote for the Obamacare repeal or the tax cut without 60 votes and a bipartisan accord. There were none. Republicans in the Senate weren’t voting on an Obamacare repeal and replace. They were just voting on a repeal to get to a conference committee.

Yet Democrats like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema only want to advance the part of their agenda Republicans are willing to give them cover on in the form of bipartisanship. No, this makes no sense.

Republicans throw fast balls and exploding breaking balls at Democrats. Democrats insist on setting Republicans up with a tee because everyone should just get along.

Also, I guarantee you that come 2022, Democratic smart guys will look to focus groups and say “don’t run on the insurrection. Voters don’t want to hear that. Run on health care and how you are going to make changes in voters’ lives.”

Hah! Republicans would make Democrats eat for 50 years a BernieBro attack on the Capitol. They made Democrats eat "defund the police" in 2020 even though hardly any Democrat supported it. Democrats were running from Jimmy Carter and the hippies until 2008 because Republicans were chasing them around the country with packs of peanuts and tie dye.

I'm not trashing the GOP here. They play to win. If they can get Dems to fight hogtied on their  bellies, then more power to them.

On issues like taxes, health care, immigration, voting rights, infrastructure, the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana and even race relations voters are with the Democrats.

But Democrats have a hard time selling themselves as mainstream, responsible and tough (probably because they let the R's bully them all over the playground). They won’t solve it by more detailed explanations, power points honed from public opinion research. They lack the swagger of leadership. Republicans have it in triplicate. 

Voters don’t instinctively trust Democrats to lead the way they trust a bunch of white guys. Stacey Abrams has it. Chuck Schumer does not.

Never underestimate Democrats ability to misplay their trump card or decide playing it just isn't fair.

Wide open

The last time this district was open, 11-term incumbent Jim Kolbe had quit before the 2006 midterm. Everyone and their cat filled out candidate forms. Kolbe was perfect for the district back in the day. He was a thoughtful and moderate Republican.

There were 13 candidates across the two parties and one independent who made the run. It was obviously going to be a bad year for the GOP and it was. Gabrielle Giffords entered the race the odds-on favorite to win the party’s nomination and the seat itself and that’s what happened.

Kolbe didn't announce his retirement until the day before Thanksgiving 2005 and by that point Iraq had fully gone the way of Katrina. It was clear the Republicans were in trouble.

We might have a better idea about what the terrain looks like by the start of the holiday season. 

But right now? 2017 rules do not apply.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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Mar 26, 2021, 7:42 pm
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Also, I guarantee you that come 2022, Democratic smart guys will look to focus groups and say “don’t run on the insurrection. Voters don’t want to hear that.

I guarantee I won’t vote for any Democrat who plays that card. If that was an “insurrection” you need to get out more.

But Sinema has zero chance of me ever voting for her again - ever.

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USA Today via court document

The Republican Party has gone feral and it's just one factor clouding the race to replace Ann Kirkpatrick in Congress. It should be an obtainable seat for a normal GOP candidate.

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