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Trump, school funding crisis may doom GOP control of Az Legislature

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What the Devil won't tell you

Trump, school funding crisis may doom GOP control of Az Legislature

Lesko squeaker amid runup to #RedForEd walkout is ugly harbinger for Republicans

  • Paul Ingram/

The Arizona teacher walkout is heading into its first full week, and state Republican leaders may have just seen the danger of crossing public opinion on school funding.

Public opinion may not be on the side of the hardliners and what was once an unfathomable win could be within reach for those who want a big leap ahead in school funding. The GOP's 52-year grip on the Arizona Legislature may be loosening.

The national political media (and yours truly) have been focused on what the mid-term election means for Congress, but a further-reaching affect could be Democratic takeovers at the state level. That's where the real governing happens. Arizona looks very much in play, which is shocking to type.

This month, a rogue blue wave nearly wiped out a very safe Republican seat in Arizona and the urgency for school funding may have been at part of the reason.

Metro Phoenix's West Valley came within five points of electing a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives. After watching similar results across the country during the past year, I have to admit to falling victim to "it-could-never-happen-here-ism." Yet there it was. It was like LeBron beating me in a game of horse, but only after I stuck him with the H-O-R-S.

I didn't know how Arizona's statewide teacher walkout would play in Peoria until I saw that election and just one poll to help explain why school funding may be ready for picking.

Democrat Hiral Tipirneni damn-near beat Republican Debbie Lesko, an established Republican unblemished by scandal, in a district that Trump won by 21 and Mitt Romney won by 25. Democrats didn't bother putting up a candidate to face former Rep. Trent Franks (who had to quickly vacate his seat after reports he'd asked his staffers to carry his baby) since the district was redrawn. The Cook Political Report rates the congressional district as Republican + 15 (not the same as the margin). Cook pegs U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva's safe blue district as Democratic + 8. Franks' old seat should be twice as safe as Grijalva's unassailable fortress.

The election results follow a trend of the GOP underperforming nationally by about 15 points what they have achieved historically in legislative and congressional races. Nationally, experts are attributing this unreasonably tight election to Donald Trump.

Play that result out in the fall, and the improbable looks doable. Democrats could take the whole of the Legislature and the Republican control of the State Senate looks done for. I never thought I'd see the day.

Understand, I'm not arguing that the effects are permanent or that the Republicans are dead in Arizona. This is a really bad year to be carrying around an elephant.

There was a great story out of Virginia, where a transgender Democrat took out an ensconced Republican who hailed himself as the state's homophobe-in-chief. Danica Roem didn't drive home No H8 on a highway of rainbows. Her slogan was "Fix Route 28." She slammed her opponent over how he was fixated on gay-bashing but neglected badly needed highway funding for his district. Trump helped by being Trump but Roem needed a meat and potatoes issue to get her over the top.

In Arizona's political calculus, Trump + 49th in school funding = existential GOP threat. It may undo Ducey too, but one smashed paradigm at a time, please. Before I hear it, I have also urged local Republicans to get their acts together so they can give the all-Democratic Tucson City Council a run for the ages. It's never good for democracy if elected leaders think they are safe from voters.

Blood in the water

The last time a Democratic wave struck during the mid-term elections (ancient pre-Twitter days of 2006), Republicans lost five seats in the state House and three in the state Senate. Today, Republicans hold a six-seat advantage in the House and a two-seat edge in the Senate. The upper-house advantage resembles the 50 yards between a swimmer and a great white with a boat 100 yards away.

Get out the toothpicks.

In 2016, Republicans won three state Senate seats by margins of less than five points. Democrats are running 15 points ahead of their historic performance nationally and they just did that here in Arizona. If that holds, they should have no problem swallowing up an Arizona Senate majority for the first time since 1992.

Right there, getting control of a single necessary lever of power will change the whole math for getting anything done in Phoenix for at least two years.

The House is a trickier mystery to sleuth because its ranks are decided by multiple-choice voting. Eight legislative districts have a tighter partisan margin than 15 points (the 6th, 8th, 11th, 17th, 18th, 20th, 21st and 28th). Of the 16 seats in those districts, Republicans hold 14 of them. Plus poor Todd Clodfelter is a GOP representative serving a Democrat-leaning, Tucson-area district. He could go full Bernie and still get swamped by the Trump backlash.

Republicans have held power in the Arizona House since 1966 and at a time when people think government and big business collude against them in a rigged system. "Time to end 50 years of reign" may be the only message Democrats need to repeat. School funding, though, is the local bread-and-butter issue that may finally be decisive.

Who shows, who stays home

The presidential/midterm equation is a 135/85 proposition. About 135 million voters turn out in presidential-year elections, which hinge on who shows up, while turnout drops to 85 million two years later making the question of who stays home decisive. Angry people show up, while the somewhat satisfied stay home. The party out of power tends to be angry and the party in power "meh's" its way through the midterms. Trump's entire strategy is to trigger liberals by poking them above and beyond simple policy differences and has done nothing to expand his base.

In Arizona, the raw figures play out in a 2.5/1.6 million proposition. Who are those more or less 900,000 staying home and how can they be inspired to turn out?

But even if Republicans show up, the party may not be safe.

Republicans didn't exactly stay home during the special election. Early voting painted what should have been a good picture for the party. The GOP was over-represented in early voting. Early ballots were returned to the Maricopa County Recorder's Office as expected. Forty-nine percent of early ballots were cast by Republicans, 28 percent by Democrats and 23 percent by the balance of the electorate. Republicans hold a 14-point edge in voter registration in CD 8.

At least some Republicans are moving their vote and evidence exists that says school funding may be a big reason why.

Lesko and schools

Emerson College — a tiny liberal arts school in Boston's Back Bay — conducted a poll two weeks ahead of the election that showed a neck and neck race. but the horse race was the least interesting part of the poll. It dug down into why the race was so much closer than the Democrat had any right to hope. School funding was running dead even with immigration as respondents' top issue. This is the middle of Trump Country. Trump has nothing to do with school funding. That is, by and large, the Legislature. Yet the question was phrased "What is the most important issue facing Arizona today that you want your congressperson to address?"

Tipirneni — who, by the way, gets another chance in the fall election — led among voters worried about school funding by 67 percent to 42 percent.

Imagine sampling of Berkeley voters showed limiting immigration as important as climate change. Progressive lawmakers in Sacramento would be quaking in their Crocs because they would be right to think the immigration would be playing even bigger in swing districts.

The Emerson poll was fascinating because public polling typically doesn't drill down into issues. That kind of expanded "benchmark" survey can cost two to three times as much money as a simple "tracking poll" that measures the horse race head to head. So the public doesn't often get to see what issue is driving voters until exit polls after an election. Big money groups are almost certainly running numbers they aren't sharing.

The quiet race

Regardless of what you hear on CNN, anti-Trump sentiment isn't limited to newsrooms, film studios and Manhattan cocktail parties. It's not just a matter of urban Ivy Leaguers pearl-clutching in breathless rants against the yocals west of Poughkeepsie. It's 55 percent of the country unhappy with the president's job performance.

Trump ain't playing particularly well in Peoria, Ariz/, as Lesko's narrow win shows during an otherwise uneventful election. And that's the point. The campaign leading up to the vote was so boring and so out of sight, that it was the placebo in the special election experiment. Do Republicans struggle when no one is looking or is it the feeding frenzy tearing Trump down?

Don't take my word; here's FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver's 99 words to say "uhhh, this makes no sense."

Arizona 8 doesn't make for a lot of headlines. There was no Roy Moore equivalent in the district — and not even a Greg Gianforte. The district moved ever so slightly toward Democrats between 2012 and 2016, but it wasn’t a place where the political trends were changing all that rapidly or where Democrats actually expected to be within striking distance (as they did in Georgia’s highly educated, suburban 6th Congressional District, where Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican opponent Karen Handel in a special election last year). Arizona 8 is essentially a “generic,” but very red, congressional district.

During the run up to this tight election, a potential teacher walkout dominated political headlines in the state. Arizona's Legislature has ruled through its many term-limited incarnations with a single-mindedness toward public divestiture across state agencies and K-12 in particular it's only now trying to reverse in baby steps.

If school funding is driving voter decision making, then Republicans are in trouble. Voters don't tend to elect the politicians they think caused a problem to fix that same problem.

The prospect of a walkout didn't snap CD8 voters back to their conservative senses and other polls are showing support for more money for schools.

Another statewide poll showed Ducey's plan to turn budget surpluses over to the schools has support of 70 percent of voters. Teachers say they have polls showing 60 percent of voters favor a plan to raise taxes on wealthier residents. In Oklahoma, the number of "likely voters" supporting a walkout there was 72 percent. Oklahoma. That's a state Hillary supporters could only be found scurrying from rock to rock from their Bubba overlords. She lost Arizona by 5.

Finally ripe?

Arizona ranks 48th or 49th in school spending per pupil. Ducey's heavy lifts to secure passage of Prop. 123 in 2016, plus new budget initiatives, had nudged our state above Oklahoma in the rankings. Then Oklahoma went and raised gas and oil taxes to give the schools more money. So, all that work has done not a thing for the state's position in K-12 standings.

Unlike most government programs, voters get a great look at the reality when they interact with schools, teachers and their kids. The state is also not seeing the kind of economic recovery Arizonans are used to enjoying. It's been a slow-go and in the new economy, jobs require skills.

Issues ripen over time. Immigration was important to voters during the 2000s but didn't have the juice to decide elections until the 2010s. Health care was a major spot of contention throughout the 1990s but failed to gain traction until the 2000s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt started Democratic tax hikes in the 1930s but the tax revolt didn't hit until 1978 in California. After nearly two decades of spending more than a trillion dollars on wars over there, voters may be in a mood to start spending more on schools over here and tax cuts ain't what the used to be.

If that's the case, teachers are winning the walkout if they just use their demonstration to highlight the problem and drive it to the forefront. A prolonged strike might threaten that.

Wresting just one house of the Legislature from control of this version of the GOP could force a major correction back toward money for schools.

Prophecy is a dangerous business but the political seas are tossing even in the desert. I swear I hear some cellos: "whu whum ..." Is that a dorsal fin moving to the strings? "whu whum" ... Let's see if the Legislature can beat the shark back to the dock.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and has worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you what the devil won’t.

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