Democrats Lose Ground In Arizona House And Senate Races, May Fall Short — Again

By Katie Campbell, Lauren Gilger, Mark Brodie
Published: Wednesday, November 4, 2020 - 12:15am
Updated: Wednesday, November 4, 2020 - 8:45pm

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Arizona State Capitol building
Mark Brodie/KJZZ
The Arizona State Capitol building in Phoenix.

7:00 p.m.

With more than 70,000 additional ballots counted in Maricopa County, Republican state Sens. J.D. Mesnard and Paul Boyer expanded their leads over Democratic challengers who started Election Day strong but soon fell behind.

The additional votes favored Republicans, though not enough to bring Sen. Kate Brophy McGee back from the brink of an upset. Democrat Christine Marsh’s lead over Brophy McGee — while narrowed slightly after this latest update — still holds.

In the House, incumbent Rep. Kevin Payne has widened his lead over Democrat Kathy Knecht in Legislative District 21; more than 600 votes now separate the two. Payne’s fellow Republican Beverly Pingerelli is still leading that race.

Democrat Judy Schwiebert pulled ahead in LD20 — the same district where Boyer faced a tough contest. With these latest additions, Schwiebert has knocked Republican Rep. Anthony Kern into third place. Rep. Shawnna Bolick is currently holding the second seat behind Schwiebert.

The potential Democratic pickup in LD20 could have meant a 30-30 split between Democrats and Republicans in the chamber, making for strange times at the state Capitol. But incumbent Rep. Gerae Peten currently sits in third place in the LD4 House race, which covers parts of Maricopa, Pima, Pinal and Yuma counties; her Democratic seatmate, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, is leading that race, but Republican challenger Joel John has held on to the second seat ahead of Peten.

A loss for Peten would be a wash against a win for Schwiebert. And Democrats would be left in the tight but no less marginalizing position they currently find themselves in; for now, there are 29 Democrats in the House and 31 Republicans.

Maricopa County still has 338,000 early ballots and more than 17,000 provisional ballots left to process. And about 6,300 more early ballots need to be verified.

Another update is expected out of Maricopa County after 11 Wednesday night, and daily after 7 p.m. until all votes are counted.

2:17 p.m.

Democrats in the Arizona House of Representatives have decided to delay the caucus’ leadership election.

The intra-party races were scheduled for Nov. 10. But with several key legislative races too close to call, the caucus announced Wednesday afternoon the leadership election would be postponed.

The outstanding House races will determine whether Democrats remain the minority party, and thereby decide whether competing representatives will be vying for minority leader or speaker of the House.

Rep. Charlene Fernandez is currently the minority leader. She intends to seek the speaker’s chair if her party wins a majority of seats; Rep. Diego Espinoza announced he would challenge her in September.

10:26 a.m.

LAUREN GILGER: Democrats temporarily pulled ahead in enough legislative races to appear ready to take the majority in both the State Senate and House last night, but that has now changed, leaving Democrats waiting to see whether they'll be disappointed yet again. And with the final numbers still in flux, so too are the races for leadership roles. Who will be named speaker of the House and Senate president, among others? Howie Fischer of Capitol Media Services joins us now to talk all of this through. Good morning, Howie.

HOWARD FISCHER: Good morning. Democrats disappointed — now there's something we've repeated over and over again.

GILGER: That's for sure. OK, so last night it looked for a while there like there might be some pretty significant changes in both the House and the Senate leaning toward the Democrats. This morning, not so much. Walk us through some of these key races. What changed?

FISCHER: Well, a lot of it came down to some votes in Pinal County, which didn't come in early. I mean, there was a chance that Mark Finchem was going to fall off the bottom. There were some votes in the East Valley for people like J.D. Mesnard that he seemed to be losing to a Democrat in the Senate. Most of this stuff came back to probably where it was expected to be, with a few exceptions that we can talk about. But it kind of comes down to the fact that incumbency has its benefits, and maybe it's voting for the devil you know versus the devil you don't. And so, pretty much all the same lineup. And we can talk about how that affects leadership.

MARK BRODIE: Howie, I want to ask you about one particular district in northern Arizona where Wendy Rogers is ahead in the Senate race. Coral Evans, the mayor of Flagstaff, was running for the House as a Democrat. The Democrats in both the House and Senate races there were seen as possibilities for Democratic pickups. And at this moment, at least, neither one has happened. Obviously, you're not in Flagstaff, in that area, but what do you make of that race?

FISCHER: Well, I think that Coral Evans certainly as mayor of Flagstaff had a base. But unfortunately for her, it's a much larger district and a much more rural district in a lot of ways. I mean, this is the kind of district that would send people like Bob Thorpe to the legislature. And so once those rural votes came in, it kind of started to look really bad and decided, "No, we're going to keep our Republican leadership." Now, Wendy Rogers is sort of a different beast. Remember that she had to win a primary to represent the district. There was a lot of thought maybe she was too far right, too conservative for this district that goes off into places like Snowflake and northeast Arizona. But again, you know, maybe you can't underestimate — or overestimate as the case may be — just how conservative some of these rural areas are. And she came in and she said, "Look, I've got a very conservative platform. I have a military background." And there was a lot of money poured in the race, but it kind of came down to down-ballot races. People tend to vote tickets if you're a Republican — and it is a Republican area — versus what we saw and talked about earlier at the top of the ticket where they said,Well, maybe Joe Biden and maybe Mark Kelly," where they knew more about the races versus "I don't know much, so I'll just stick with my party registration."

GILGER: Hmm. So, Howie, where does it stand right now? Like, how likely does it look that Democrats will be able to take the House or the Senate? It looked pretty likely they might take both last night. Is one still in play?

FISCHER: Well, this is going to come down to a few dozen votes here or there. Part of the problem with the Democrats was while they did pick up a seat — and Anthony Kern from Glendale seems to be on his way out — Gerae Peten, who represents western Arizona, appears to have come in third out of the three-way race there. And she was a Democrat from that district in Goodyear and Yuma, and she's out. So we're back to that same 31-29 split. Now, you're right. There are a lot of uncounted votes there. It could be 30-30. Now, we haven't seen a split legislative chamber since 1990, actually. The Democrats had it, and then a dozen years later, we had the Randall Gnant running a 15-15 Senate. Never has occurred in the House in all of my history there. Over in the Senate, a little trickier. I mean, the Dems did pick up one seat. Kate Brophy McGee apparently is ousted there. The fact is that the spending in that race just was almost at statewide levels, you know, millions and millions of dollars put into that district. Christine Marsh — who is a former teacher of the year who ran last time and came up short — this time, I think she ran a much better race. And so in 16-14 there. Could it get to 15-15? I think in the Senate, that's a much more difficult situation. And 16-14 in the Senate and Democrat control? I don't see it at all.

BRODIE: Howie, we just have about 30 seconds left. You mentioned leadership races. Members will be meeting today and tomorrow to vote on party leadership. How do you see those races shaking out?

FISCHER: Well, obviously, the big control fights are in the House. House Speaker Rusty Bowers is trying to stave off a challenge from Mark Finchem, who is a Republican from Oro Valley, much more conservative. I think the loss of of Anthony Kern helps Bowers a lot. On the Democrat side. Charlane Fernandez was probably a shoo-in for reelection to minority leader or speaker, had it gone the other way. But what happened is Peten, who was her seatmate, having been defeated — that changes things. And perhaps Diego Espinoza could end up giving her a fight. Now, my guess is they will probably come up with some sort of coalition plan where they bring everybody in the tent and say, "Look, we have to fight against the common enemy, which is the Republicans and Gov. Doug Ducey."

GILGER: All right. That is Howie Fischer of Capitol Media Services joining us this morning. Howie, thanks so much. Hope you get some rest.

FISCHER: Oh, I'm going to get some rest and then we're going to start a new session in January. And anything is possible with, as you called it, the "lame duck governor.".

GILGER: That's for sure.

8:05 a.m.

As early voting results rolled in, Democrats appeared close to delivering on their promise of claiming the majority at the state Legislature. Democratic candidates held early leads over vulnerable Republican incumbents in the state Senate and House of Representatives in key districts that have steadily turned more moderate. 

But several Democrats have lost ground as of Wednesday morning. 

Republican Sens. J.D. Mesnard and Paul Boyer trailed their Democratic challengers, A.J. Kurdoglu and Douglas Ervin, respectively. Their districts in Chandler and Glendale have become less safe for Republicans in recent years. But they are not yet lost. 

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee is still trailing Democrat Christine Marsh in their district that spans parts of central Phoenix and Paradise Valley. Marsh has held onto a fairly comfortable lead since Tuesday night - a lead that has only grown. 

In the House, Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, a Democrat, has fallen into third place behind Republicans Brenda Barton and Rep. Walk Blackman, an incumbent. Evans trails Barton by less than 300 votes as of 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Democrat Kathy Knecht had come out ahead of incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Payne in his conservative part of Maricopa County, including parts of Glendale, Peoria and Sun City. However, Payne is now clinging to a lead of just 44 votes over Knecht; his fellow Republican Beverly Pingerelli is leading that race.

For now, the GOP is holding onto their current majority in the House, with 31 Republicans and 29 Democrats. The Senate stands at 16 Republicans and 14 Democrats.

12:15 a.m.

This could be the night legislative Democrats in Arizona have been promising for years. But whether either the state House of Representatives or the state Senate turn blue is not yet clear. 

As of midnight, Democrats held slim leads in both chambers.

They’re looking at pickups in the Senate with Democrats A.J. Kurdoglu, who is ahead of Republican incumbent Sen. J.D. Mesnard in Legislative District 17; Douglas Ervin, who is holding a slim lead over Republican incumbent Sen. Paul Boyer in LD20, and Christine Marsh, who is leading Republican incumbent Sen. Kate Brophy McGee in LD28. 

Democrats also hoped to claim the Senate seat in LD6 with return candidate Felicia French; however, perennial Republican candidate Wendy Rogers has pulled ahead in that race. 

Marsh, a former Arizona teacher of the year, is riding the education wave that started with Save Our Schools Arizona in 2018 and continued with Red for Ed more recently. She narrowly lost her bid for the Senate seat two years ago, but early results indicate she may have used the time sense wisely — enough to pull ahead of the moderate incumbent.

Marsh — like so many candidates Tuesday night — is not yet claiming victory. But she is ready for the tension that will greet her if she reaches the Legislature. 

“That’s what teachers do,” she says. “We give people a voice, and I’m able to work with anyone — even, you know, even people who don’t necessarily want to be reached. You know, check your average 13-year-old.”

She’ll need that positivity. 

The tension at the Capitol has been growing, due in no small part to battles over education funding and accountability — issues Democrats like Marsh have built the foundation of their campaigns on. 

Rep. T.J. Shope — who may soon be Sen. Shope if his lead in the LD8 Senate race holds — cautions that the division is only likely to grow. That will be especially true if Democrats’ leads hold, he says. 

“I think it will lead to even more gridlock, because nobody’s going to go in — especially the activist types in both caucuses, will go in with their minds on 2022 and not on the sessions that lie in front of them,” he says. 

Shope himself was considered potentially vulnerable ahead of tonight. He knows as well as his peers across the state that Arizona is changing — and that means seats that were once safe for Republicans can no longer be taken for granted. 

He offered Mesnard and LD17 as an example: “The occupation, I guess you’d say, as a whole, has moved very much into tech. You’ve had a lot of newcomers into the area that have moved that district in a direction that has made it more challenging for Republicans.”

As the statewide races indicate — particularly the U.S. Senate race that is in Democrat Mark Kelly’s favor — districts like LD17 appear to be fertile ground for moderates in the way they once were for conservatives. 

In the House, that may be especially clear in LD6 and 17. 

Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, a Democrat, is holding onto a seat in the House just behind Republican incumbent Rep. Walt Blackman. 

If those results hold, Evans and Blackman could turn to LD17 for guidance in managing a divided district.

LD17 is home to Democratic incumbent Rep. Jennifer Pawlik and Republican incumbent Rep. Jeff Weninger, both of whom look likely to keep their seats. 

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