A Leftward Shift? The 2018 U.S. Senate Race in Arizona

One of the most remarkable election victories this season was that of Democrat Kyrsten Sinema who won the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. Sinema, who represents Arizona’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, went head-to-head in a heated race against Republican Martha McSally, the representative for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District.

The morning after Election Night, McSally led Sinema by 16,000 votes, nearly one percentage point, with 99.3 percent of precincts reporting. When the final votes were tallied on November 12, six days after Election Day, however, a 1.7 percentage-point victory was called for Sinema.

The race between McSally, who touts her status as the nation’s first female fighter pilot, and Sinema, whose story of childhood homelessness was a core part of her campaign, was contoured in ways that ultimately propelled Sinema to victory in a state that has been a solid Republican bastion for decades.

Breaking Barriers

Notably, this race was a contest between two congresswomen vying to become Arizona’s first female U.S. Senator. But even more unique was Sinema’s own profile as a candidate: she is an openly bisexual, atheist Democrat from a red state that has not elected a Democrat to the Senate for three decades. Sinema, 42, nonetheless defeated the odds. Now, she will join Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) as one of two LGBTQ members of the Senate and the second-youngest senator after Josh Hawley, 38, who defeated incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill in another heated Senate race in Missouri.

Despite her barrier-breaking profile, Sinema hardly focused on aspects of her own identity during the race. Rather, her campaign was highly issue-driven, zeroing in on healthcare, immigration, and budget cuts, all areas in which the Trump administration’s policies have greatly affected Arizona.

Sinema made healthcare central to her campaign, reminding Arizonans of her votes in favor of the Affordable Care Act that Republicans have continually tried to repeal and replace. Meanwhile, McSally was on the defensive when it came to healthcare; she responded to criticism of her stance toward the ACA by claiming that she spearheaded the fight to “force insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions” despite voting in 2015 to repeal the Affordable Care Act and voting again in 2017 in support of a bill to repeal and replace it.

A Broad Appeal

Sinema’s supporters came from a variety of backgrounds. In addition to harnessing mainstay Democratic issues to attract voters, she catered to independent voters, who supported her in high numbers. She proclaimed herself “an independent voice for all Arizonans,” leading among independents in an October NBC News/Marist poll 52 percent to McSally’s 38 percent.

Specifically, Sinema’s focus on suburban moderates paid off. She managed to win over suburban women and moderate Republican voters with her conservative stances on immigration. Her verbal support for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in addition to her previous votes for and co-sponsorship of legislation advocating for increased screening of refugees and analysis of terrorist threats at the southern border clearly communicated these key conservative aspects of her platform.

The surge in Latino voters, of whom 75 percent voted for Sinema while only 22 percent voted for McSally, may have also had a hand in helping Sinema emerge victorious. Since Arizona’s population is now over 30 percent Hispanic and Latino, and this demographic group continues to grow in size and influence, Sinema ran multiple Spanish-language ads, increased third-party Latino voter engagement initiatives, and directed get-out-the-vote efforts in order to court these voters.

Military Support for McSally

Still, support for Sinema faltered among certain demographics. For instance, McSally led among men and rural voters. Her platform focused on securing the United States-Mexico border and supporting the military, a position bolstered by her own military service record and deployment in the Middle East to oversee search and rescue operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. To this end, McSally criticized Sinema’s protests over U.S. involvement in the Middle East, juxtaposing a picture of Sinema in a pink tutu at an anti-war protest with a picture of herself in military uniform and alleging Sinema supported “treason” against the United States.

And indeed, McSally’s focus on national security and the military paid off among male and rural voters: she led Sinema among men 52 percent to 37 percent while easily winning the rural, western half of the state which includes Mohave, La Paz, and Yuma counties. In comparison, Sinema’s own attempts to tout her support for veterans during the campaign and cite her own family’s military credentials in multiple ads were relatively unsuccessful.

A National Impact

In many ways, this race was also a referendum on President Donald Trump, who voiced his support for McSally and visited Arizona in mid-October to campaign on her behalf. McSally aligned herself with the president after criticizing him on multiple occasions in 2016 and took steps to make her support for Trump clear. Most notably, she removed herself from co-sponsorship of a bill to create a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, in addition to taking down a video of herself speaking sympathetically about these immigrants from her website.

“I’m a fighter pilot and I talk like one,” she said in a campaign ad, echoing Trump’s own direct manner of speaking, in addition to calling veritable media organizations “fake news” and resisting inquiries from the press.

Ultimately, however, McSally’s appeal to party unity proved unsuccessful. Sinema won Maricopa County, an area which has historically been a conservative bastion and includes the state capital of Phoenix, by three percentage points. The county had gone red in national elections in 2012, 2014, and 2016, but Sinema managed to turn it blue this year, signifying a leftward shift in an area that accounts for 60 percent of Arizona’s population.

Concurrent with Sinema’s statewide victory was a shift in the majority of Arizona’s congressional delegation to Democratic, which has not happened since the 1960s. The state’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes the liberal hub of Tucson and is currently represented in by McSally, swung from red to blue with the victory of Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, upping the number of blue congressional districts in the Grand Canyon State from four to five. This could indicate a leftward shift stemming from a negative reaction to Trump in key swing districts.

Some experts nonetheless predict that McSally will end up in the U.S. Senate as early as next year if Jon Kyl decides to step down from his temporary role as U.S. Senator, having been appointed by the governor after Sen. John McCain passed away in August. Kyl, who also formerly served as a U.S. Senator, has not committed to serving in the role beyond the end of this year, raising questions about whether Gov. Doug Ducey will appoint McSally to the seat until the 2020 special election.

For now, however, Sinema’s victory should signal to Democrats that in order to win statewide races in red states, they may have to take a page from the GOP playbook and run centrist campaigns. More broadly, a newly-elected Democratic senator, coupled with a majority-blue congressional delegation, could indicate Arizona’s leftward shift in the years to come.

Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore

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