Arizona Democrats face uphill battle in 2018

PHOENIX — Only a few months ago, Democrats across the United States looked at the national landscape and felt a twinge of optimism.

The unexpected victory of President Donald Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a blight on the party’s organizing efforts in 2016. Her loss drained the confidence of the Democratic Party’s biggest financial contributors, led to a messy leadership overhaul within the Democratic National Committee, and raised several questions internally, and often publicly, about the ideological direction that the party should take in order to get back on its feet.

It also presented an opportunity.

The Democratic Party — long expecting to enter the 2018 midterm elections as the underdog, defending a number of U.S. Senate seats while governing under an unpopular President Hillary Clinton — suddenly enjoyed the advantage of a deeply polarizing Republican figure in the White House.

For the Arizona Democratic Party, regionally-felt issues like the administration’s rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program could be used mobilize thousands of Hispanic voters in the southwest, with the aim of turning a traditionally red state blue. U.S. Senator Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) decision in October 2017 that he would not seek reelection fanned the flames of that momentum.

Three months after Senator Flake’s announcement, though, that momentum is nowhere to be found.

The three officials expected to be at the top of the ticket in Arizona — Governor Doug Ducey, Secretary of State Michele Reagan, and Attorney General Mark Brnovich — have significant cash advantages over their prospective Democratic opponents. None face Republican primary challengers, either, virtually guaranteeing that the three officials will enter the general election unscathed and with plenty of money to spend.

U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), currently running for U.S. Senate, was expected to face former State Senator Kelli Ward after Senator Flake dropped out. Many operatives have aimed to portray Ward as a weak general-election candidate whose presence would convince Democratic donors to invest in the race, in turn buoying down-ballot candidates. However, it is increasingly clear that the Democrat will be facing a stronger opponent: U.S. Representative Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), an Air Force veteran and one of the Republican Party’s strongest fundraisers who has represented a swing-district in southern Arizona since 2015.

Representative McSally announced her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in January 2018.

Representative Sinema’s candidacy, meanwhile, has been under a dark cloud since it was revealed last year that she accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from individuals affiliated with the controversial website Backpage, which in March 2016 was held in contempt by the chamber to which she is seeking election. (She donated the contributions after media reports surfaced.)

Additionally, President Trump’s first year in office has not been the effective voter-registration tool that the Democratic Party assumed it would be. According to data released by the Secretary of State’s office, the percentage of Republican voters in the state has actually increased since the 2016 election while percentage of Democratic voters has fallen, expanding an existing gap that already gave Republicans an advantage.

In what may have been an otherwise politically tumultuous year for Republicans, their success in passing a decades-in-waiting tax reform package, repealing the individual mandate, opening new land to energy exploration, and confirming Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court is certain to boost the energy of Republican voters and the confidence of the party’s most generous contributors — leaving Democrats heading into the midterm elections exactly where they were before Election Day 2016.