My favorite song writer from “the golden age” of pop music, Paul Simon, provides the perfect words for my thoughts on the future of the Republican party in Arizona. It is all slip slidin’ away… Going into the 2018 elections Republicans had held every statewide office and enjoyed solid majorities in the State Legislature, in spite of maps drawn by Democrats. Yet a sober look at the Secretary of State’s Official Canvass of the November 2018 election suggests that we may not return to that high water mark for Republican control in the future.
This may come as a surprise to Yavapai County Republicans where GOP registration remains strong and 2018 was a blowout for local Republicans, including yours truly. In Legislative District One (predominately Yavapai County with a small portion in Maricopa County) Rep Noel Campbell and I were the two biggest vote getters for House races in the history of the state. The same can be said for incoming Senate President, Karen Fann, who didn’t just crush her Democratic opponent more than 2 to 1, she got the highest vote count for any State Senate race.
But cracks in the wall have started to appear in Yavapai County as well as across the state. As recently as 2010, when I first got involved in politics, party officials boasted that there wasn’t a single Democrat in elected office anywhere in the county. Fast forward to 2019 and you still don’t see many official Democrats elected to office, but you can see Democrats posing as Independents on City and Town Councils, Fire Districts, and School Boards throughout the county.
Still, the real political action is at the state level where November saw the Republican monopoly on the executive branch evaporate, with losses for Superintendent of Public Instruction, one Corporation Commission seat, and for Secretary of State, who serves as our de facto Lieutenant Governor. Even our incumbent Attorney General, Mark Brnovich, was hard pressed to fend off a spirited challenge from January Contreras, an underfunded and relatively unknown progressive.
Let’s look at the State Legislature, where the rubber hits the road. After all, every law on the books originates in the Legislature and nothing becomes law without the Legislature’s approval. When I got there in 2017, Republicans held 35 seats in the State House to 25 for the Democrats. Today that number has shrunk to 31/29, leaving Republicans with the bare minimum to elect leadership and pass bills. And how close did the GOP come to losing control? The closest wins were in LD6 where incumbent Rep Bob Thorpe held on to his seat by 577 votes and freshman Walter Williams, Arizona’s first African American Republican legislator, won his seat by 1,473 votes. So in an election with 2.4 million votes cast stateside, a shift of 2,050 votes (1,025 voters) in just one District would have thrown control of the Arizona House to the Democrats.
The story in the State Senate is much the same. Republicans held on to their 17/13 majority, but two Senators, Kate Brophy McGee in LD28 and Sylvia Allen in LD6, won their races by 267 votes and 1,722, votes, respectively. That means a shift of less than 2,000 votes (or 1,000 voters) would have erased Republican control. Throw in JD Mesnard’s win by just 1,744 votes in LD17, and a shift of less than 4,000 votes or 2,000 voters would have flipped the State Senate to the Democrats. Memo to Republican leadership: 2020 is less than two years away, and these Democrat drawn districts won’t change until 2022.
The Republican loss of a U.S. Senate seat and flipping Arizona’s Congressional delegation to 5/4 in favor of Democrats reinforces the pattern. Across the state, the Republican party is in retreat. This may be hard for Yavapai County Republicans to grasp. We are doing our job electing Republicans and turning out a big Republican vote for GOP candidates. But party leadership at the state level seems oblivious of the scale of our losses. They continue to send out happy emails and tweets congratulating themselves on their victories.
In my overly publicized comments about Arizona’s changing demographics, I tried to provide some insight about the challenges facing our party. We are not talking to every Arizonan about the issues that matter to them. Millennials know government is too big and the promises it is making in Social Security and Medicaid won’t be kept for their generation. The ones I speak to also care about liberty in ways that should make them a natural constituency, but too many in our party are almost afraid to talk to them.
Women abandoned the GOP in 2018 because we are not addressing issues like health care in a way that shows we care about quality of care, cost of care, and access to care. They tell me that they need to hear more than simply “Repeal ObamaCare”, they need to know what is being offered in its place and how it will make their lives and their families’ lives better. Minority voters continue to shy away from the GOP because we are not making a strong enough case on economic issues, and many in the GOP are still openly hostile to issues like Criminal Justice Reform that are so important to them. I can talk to minority voters and find immediate common ground, but then they want to know why other Republicans aren’t on board and why they think it is better to be seen as “tough on crime” instead of “tough on injustice”?
President Trump pointed the way for expanding the Republican base with a populist message, but our party leaders, many of whom opposed him in the first place, have not fully embraced this message in Arizona. Too often our messaging gives the impression that we don’t care about the concerns of ordinary people and the young. That is not true, but it is the prevailing narrative among the voters we need in order to win future elections and save our country.
Unless Arizona Republicans elect leaders who grasp the problems and have the courage to take our message to every part of the state, our hold on elected offices will continue to slip away. Put another way, if the Republican elite doesn’t start listening to rank and file voters, the voters will find a party that does.