The path for Arizona Democrats to capture the state senate from Republicans begins in a mountainous district in Northern Arizona.
The district is where Democrat Wade Carlisle, a longtime city council member, railroad worker, and rancher, is running to unseat incumbent state Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican who has represented Legislative District 6 since 2015. Allen, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has suggested making church attendance mandatory. A school voucher proponent, she may be best known for co-founding a charter school that earned an “F” rating from the state department of education.
Allen’s seat is one of at least three Democrats hope to flip to win control of at least one chamber of the Republican-held statehouse. With the election less than two weeks away, state Democrats bet Carlisle is the right candidate to appeal to the largely rural voters in Legislative District 6.
“I don’t approach voters as a Democratic candidate,” Carlisle told Rewire.News. “I approach them as somebody who is living in the same place they’re living in, and who has to deal with the same problems they have to deal with. Whether you’re in Sedona or Snowflake, people want their children to be able to go to quality public schools, people want access to quality and affordable health care, people want our teachers to be paid a fair wage, and people don’t want to see their water poisoned.”
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Shut out of legislative leadership for decades, Arizona Democrats now see a path to take control of the state senate—and possibly the house. The test is whether the party’s roster of candidates can topple Republicans in a handful of battleground districts, including the one where Carlisle is running against Allen.
“I think it’s the best shot we’ve had in a couple decades,” said Chad Campbell, who led the Democratic minority in the house until 2014. “It’s not just one chamber, it’s both chambers in play.”
Arizona has long been regarded as a red state. But voter registration is closely divided among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, with Republicans holding an edge over Democrats. The political climate—nationally and locally—has galvanized Democratic voters, who are turning out at the polls in historic numbers.
Democrats would need to pick up a few seats for Republicans to lose their slim 17 to 13 majority in the state senate. The GOP’s grip on the House is stronger—35 to 25—making Democrats’ chances there more of a long shot. And while the governor’s office is up for grabs, Democrat David Garcia trails Gov. Doug Ducey (R) by double digits in a recent poll.
Mike Noble, chief pollster with Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights, said 2018 is an election where “Democrats are fully unified and Republicans are less unified, and Independents are breaking toward the Democrats.”
In the August primary, Democrats cast nearly 150,000 more votes than in the 2016 primary, shattering voter turnout records. The party narrowed the statewide gap between Democratic and GOP voter turnout to 12 percent, the lowest level since 1994.
In Northern Arizona’s Legislative District 6, Allen has favored deep cuts to public education—going so far as to make a thumbs down gesture during a senate floor session about teacher pay this year. Allen said recently she believes public education amounts to “indoctrination.”
Allen is part of an anti-choice Republican majority that has in recent years passed laws requiring fetal resuscitation, promoting an unproven practice called “abortion pill reversal,” and asking abortion patients to explain why they want the service.
Allen has been tarnished by scandal. In 2015, she tried to pass a bill to shield prison guards from polygraph tests if they face disciplinary proceedings after her son-in-law, a prison guard, had been accused of sexual improprieties by female inmates in the Navajo County jail.
Allen’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Carlisle, a gun owner who grew up on a cattle ranch, sees himself as an advocate for rural voters. Married to a public school teacher, he favors higher wages for teachers and support staff, paid for by a permanent source of funding. He said he’d “restore funding to [Child Protective Services], get our roads fixed, and make sure we have enough water for our people and our cattle.”
“Our current representatives are taking us backwards,” Carlisle added. “I want to stop that trend.”
Outside Arizona, the backdrop is a national backlash to the election and policies of a deeply unpopular president. While national factors weigh on the minds of Arizona voters, it’s local issues, such school funding, that animate voters. Education was the top priority of state Democrats and moderate voters in a recent poll.
“There’s a lot of frustration among voters about funding public schools here,” said Campbell, the former state house minority leader, who is now senior vice president with the consulting firm Strategies 360. “Democrats have fielded a really good set of candidates, and I think it’s the perfect storm of good candidates, Trump and the national environment, and the education funding issue.”
Arizona’s schools are among the lowest funded in the United States. Arizona teachers this year staged a historic six-day walkout, fed up with years of Republican tax cuts that starved K-12 education of billions in funding. The wave of educator-led #RedforEd activism also swept the GOP-dominated “right to work” states of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, and even Democratic strongholds like Washington State.
Although the movement in Arizona won teachers a 20 percent wage hike, their demands to fully restore school funding cuts were unmet. Teachers and their supporters remain a potent political force in the state, and gained enough signatures to put a measure on the state ballot to fund schools with a millionaire’s tax. The measure was later blocked from the ballot by the state supreme court over wording concerns.
Hundreds of current and former educators are running this election, and some, like Democrat Christine Marsh, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, are in swing districts that Democrats aim to flip.
“Swing districts are the ones to watch because it’s a tougher political environment for Republicans this year,” said Noble, the pollster. “Safe seats are less safe, and close seats are even closer.”
‘Kids First Over Big Business’
The Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (ADLCC), formed to gain Democratic majorities in the state house and senate, has long eyed competitive GOP-held seats. It has put energy and money into battleground races, cultivating and training candidates, assembling campaign teams, and canvassing in districts that Democrats hope to win in the 2018 midterms.
Murphy Bannerman, communications director with the ADLCC, said the aim is to elect Democratic lawmakers to advance the party’s legislative priorities, including increasing health-care access and improving schools.
“Putting kids first over big business,” Bannerman said.
In Carlisle, and a few other candidates, the ADLCC could finally see a payoff for years of work to upend the state’s Republican majority.
Bannerman sounds hopeful. “There’s a definite chance this year,” she said.