Arizona Governor Race May Be a Template for 2016

Arizona Governor Race May Be a Template for 2016
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A crowded field of Republicans, from political newcomers to veteran elected officials, slogs through a tough primary, where no candidate can consolidate support from more than a fifth of the electorate.

Meanwhile, there’s a presumptive Democratic nominee who doesn’t face a serious primary challenge and focuses on strengthening moderate, general election credentials. 

That may sound like a preview of the 2016 presidential election, but it’s actually the current state of play in Arizona’s gubernatorial race. This year’s election, the Grand Canyon State’s first open contest since 2002, hasn’t attracted the same level of money or attention that higher-profile ones in Florida or Texas have. But the Arizona outcome will go far in explaining the mood of the country and the Republican Party in particular, as it could provide a glimpse of the impact from demographic and political changes sweeping the nation.

The Republican primary field has swollen to eight candidates (though it will likely shrink after the May 28 filing deadline). Democrats have fielded just one serious candidate -- perhaps because Republicans stand a good chance at keeping the governorship now held by retiring Jan Brewer: RCP currently rates the race as “leans GOP.” However, as the primary continues through the hot summer, that calculation may change. 

Most of the GOP contenders don’t have particularly high name recognition throughout Arizona, but the primary isn’t until late August. The candidates all see themselves as conservative and they mostly agree on major issues like immigration, taxes, and gun rights. To stand out, they have spotlighted their biographies when introducing themselves to voters across the state. 

For now, the top tier consists of a former Internet executive and first-time candidate; a pair of elected officials with deep private-sector experience; and a longtime Arizona pol first elected to office in the 1980s.  

Christine Jones, the political newcomer, asserts that her tech experience -- she spent more than a decade at the Arizona-based Internet domain registrar GoDaddy -- would help her make the state “more efficient and more effective.” Further, she sees her lack of political experience as a positive, because it allows her to “apply untethered ideas” to address the state’s problems. 

State Treasurer Doug Ducey most notably worked as CEO of Cold Stone Creamery before winning his current position in 2010. Ducey points to his record in public office as evidence that he can apply his business acumen to political problems. He has positioned himself as a responsible leader who fought tax increases and improved the state’s fiscal standing. But his private sector experience remains front and center. 

“I’m the only candidate in the race that has built a team and a brand that is loved and respected,” Ducey told RCP, referring to his time at Cold Stone. 

Like Ducey, former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith spent his adult life in business before entering politics a few years ago. Smith points to his tenure as mayor as proof that he can effectively translate private sector experience into results as a public executive. Considered a relative moderate in the race, Smith focuses on his record of aggressive economic development and education reform in Mesa. He previously voiced his displeasure at the U.S. House for not moving on immigration reform, and he has backed Common Core standards in Arizona. 

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, the nominal front-runner in a still wide-open contest, said that while all of the candidates have worked in the private sector and some have local, legislative, or statewide government experience, only he can claim all of the above. Bennett has served on a city council and the state board of education, in addition to being president of the Arizona Senate. (“And I can play the guitar,” he deadpanned in an interview with RCP.) 

Also in the primary are former California Rep. Frank Riggs (who moved to Arizona more than a decade ago), Arizona state Sen. Al Melvin, former Maricopa County attorney Andrew Thomas, and medical executive John Molina. 

While the candidates are busy attempting to differentiate themselves, two major demographic shifts underlie the race. First, Arizona, which is about one-third Hispanic, is becoming increasingly so. By 2030, Latinos will make up a majority of the population. 

Asked how he plans to improve his party’s standing with Latinos, Smith said in an interview with RCP, “It’s not a secret. Good governance attracts all people. Inclusion attracts all people. Conservative values, when put into place, attract all people.” Most of his primary opponents agree, saying that they aren’t tailoring policies to cater to specific demographic groups. 

Arizona is also leading a national trend away from political identification. Earlier this year, Independent-affiliated voters surpassed Republicans for the first time ever in the state. Now, 34.88 percent of the state’s registered voters are Independent. Republicans just barely lag behind, at 34.75 percent, and Democrats make up 29.54 percent. 

While Independent and Democratic voters typically are less motivated than Republicans to turn out in midterms, the trend away from Republican dominance -- along with the increasing Latino population -- will probably make the election more competitive than was the case in 2010. 

On the Democratic side, former Arizona Board of Regents chairman Fred DuVal is the presumptive nominee. DuVal, a Clinton White House veteran, defines himself as a “solutions-oriented centrist” who is “pro-business, pro-growth, pro-equal opportunity, and pro-inclusion.” He cites Colorado Gov. Jon Hickenlooper (a Democrat) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (a Republican) as models.  

Public polling is sparse in the Arizona gubernatorial race, but DuVal appears to stand a fighting chance against several of his potential Republican opponents. Smith and Bennett lead him in hypothetical match-ups, while Jones lags by four points. Ducey would be in a virtual dead head.  

The extended primary may also benefit DuVal. He said in an interview with RCP that “the significance of the [Republican] primary is not its volume but its tone,” adding that the GOP lacks true moderate voices. While his opponents may disagree with that assertion, the candidates have expressed mixed feelings about the wide-open primary.  

Publicly and privately, some are concerned that it’s become a distraction that will benefit DuVal. Molina told RCP that it shows a lack of GOP unity, while another candidate said it would be preferable for the party to more quickly weed out unserious candidates. Others, however, argue that the process will strengthen the standard-bearer for November. Ducey said, “I think it’s good to have people coming in and making their case. It should be hard.” 

Arizona isn’t a perfect microcosm of the United States. It has its own unique challenges, and it’s significantly more conservative than the country as a whole. So why does its gubernatorial race matter outside the state lines? Put simply: There’s much to learn from it. 

The primary and general election dynamics are very similar to what the upcoming presidential contest will look like if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton runs. Republican politicians preparing for a crowded intra-party race can study how the victor on Arizona’s GOP side distinguished himself (or herself). Further, taking note of how the party’s base reacts to certain heresies -- like supporting Common Core or a pathway to citizenship -- could help national Republicans gauge their approach to those issues. 

Likewise, should DuVal prevail in November, Democrats may look to his campaign as a case study in how to best utilize the extra months of campaigning without intra-party distractions. His Clintonian brand of moderation may also form a template for how Democrats can beat tough fundamentals in red states. 

Besides those potential lessons for 2016, the election may also produce a national political star with outsized influence for someone who leads a state of just 6.5 million. Brewer, for instance, became a national figure over her tough stance on illegal immigration; an airport confrontation with President Obama; and, most recently, her decision to veto controversial anti-gay (or pro-religious freedom) legislation. 

If recent history is any guide, the state legislature will be eager to bring forward more controversial legislation related to those topics, as well as education.  Arizona’s governor will become the public face of opposition to or support for those laws. And, more significantly, if the House takes up immigration reform in 2015, the new border-state governor will either be a thorn in the president’s side -- or one of his best defenders.

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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