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Arizona Governor Race Tightens, But Will That Last?

Arizona Governor Race Tightens, But Will That Last?

By Adam O'Neal - September 3, 2014

How close is Arizona’s gubernatorial race?

Republicans have long been favored to win, but with the general election season finally underway, the Grand Canyon State race appears to have drawn unexpectedly close.

In fact, a pair of new polls shows Republican Doug Ducey and Democrat Fred DuVal in a virtual dead heat. The new surveys prompted RCP to change the race’s rating from “leans GOP” to “toss up.”

How did things get to this point, and can DuVal (pictured) build off his newfound momentum?

The contest should be an easy one for Republicans. Every elected official in Arizona’s executive branch -- which includes Ducey, the state treasurer -- is a Republican, and the GOP controls the state legislature. Arizonans vote reliably red in presidential contests, and Republicans make up the majority of the congressional delegation.

What’s more, Ducey is a disciplined, on-message campaigner with plenty of financial support. The midterm electorate, along with the president’s unpopularity, should help the Republican too. He’s also a proven commodity who has shown he can win in the face of intense attacks on his finances, campaign tactics, and biography.

DuVal, a former Clinton administration official, isn’t as well-known as his opponent and will likely be outspent over the next two months. But he ran unopposed for the nomination and freely framed the election around issues that could excite independent voters.

His campaign welcomed the new polling results but remains cautious.

“These polls are encouraging, but this race isn't going to be about polls,” spokesman Geoff Vetter told RCP. He added that the DuVal camp’s focus is on education.

Voters “will have a clear choice between Fred's promise to stop the cuts to our schools and Doug Ducey's continuing support for the illegal underfunding of our children's schools,” Vetter said.

During the primary season, as the Democrat blasted his potential Republican opponents as too radical, Ducey slogged through a contest that, at one point, included eight GOP hopefuls.

“As somebody who believes in the free market and competition, I’ve got to embrace this process,” Ducey told RCP earlier this year. “I think it’s good to have people coming in and make their case. It should be hard.”

Indeed, while DuVal attempted to burnish his moderate credentials for the general election, Ducey withstood millions of dollars in attack ads. The focus of the barbs ranged from traffic tickets to accounting oversights, and the tone was overwhelmingly negative.

Many of the attacks zeroed in on Ducey’s time as the chief executive of Cold Stone Creamery -- a crucial part of his biography -- and sought to link him to the closure of Cold Stone franchises.

Eventually, the primary race became a three-way contest between Ducey and Internet executive Christine Jones and former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith. Both remain non-committal about endorsing their formal rival (though less successful adversaries have since backed the nominee).

The intense primary hurt Ducey’s favorability ratings and left DuVal relatively untouched -- resulting in the pair of dead-heat surveys.

“There will be a lot of polls between now and Election Day,” said Ducey spokesperson Melissa Delaney. “We are confident that Doug Ducey’s message of greater opportunity for all Arizonans will resonate with voters across the state.”

Rodolfo Espino, a political science professor at Arizona State University, argued that while the race appears close now, fundamentals favor Ducey. “Looking at the cash that Ducey has on hand and the organizations that have backed him, I expect those [poll] numbers to come down rapidly over the next month.”

Espino also criticized the media’s tendency to frame campaigns as “horse races.” He added that while the Republican primary looked close, Ducey ultimately prevailed by double digits.

The Republican Governors Association -- which has broken fundraising records under Chris Christie’s chairmanship -- will also remain a major player in the coming months. Once the primary ended, the RGA immediately released an ad labeling DuVal a lobbyist and criticizing him for “doubling the price of college” while serving on the Arizona Board of Regents. (The DuVal campaign blamed the Republican-controlled state legislature for the hikes.)

To counter the influence of the RGA and other supportive groups -- along with Ducey’s personal fundraising prowess -- DuVal will have to raise millions and win endorsements of his own. 

Espino also suggested that DuVal could learn a lesson from his old boss, President Clinton.

“Who would have thought that a Democrat president would have signed welfare reform? But it was a Democrat co-opting the right,” asserted Espino. “That’s what DuVal needs to do. Move a little to the right -- take talking points from Ducey’s less conservative [primary] opponents like Smith -- and keep Ducey on the far right.”

 

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

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