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Why Arizona Democrats act like Republicans

Arizona Democrats have found a playbook to win the state by appealing to Republicans

Illustration by Michelle Budge

The Democrats’ leading gubernatorial candidate in Arizona, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, announced the agenda she’ll pursue if elected at a recent campaign event. It might sound familiar to Republicans.

Hobbs’ “Accountable Arizona” plan includes cutting red tape, eliminating wasteful spending and increasing government transparency and efficiency. The office of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who’s prioritized cutting government regulations while in office, called it plagiarism.

“If plagiarism is the highest form of flattery, then we are being flattered,” a spokesperson for Ducey told CBS 5 in Phoenix.

Arizona, a longtime Republican stronghold, has become decidedly purple ever since 2018, with three Democrats winning statewide elections: Sen. Krysten Sinema, Sen. Mark Kelly and President Joe Biden. Democrats hoping to repeat their success next year have a playbook that’s worked before.

To win as a Democrat in Arizona, it helps to appeal to Republicans.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs addresses the members of Arizona’s Electoral College in Phoenix on 14, 2020.
Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

Hobbs is appealing to Republicans by praising Ducey, who is term-limited. A clip of Ducey shaking Hobbs’ hand at the signing for the bipartisan Arizona Opioid Epidemic Act in 2018 appears in a Hobbs campaign video. She also praised Ducey during her campaign event and said she wanted to build on what he’d done in office.

“Certainly good things have happened in the last six years, and we can do a lot more,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs’ proposed agenda includes a number of items that Republicans would find attractive, like investigating state agencies for inefficient, duplicative or wasteful spending, and an “Arizona First” jobs policy to prioritize Arizona businesses for state contracts over out-of-state companies.

“It’s really about making government more efficient and more responsive to the needs of Arizonans,” she said.

Democrats have worked to appeal to Republicans in the state before. In 1980, conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater had the toughest reelection campaign of his career against Democrat Bill Shulz, a former Republican and U.S. Army veteran whose biggest knock against Goldwater wasn’t his politics, but his age.

“Bill Schulz was effusive about his praise for Barry Goldwater, simply saying that Goldwater had done his job, he was a wonderful senator, but he was just too old now to continue, that his energy had ebbed,” said Robert Goldberg, who authored a biography about Goldwater.

Schulz ran on a campaign for lower taxes and cutting regulations, and his slogan was “Energy for the ’80s.” He nearly beat Goldwater, losing by about 1% of the vote.

“The Democrats basically put up a carbon copy of Barry Goldwater,” Goldberg said. “Here you have this pattern of how does a Democrat win in Arizona, and at least Bill Schulz, who came within a hair’s breadth of winning, was just to duplicate the Republican message, just better and more up-to-date, a younger man instead of an older one.”

Sinema and Kelly have each appealed to Republicans in their own ways. Kelly, who’s up for reelection next year after winning a special election for the late Sen. John McCain’s seat in 2020, has shown he’s willing to criticize the Biden administration following the U.S. exit from Afghanistan. In August, Kelly said the withdrawal revealed “a failure to prepare for a scenario where the Afghan government and military would refuse to fight the Taliban’s advances when put to the test.”

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the nomination of Chris Magnus to be the next U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Mandel Ngan, Associated Press

Kelly also emphasizes working across the aisle. He’s partnered with Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on a water bill, and Sen. Joni Ernest, R-Iowa, on a bill to evaluate the effectiveness of military suicide prevention efforts. During his first speech on the Senate floor, Kelly praised McCain for his independence and bipartisanship.

Like Goldwater, McCain’s legacy looms large over the state. Though both men lost the presidency, they established political legacies that continued after their deaths by standing up to the GOP establishments of their time, Goldwater against moderate Republicans and McCain against former President Donald Trump.

“I think there’s a persona in Arizona, that a candidate has to be maverick, a candidate has to show the image of rugged individualism and that Arizonans believe — and I mean, I want to emphasize the word believe — or idealize a past of scratching the desert to create a new community that they built this with their own hands,” Goldberg said.

To him, Sinema “personifies the idea of maverick.”

Sinema was a Green Party activist before becoming a Democrat, and she’s now one of the Senate’s leading moderates. On her official Senate website, Sinema sounds like a Republican, listing just three priorities, all of which sound traditionally conservative: fighting terrorism (her site uses the phrase “keeping Arizona families safe and secure” and mentions her work on the Homeland Security Committee); creating jobs; and delivering for veterans. Even her campaign logo forgoes the traditional Democrat color palette of political design for purple and yellow, conveying a political brand that exists outside the two-party system.

Sinema’s biggest bipartisan win is the infrastructure bill Biden signed last month that she helped negotiate and received support from 32 Republicans, but her opposition to Biden’s other legislative priority, the “Build Back Better” bill, has angered progressives and shown there’s limits to how far right centrist Democrats can go. Earlier this year, the political action committee Primary Sinema PAC began raising money to challenge Sinema when she’s up for reelection in 2024, and the movement appears to have legs: OH Predictive Insights polling found 72% of Arizona Democrats would prefer a Democrat other than Sinema in the Senate.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., followed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., arrive before President Joe Biden signs the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press