Fewer candidates vie for Arizona Legislature

by Mary Mary Jo Pitzl – Jun. 11, 2012 11:19 PM
The Republic | azcentral.com

Despite efforts to increase competitiveness through redistricting, fewer candidates are running for legislative seats this year, which means fewer contested races compared with two years ago.

“I think I got lucky,” said Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, one of 10 state lawmakers with no opponents this election cycle. (Two years ago, that was the case for nine incumbents.)

In all, 183 candidates have filed to run for the Legislature’s 90 seats, according to nomination papers submitted to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
The number has declined 28 percent from 2010, according to an Arizona Republic analysis. And it’s 19 percent less than a decade ago, the last time the state drew new political boundaries.

Luck may play a role in some cases, but campaign consultants and political observers cite a host of reasons for lower candidate turnout this political season, from uncertainty over the new political boundaries to districts that tilt heavily toward one party or another.

“You’ve got national conditions playing in, as well,” said Jennifer Steen, an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University.

President Barack Obama’s uncertain Arizona prospects also may have discouraged some Democrats from running, she said.

“Most candidates are in it to win it,” Steen said, adding that few enter a political race just for the sake of running.

Although the desire for competition underscored a lot of the conversation over last year’s redistricting, the political field didn’t respond in kind.

In the primary, 59 percent of legislative incumbents face no challengers, The Republic’s analysis found.

“The (political) market doesn’t seem to think it’s competitive,” Republican political consultant Constantin Querard said.

The lack of competition could reverberate next year: A 2011 study published in the Legislative Studies Quarterly found that lawmakers who face no competition are less effective, chalking up higher absentee rates and introducing fewer bills.

The lack of competitiveness also extends to the state’s federal races.

Although there are actually more competitive races this year, partly because of the addition of the new Congressional District 9, the actual number of candidates vying in those races is down 10 percent from two years ago, to 56 from 62.

Most of those competitors are in just two races: Seven Republicans and three Democrats are running in the new District 9; and northern Arizona’s Congressional District 1 sports a four-way GOP primary and a two-candidate Democratic race, along with a Libertarian waiting for the Nov. 6 general election.

Several of the competitive races have candidates vying for an open seat, where there is no incumbent.

U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl’s retirement creates an opportunity that has attracted six candidates.

Legislative redistricting, meanwhile, created two open seats in the Senate and six in the House.

“Open seats are always going to draw tons of candidates,” said Brian Murray, a Republican consultant.

That’s best illustrated by the central metro area’s District 9 and its 10-candidate field, which the redistricting commission intentionally created to be competitive.

Murray runs the campaign of one of those contenders, Republican Vernon Parker.

Seeking competition

Arizona’s once-a-decade redistricting exercise makes competition a goal. Its role in shaping the new district maps remains hotly debated as the courts take up various legal challenges.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission redrew the state’s 30 legislative districts and carved out a ninth congressional district based on population shifts over the past decade.

Competition is one of six criteria for drawing new political boundaries.

The Arizona Constitution says the commissioners must consider it “where practicable” as long as it does not harm other redistricting goals, such as equal population distribution and compactness.

The resulting maps sparked 68 contested legislative races when both primary and general-election matchups are counted, down 20 percent from 2010.

Ken Clark followed the redistricting process closely as co-chairman of the Competitive Districts Coalition, based in Phoenix.

He maintains it’s too early to judge the competitiveness of this year’s elections. The proof rests in the campaigns, not the number of filers, he said.

But the commission insisted on beefing up minority numbers in certain districts to surpass federal Voting Rights Act criteria, he said.

That took the steam out of a truly competitive electoral map.

“We really didn’t get much change in our state,” Clark said. “Which is sad.”

The commission made protection of minority-voting rights a paramount task because federal law prescribes it. One of its side effects is lopsided districts, from a partisan perspective.

The minority-dominated districts favor Democratic candidates, discouraging Republican challengers.

Conversely, that leaves fewer Democratic-leaning voters to sprinkle throughout the state, with the result that many districts tilt Republican.

That is the case in 16 or 17 of the 30 legislative districts and four of the nine congressional districts, by most counts.

Heavily partisan districts can discourage competition, said Roberta Voss, co-chair of the Competitive Districts Coalition.

But she sees a bigger reason for the decline in candidates: disenchantment with politics as usual.

“You have to have people who are willing to step up,” she said. “And I think we’re in a climate right now where people don’t want to participate.”

Querard, who runs the campaigns of more than 20 legislative candidates, takes the opposite view.

People run when they’re unhappy with the status quo, he said, equating this year’s candidate field to an endorsement of the Legislature’s overall direction.

“What are you going to run against?” he asked, saying that’s the challenge for would-be opponents.

Others say the controversy that dogged the redistricting process created an uncertain political landscape.

Political uncertainty

“People didn’t know what district they’d be in,” Reagan said.

Although the commission finished its work in mid-January, it took several months for the U.S. Department of Justice to approve the maps, a crucial step to ensure the maps protected minority-voting rights.

As soon as the final OK came, Republican critics delivered on their threats and sued. Late last month, they agreed to not challenge the district lines for this election cycle.

Querard said poor candidate recruitment by the major parties probably also contributed to the lower candidate count. He’s done his own recruitment effort for years.

Lastly, formidable incumbents can keep challengers at bay. The 10 legislative candidates running unopposed are all incumbents with established name recognition and, in some cases, healthy campaign warchests, which can intimidate challengers.

In Reagan’s case, her Scottsdale-centric district does not significantly differ from the one she has represented for the past 10 years. And her formidable campaign treasury, $47,000 at the start of the year, probably helped keep challengers at bay, she said.

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