Arizona has conducted its first general election using new congressional and legislative district maps, resulting in several excruciatingly tight congressional races as well as a handful of legislative contests that went undecided for more than a week after Election Day.
Several observers said the results show the state's redistricting commission injected a strong dose of competitiveness in at least its new congressional districts.
However, there's still a partisan divide over the fairness of maps that produced months of political and legal turmoil a year ago and several ongoing lawsuits.
Gov. Jan Brewer and other Republicans denounced the maps drawn by a five-member commission as being drawn to favor Democrats, and Brewer at one point unsuccessfully tried to oust the commission's chairwoman.
"There was a competiveness advantage for Democrats but not a competitive advantage for Republicans," said state Sen. Frank Antenori, a Tucson Republican
who lost his race in a redrawn district that leans Democratic. "I've got to hand it to them."
Colleen Mathis, chairwoman of the Independent Redistricting Commission and a target of Republicans' ire, did not return a call for comment.
The commission, the second such panel to be appointed since voters in 2000 took redistricting out of the hands of the governor and legislators, redraws congressional and legislative districts from scratch after each once-a-decade census.
The commission is constitutionally required to use criteria that include protecting minorities' voting clout, respecting so-called "communities of interest," and instilling competition, and those criteria sometimes conflict.
The resulting maps are important politically because where district lines are drawn influences which party's candidates have realistic shots at winning and whether they even bother to run in the first place.
Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick narrowly beat Republican Jonathan Paton in Eastern Arizona's 1st Congressional District, and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema edged out Republican Vernon Parker in the 9th District in the Phoenix area. Meanwhile, the 2nd District race in Tucson and Cochise County between Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Martha McSally was so close it went undecided more than a week after the election.
"The idea that this was a map that overwhelmingly favored Democrats has been undermined or discredited. Democrats are ahead but not by a huge margin," said Jennifer Steen, an Arizona State University assistant professor of political science who monitored the commission's yearlong map-drawing process. "Those who claimed the commission had drawn a competitive map should probably feel vindicated by the election results."
Still, having three competitive congressional districts is not a major departure from the past decade when three of the eight old districts changed partisan hands at least once.
Then, as now, most districts appear safely in the corner of one party or the other.
"I think Districts 1 and 2 and 9 are going to be very competitive forever," said David Berman, a senior research fellow at ASU's Morrison Institute. "The others are not going to be competitive at all."
And even in the competitive districts, the candidates themselves and national trends "really make the difference," Berman said.
Berman said Kirkpatrick and Sinema likely would have lost to Reps. Paul Gosar and Ben Quayle, respectfully, if those Republican incumbents hadn't chosen to run in safe Republican districts. He also noted that votes cast for Libertarians more than covered the Democrats' victory margins.
State Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, already chosen by fellow Republicans to become Senate president in January, said the election saw numerous tight races, partly because of how the maps were drawn.
But he also said some of the tightness resulted from big spending by groups separate from candidates' campaigns.
He cited one Phoenix-area legislative race in which so-called independent expenditure groups spent more than $500,000 on mailers and advertising for or against a Republican incumbent who ultimately won his race.
"We were saturated," Biggs said of the spending.
Democrat Chad Campbell, the state House minority leader, said the spending didn't make races competitive.
"That is like a chicken-and-the-egg argument," Campbell said. "Money goes to where people think they can win and influence elections."
Ken Clark, a Democratic ex-legislator who helped lead a bipartisan group that called for creation of additional competitive districts, said it's too early to get a good read on the maps.
Clark said he's convinced the commission was too cautious and went overboard in creating minority-dominated districts to satisfy the federal Voting Rights Act. That meant voters registered as Democrats couldn't be placed in another Phoenix-area district to make it more competitive, he said.
"There was a competiveness advantage for Democrats but not a competitive advantage for Republicans."
Sen. Frank Antenori, Tucson Republican