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Red-state Arizona sees surge this year in Democrat voter registrations
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Red-state Arizona sees surge this year in Democrat voter registrations

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PHOENIX — It may not be the sign of a “blue wave.” But a new report from the Secretary of State’s Office suggests Arizona Democrats are more energized this year than Republicans.

And that may translate to victories in races that in any other year they could not win.

The latest state figures show that for every person who registered since March with the GOP, the Democratic Party registered more than three.

That doesn’t endanger the lead Republicans have in Arizona. They still make up nearly 35 percent of registered voters, versus less than 31 percent for Democrats.

And independents, those not affiliated with any of the four recognized parties, still make up about a third of Arizona’s registered voters, though their share of the total is dropping.

But the surge in Democratic registrations comes as recent national elections have shown some vulnerability for Republicans. Results in districts that should be safe for them have proved closer than expected as some party faithful stay home amid controversies about the Trump presidency.

That doesn’t mean Republicans will vote for a Democrat. But if they choose to sit out in November, it could negate the party’s voter registration edge.

Arizona already has a real-life example of this.

In April, Republican Debbie Lesko managed to defeat Democrat Hiral Tipirneni in a special election to fill a vacant congressional seat in northwest Maricopa County. But Lesko, a state senator who represented the area for years, picked up just 52.1 percent of the votes cast.

That is significant since Republicans far outnumber Democrats in the district, by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. And it’s a district that went for Donald Trump two years earlier by more than 20 points.

The push to register Democrats is pronounced in the 2nd Congressional District, running from midtown Tucson to the state border south and east.

There, Democrats boosted their numbers between March and now by 2,887.

And Republicans? By just 11.

Ayshia Connors, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said that disparity is not surprising.

“They have a lot of catching up to do,” she said of Democrats.

In fact, though, they’ve more than caught up in CD2 and now have a 3,500 registration edge.

But Connors said GOP officials are not worried, as they still have 150,000 more registered adherents statewide than the Democrats.

“We have a very strong ground game,” she said. “Our momentum is strong, our team is strong. So we’re very confident we’re going to have success in November.”

Not everyone in the GOP reads the new data that way.

“I think the latest partisan registration numbers are yet the most recent tangible evidence that the energy of the 2018 election is on the center-left of the political spectrum,” said Arizona Republican consultant Stan Barnes.

Barnes said he has never seen such energy among that group in his 30 years as a Republican.

That’s a significant concession, given that Barnes, a former state lawmaker, was around when Democrat Janet Napolitano got elected governor in 2002 despite the fact the GOP had 125,000 more registered voters in the state.

“If the environment is better today, and the Democrats won the governorship when it was less good, what does that mean for Republicans in the 2018 general election?” Barnes said. “That’s got Republicans awake at night.”

Barnes said he still thinks his party can hold its own with “quality candidates.” And he said the GOP has built-in advantages, including a large number of incumbents and the fact that the money tends to flow in their direction.

“But Democrats have been so beat down, so long, for what seems like forever in the minority position politically that any blue sky, any oxygen excites them,” he said. And that, said Barnes, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“That confidence has led to better candidates and more candidates and more money than anybody running has seen Democrats have before,” Barnes said. “And that must translate to victories that would not have been there before save for that optimism.”

Chuck Coughlin, who also consults for Arizona Republicans, said he expects that energized Democratic base will increase voter participation. He said that should translate into at least one, if not more, victories in statewide races, offices now currently occupied entirely by Republicans.

One place the Republicans do not have the benefit of incumbency is CD2, won in 2014 by Republican Martha McSally, who took the seat away from Democrat Ron Barber.

That year, Republicans had a voter registration edge of about 3,500.

Now, the tables are turned, with the Democrats up by that same margin and McSally in the hunt for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake.

Coughlin said he doubts Republicans will be able to hang on to that congressional seat.

The other open seat is in CD9, which encompasses parts of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.

Republicans had thought it was a swing district when it was first created for the 2012 election, with GOP registration at the time outnumbering Democrats by more than 10,000. Despite that, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema parlayed her time as a state legislator into a seat in Congress.

Sinema now hopes to become the Democratic nominee for Flake’s seat. That has Republicans thinking that perhaps this is the year they can win CD9.

Coughlin disagrees. And the numbers are not in the GOP favor, with the 10,000-registration edge the party had in 2012 having evaporated into a 13,000-registration deficit.

In CD1, the picture is a bit different.

Democrat Tom O’Halleran is hoping to hang on to the seat he won two years ago. Steve Smith, Wendy Rogers and Tiffany Shedd are all vying to be the GOP nominee.

The number of Republican voters in the sprawling district — which stretches from the state’s northern border to its eastern edge and down into suburban Tucson — is virtually the same now as it was two years ago.

But, while Democrats still outnumber Republicans, with 22,000 more registered voters, their margin has shrunk by about 7,000 from 2016.

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Related to this story

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A big money push by the Republican Party and tweets from the president helped the GOP hold onto a U.S. House seat in Arizona they would have never considered endangered any other year. Despite the win, Tuesday's special election in Arizona's 8th Congressional District was much closer than expected and is a warning to Republicans that their tough year isn't getting any easier. Former state Sen. Debbie Lesko only won by about 5 points in a district President Donald Trump won by 21 points.

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