After Election Day, AZ's Far Right Now Has a Fight on Its Hands
Congresswoman-elect Kyrsten Sinema's slim victory over Teabagger Vernon Parker offers an apt analogy for the 2012 election cycle.
Why? Because voters of the Ninth Congressional District narrowly elected an unapologetic bisexual liberal over a Tea Party Republican whose lips are permanently glued to Sheriff Joe Arpaio's fanny.
This, after the Republican National Congressional Committee threw just about everything dumb Sinema has ever said or done in her lifetime — which is a lot — at her.
From once supporting Ralph Nader (more anathema to Dems than Rs, by the way) to "spinning" at an anti-war protest with a Wiccan pal to calling herself a "Prada socialist" to accusing non-working women of "leeching off their husbands and boyfriends," Sinema's über-lefty doings were shoved in voters' faces by the GOP, night after night in ad after ad.
Still, they went for her over the Teabagger. And all I've got to say is, thank God for redistricting.
There's a national anti-Tea Party trend, evident in President Barack Obama's stunning 332-electoral-vote win over lame, Leave It to Beaver Republican Mitt Romney.
Hell, Obama won the popular tally by more than 3 million votes (or 3 percentage points) and he even took Florida!
No wonder U.S. House Speaker John Boehner recently told ABC News, "We don't have a Tea Party caucus to speak of in the House."
Tea Party? What Tea Party?
Of course, the Teabagger Rs are still around. Most of the Tea Partiers elected to the House in 2010 were re-elected.
But they suffered some big defeats, like that of Florida extremist and Fox News darling Congressman Allen West, whose crash and burn was particularly delicious, considering that there's nothing the racist Tea Party loves more than an African-American touting its ideology.
You know, like Vernon Parker.
Losing Republican U.S. Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, both Tea Party favorites, did national damage to the TP and GOP brands with their Troglodyte-like comments on rape. Republicans are lambasting their Tea Party brethren as the cretins who cost them the presidential election.
Saturday Night Live star Jay Pharoah pretty much summed up the situation with a post-election portrayal of President Obama on "Weekend Update":
"Republicans . . . this election was yours to lose. Eight percent unemployment, $5 gas, I even gave you a one-debate head start. And, I mean, on top of that I'm black."
Nationally, it was a good day to be from the party of FDR, JFK, and LBJ. Dems added to their lead in the U.S. Senate (though not by a filibuster-proof margin, drat) and picked up seats in the U.S. House.
And now the election is over, and Hispanics helped Obama attain victory yet again, this time with 71 percent of them voting for the president.
Which is why you see Republicans, such as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a onetime proponent of ending the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of birthright citizenship, scrambling to come up with immigration-reform legislation with Democratic New York Senator Chuck Schumer.
Message to pro-immigrant activists: Now is the time to push hard on your "friends" in the White House and Congress and secure a fair deal for the 12 million undocumented in our midst.
Demilitarization of the U.S.-Mexico border would be nice, too. This way, we wouldn't see U.S. Border Patrol agents shooting each other in the desert, as was apparently the case in Nicholas Ivie's "friendly fire" death on October 2.
I won't hold my breath waiting for that. Still, comprehensive immigration reform suddenly is doable.
Sadly, the brown wave that helped Obama was more like a brook in Arizona, which moved from red to a faint purple in 2012 — with the election of more Democrats to the U.S. House, the narrow loss by Democrat Rich Carmona in the U.S. Senate race, and Arpaio's winning by his narrowest margin ever — but AZ is nowhere near blue.
Specifically, in Maricopa County, the student and union-fueled coalition Adios Arpaio registered more than 34,000 new voters, and Citizens for a Better Arizona, the group responsible for handing a pink slip to disgraced former state Senate President Russell Pearce in last year's recall election, signed up 12,000 voters to the Permanent Early Voting List and collected about 3,700 ballots.
Valiant efforts. But that's just spitting in the ocean when you're talking about a county with as many residents as the state of Oregon.
Maricopa County has more than 1.85 million registered voters, and more than 1.3 million of them voted in the race we all care about the most (or should), the county sheriff's contest.
Those are daunting figures, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio had a daunting amount of money. He spent more than $7 million over the course of the past four years and $2.8 million from mid-September until near the end of October.
My liberal pals like to believe in people-power. So do I, but the reality is that Democrat Paul Penzone needed a lot more money to punch back against Arpaio's TV advertising onslaught.
And the ground game, while helpful, did nothing to affect the mass of county voters not being reached via shoe leather and door-knocking. This wasn't Pearce's Legislative District 18, which Parraz and his people were able to blanket and dominate.
This was a far bigger game, and Arpaio truly was Goliath to Democrat Paul Penzone's David. Except, this time around, Goliath lifted one colossal foot and brought it smashing down on David's head.
Penzone's camp did well in fundraising for any normal county sheriff's race, more than $500,000 according to Penzone's pre-Election Day finance report.
He was able to buy targeted ads on TV and radio. But what I mostly saw were Arpaio ads.
And that was deadly. Not only was Arpaio able to reframe his image and portray himself as a grandfatherly lawman who loves little kids, hugs former inmates, and keeps the county safe — contrary to his record — he was able to label Penzone as a wife-abuser in mailers, robo-calls, and in one particularly devastating TV ad.
To its credit, the local news media followed my lead and exposed the ad for the massive lie it was. I first wrote about Penzone's 2003 altercation with his ex-wife in July. After Arpaio's dirty commercial dropped in October, TV news outlets and the Arizona Republic rewarded Penzone with positive coverage, pointing out how misleading the Arpaio ad was.
Penzone's name recognition was relatively low, despite his stint as the face of the Phoenix Police Department's Silent Witness program, and the attack by Arpaio was the first introduction many ever had to the former Phoenix police sergeant.
Realistically, Penzone started with baggage. That baggage could have been negated, but as I pointed out in my October 4 cover story on the race ("Paul Penzone Can Beat Arpaio If He Turns Up the Heat"), people had to see and hear Penzone for him to win their support.
Although I believe the Penzone camp could have done a better job scoring earned media, they were hobbled by the presence in the race of Republican-turned-Independent goofball Mike Stauffer.
Just as Arpaio refused to debate or appear with Penzone, the Democrat turned down any media opportunities in the general election that would include Stauffer. Because Stauffer's name was on the ballot, many media outlets felt obliged to cover him.
The strategy may have held Stauffer to his meager 4.5 percent, which is where his numbers were as this column went to press.
That 4.5 percent did not cost Penzone the election, though if you add it to the Democrats' 44 percent, it brings Penzone within three points of Arpaio: 48 percent to the incumbent's 51 percent. And that gap may narrow more as the county completes its count of early and provisional ballots.
But if the votes for Stauffer would not have gotten Penzone over the hump (assuming that Penzone garnered them in Stauffer's absence), Stauffer — along with Penzone's primary challenger, fired Goodyear cop John Rowan — hurt Penzone's chances in another way.
According to Penzone communications director Stacy Pearson, some contributors stayed away from Penzone, first because he had a primary challenger and later because of Stauffer's futile bid.
Maricopa County Democratic Chair Ann Wallack helped recruit Penzone, and she and others attempted to dissuade Rowan, knowing that his entry into the Democratic field would hurt the larger goal of beating Arpaio.
As with those deeply disturbed individuals who championed Stauffer, a guy who did little campaigning and even less fundraising, there should be some special ward in the state mental hospital reserved for Rowan supporters. That is, unless their goal was helping Arpaio win.
"Arizona's national reputation is one that's pretty squirrelly," Pearson noted. "Despite our guarantee [to potential donors outside the state] that Paul was going to get out of the primary, no one can realistically guarantee anything in Arizona politics."
Republican operative Carlos Sierra started off as a Stauffer supporter but switched as soon as it became evident that Stauffer and his screwy Svengali, West Kenyon, were not intent on running a credible campaign.
So he teamed with Democratic state House member Ruben Gallego to run the independent expenditure committee Citizens for Responsible Law Enforcement. Sierra says they ended up raising about $300,000 to target Arpaio in the hope of helping Penzone, and the group was able to run TV ads.
But CRLE got a late start, and though the group scored more big contributions toward the end of the campaign, that's the worst time to buy advertising in a state where most people mail in early ballots rather than go to the polls.
Stauffer definitely harmed their fundraising efforts, Sierra told me.
"When we were trying to raise funds, that was a concern to people," he said. "It's like, 'Well, you guys already have an uphill battle, and it's even harder with a third-party candidate.'"
Sierra says he and Gallego could have "raised more money and convinced more people that it could have been done" if Stauffer had not been a factor.
Perhaps that's why, in the wake of Penzone's loss, restlessness and discontent plague all those who backed Penzone — because they know the job is left undone.
Citizens for a Better Arizona (as well as Adios Arpaio, the ACLU, and the local Progressive Democrats of America) have complained loudly, demonstrating in Central Phoenix over the number of provisional ballots handed out on Election Day.
There undoubtedly were problems that need to be addressed for future elections, but it's ridiculous to suggest that Arpaio's win was the result of some vast voter-suppression effort.
Redistricting and the consolidation of polling places, down to 700 from about 1,100, more likely are culprits, as far as people having to vote provisionally.
There's no indication that the provisional ballots would have swung the election Penzone's way, and Hispanics were not the only ones who had to vote provisionally. Anglos were affected as well.
The Hispanic vote in Maricopa County and in Arizona generally seemed energized by both Penzone and by the campaign of U.S. Senate candidate Rich Carmona.
Overall turnout was slightly down this year. And the Hispanic vote in this state is nowhere near where it needs to be to put a stake through the Tea Party's heart.
A report on Hispanic voting by the Pew Hispanic Center released in October shows that 19 percent of all eligible voters in Arizona are Hispanic — something that could constitute a mighty force.
An ASU Morrison Institute study released this year noted that "about 69 percent of eligible Arizona Latinos were registered in 2010, compared to about 83 percent of non-Hispanic Whites."
But the change is slow and driven by demographics. The Latino push to get out the vote may have helped make the Arpaio and Carmona races tighter, but it was not near enough to end the right-wing lock on power here in Cactus Country.
Meanwhile, largely because the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission redrew this state's political map, creating more competitive congressional and legislative races, Democrats now have a 5-4 edge over Republicans in Arizona's U.S. House delegation — assuming Congressman Ron Barber pulls it out against GOPer Martha McSally in CD 2.
The redistricting commission helped end the Republican super-majority in the state Legislature. A lot of the crazies will be back next year, but some — like aggro wild man Frank Antenori and pistol-packin' real estate queen Lori Klein, both Republican state senators — will not.
The Dems now have four more senators, 13 to the Rs' 17, which at least gives them no excuse not to show up and fight.
On the downside for progressives, the Rs chose state Senator Andy Biggs as their next Senate president, and the Gilbert ideologue is just to the right of Count Dracula.
But Biggs, often referred to as "Russell Pearce with a brain" is faced with a caucus divided almost evenly between moderates and hard-liners. So I'm hopeful that split will ameliorate his tendency toward Draconian right-wing insanity.
In the state House, the divide is 36 Rs to 24 Ds, and Republican Andy Tobin, a moderate only in relative terms, crushed an attempt to install Pinal County Teabagger Steve Smith as speaker, which is a good thing.
Carmona's loss to Republican Congressman Jeff Flake remains a tough one. Carmona seemed to have momentum going into Election Day, though his poll numbers already had slipped by then.
Unlike in the Congressional and legislative races, redistricting was no good to progressives in statewide races. But I think it's worth remembering that earlier this year, most political observers would not have predicted that Carmona could come within four points of Goldwater Institute golden boy Flake.
"When this campaign started, some people thought I was delusional," Carmona told supporters in Tucson during his concession speech. "They said, 'That Carmona. He's a nice guy, and he has a good résumé, but it's Arizona.'
"What I think we showed everyone tonight is that Arizona is changing."
Also, Flake, though deeply conservative, is no J.D. Hayworth. I was pulling for Carmona, but as far as Arizona Rs go, Flake ain't so bad. Post-election, he's already talking about support — as he used to a few years ago — for comprehensive immigration reform.
And even a spiteful old coot can smell a shift in the political climate, albeit a small one.
Which is why Joe Arpaio's signaled his willingness to meet with Hispanic leaders — as long as they "don't yell" at him.
I've got a better idea, one that even Republicans are bandying about in the aftermath of November 6: Recall Joe.
A monumental task, I'll agree. Statutorily, there would have to be anywhere between 325,000 to 350,000 signatures from qualified electors to make a recall of the sheriff happen. And you'd need a massive cushion of a couple hundred thousand additional votes because a certain percentage inevitably would be deemed invalid.
I asked Arizona's best expert in these matters, CBA's Randy Parraz, whether it would be doable. He estimated that a recall effort would have to score "3,300 signatures a day" to make it a reality.
And there would have to be boatloads of cash for professional petition circulators. Still, Parraz isn't writing it off, particularly if Arpaio's final vote count drops below 50 percent, leaving him winning with a plurality.
"This would open the door for all sorts of things to be considered," he stated.
I can already hear the kvetchers. We just had an election, they'll cry. It's an abuse of the process. It can't be done. Arpaio's still too popular.
All things that were said, I'll remind you, when Parraz and CBA began their recall of Russell Pearce.
And you know how that turned out.
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