Democrats Dominate Early Returns in Maricopa County, Creating 'Steep Hill' for GOP

Democrats Dominate Early Returns in Maricopa County, Creating 'Steep Hill' for GOP
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While ballots are still being counted, local Democrats are optimistic they'll come out on top in key races in Arizona, a state that has long stood as a bastion of conservative politics.

Initial ballot returns in Maricopa County gave a host of Democratic candidates and liberal initiatives huge margins. Joe Biden led President Donald Trump by roughly 10 points, while Mark Kelly led incumbent Republican Senator Martha McSally by a similar margin. Fox News, a conservative outlet, went on to call the state for Biden and Kelly on Tuesday night, while the Associated Press made similar calls around 1 a.m. the following morning.

Those margins have since tightened in Maricopa County. Biden and Kelly lead their Republican opponents by around 51 percent and 52 percent, respectively, statewide, according to the Arizona Secretary of State. Megan Gilbertson, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Elections Department, didn't respond to New Times' request for comment on ballots left to count. But an Arizona Republic analysis estimates that there at least 600,000 ballots remaining statewide.

Pollsters, former elected officials, and political consultants that New Times spoke with largely agreed that Democrats' strong showing in initial returns put them in a strong position to hold onto leads in statewide races like the Arizona Senate and presidential races.

"It’s a very steep hill for Republicans to climb to win either of these statewide races," said Paul Bentz, vice president of research and strategy at HighGround, a Phoenix-based political consulting firm. "We saw throughout the election that Democrats were over-performing when it came to returning ballots and that Republicans surged late, but overall, I think it was a bigger margin than anyone really anticipated."

"I will tell you, watching Fox News hem and haw about Florida ...  and Ohio and go round and round on that and have them call Arizona so early in the night was fairly shocking," he added.

"We saw Democrats have an extremely strong performance in the early votes," said DJ Quinlan, a Democratic strategist with Radar Strategies and former executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party. "I do expect statewide Republicans to cut into Democratic margins a bit. But in Maricopa County, it might be a bit more of a wash than they’re expecting."

Arizona Republicans, including Governor Doug Ducey, have been deriding early calls in the races by media outlets, arguing that there are still hundreds of thousands of votes to be counted that could close the gap in key races.

"We just got to wait and see," said Brian Murray, a GOP political consultant with Summit Consulting Group and former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party. "I think if the Election Day trend is what we see in the remaining ballots, then I think the President can probably win this state with a comfortable margin of 30,000 to 40,000. McSally just has a different trajectory. I don’t know if it's winnable for her yet."

The remaining uncounted ballots are made up of a few different types. For instance, there are early mail-in ballots that election officials received in the days leading up to the election, as well as early mail-in ballots that were dropped off by voters on Election Day. Politicos and consultants aren't sold on the notion that those ballots will skew strongly Republican.

"It’s a big unknown about the 'late earlies'," said Sam Almy, a Phoenix-based data analyst with Saguaro Strategies, a firm that works with Democratic and progressive campaigns on digital advertising. "In the past, they’ve typically been in line with the regular early balloting, the exception to that being 2018. That’s when the Democrats came back and caught up [in the Senate race]. Are we seeing a new normal now? I don’t know."

"Election Day voters were these Trumpers who were very excited to show their loyalty by voting in person," said Steve Nuño-Perez, director of communications and senior analyst at Latino Decisions, a Latino polling firm. "But these late earlies that are coming in, do they behave like same-day voters, or do they behave like the mail-in voters?"

Bentz said that for Trump to overcome his current vote deficit with Biden in Arizona, he'd have to win over 50 percent of the remaining ballots just to "close the gap" with his Democratic challenger.

Emily Kirkland, executive director of Progress Arizona, a liberal group, was bullish on a Democratic victory.

"I am confident that they are not going to skew Republican enough," she said. "The deficit is so big that it seems hard to make up."

Analysts list a litany of reasons for Democrats' dominant showing in Maricopa County and Arizona generally in early returns: the surge in turn-out overall and early voting, the county's evolution into a more diverse and urbanized place, and the long-term political mobilization of Latino voters after the passage of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona's highly controversial anti-illegal immigration bill.

"It’s all of them. It’s younger voters, first-time voters, Latino voters," Bentz said. "They spent two years activating and organizing these individuals, getting practiced and ready."

"It really showed that they really had their game together when it really mattered," he added.

Grant Woods, a former Republican Arizona Attorney General, said that the fact that both Biden and Kelly were moderate Democrats made them particularly suited to Arizona voters who were turned off by the polarizing and divisive rhetoric coming from Trump and the rest of the Republican party.

"Arizona has always been open to centrist, reasonable Democrats," Woods said. "But if they were presented with something else, then the state would naturally revert toward Republican. Right now, the nature of the Republican party nationally and in Arizona does not have much future here or, in my view, for the long term. I think Arizona has shown in this election that it’s ready for — that it’s not ready to go back to the 50s and have this just be a lily-white world filled with privilege and hate."

To some observers, the initial returns are indicative of a broader shift in the electorate, particularly in Maricopa County. Democratic power in the county isn't just a fluke, they say.

"I view Arizona as purple, not blue. But I think what’s happening is, whereas for the past 20 years we’ve been in the middle leaning right, we’re now in the middle leaning left, because of the changing demographics," Woods said. 

"Four years ago, Paul Penzone shocked the world by defeating Joe Arpaio in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s race," Bentz said. "Four years later he wins reelection with 60 percent of the vote. That shows a significant shift in the electorate in Maricopa County that is here to stay for a while."
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety