Arizona’s redrawn political map is still sparking controversy, even after the first election using it has been settled.
The results, particularly in the U.S. House races, have added fuel to complaints that the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was rigged to favor Democrats. Others, however, point to close races in three toss-up districts as an indication that the commission did a balanced job.
All three toss-up House races went for Democrats. As a result, the state’s delegation to Washington will be led 5-4 by a rare Democratic majority.
Critics argue that the three districts were configured to give Democrats the advantage. Two incumbent congressmen, Reps. Paul Gosar and Ben Quayle, were so nervous, they jumped to friendlier Republican districts, in Quayle’s case forcing a showdown with another GOP incumbent.
Arizona’s senior Democratic congressmen, meanwhile, acknowledged to The Arizona Republic this week that losing some of their left-leaning strongholds to the toss-up districts helped their party dominate races for Congress this year.
But independent observers and supporters of the commission’s map argue that the slim congressional victories demonstrated that the competitive districts were drawn fairly. The races were so close, they weren’t decided for days. Republicans have a good chance of winning in the future, analysts say.
Last year, the commission took up the once-a-decade ritual of reconfiguring Arizona’s congressional map, adding a ninth U.S. House district and redrawing the state’s 30 legislative districts. As usual, the political parties jockeyed for influence, and critics accused the commission of gerrymandering.
The redrawn political boundaries almost certainly played a role in breaking the Republican supermajority at the state Capitol. The GOP still has the majority, but with smaller margins in both the House and Senate, where Democrats picked up four seats in each chamber.
Among the casualties were incumbents such as Republican Sen. Jerry Lewis, R-Mesa, who lost his seat in a newly drawn district that leaned heavily Democratic. Voters in his old district elected him only last year after ousting former Senate President Russell Pearce in a recall election.
Rep. Jerry Weiers, R-Glendale, decided to run for Glendale mayor after he was drawn into a district that he said he couldn’t win “even if I was a bus driver driving nuns to heaven.”
And two new swing legislative districts pitted incumbents against each other, leading to losses for Reps. Amanda Reeve, R-Phoenix and Ted Vogt, R-Tucson. Both lost by narrow margins.
On the U.S. House map, six of Arizona’s nine districts ended up leaning strongly Republican or Democratic to meet restrictions based on geography, minority voters and other factors. But the commission also formed three toss-up districts where candidates from either party were supposed to be able to win.
“The mistake that everybody makes is they measure competitiveness by who won the last time,” said Ken Clark, a former state lawmaker who weighed in on redistricting as leader of an independent coalition that advocated for drawing as many competitive districts as possible. “Competitiveness is measured over an entire decade.”
Clark said this year’s winners in the House toss-up districts — Ann Kirkpatrick in northern Arizona’s District 1, Ron Barber in southern Arizona’s District 2 and Kyrsten Sinema in the Phoenix area’s District 9 — took seats just “barely.”
They “ran superior campaigns in a year when Republicans did not have their message right,” Clark said.
The winning Democrats were already known in their districts. Kirkpatrick had represented the district as a congresswoman two years before. Barber had worked with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and won a special election to replace her there. And Sinema had served the area as a state lawmaker.
Clark predicted that Republicans could do just as well with good candidates. He said that could happen as soon as the 2014 midterm elections, when Democratic turnout could decrease without a presidential ticket to drive voters, although a strong Democratic candidate for governor could counter that.
The closest House race was in southern Arizona. Barber beat GOP military veteran Martha McSally by fewer than 2,500 votes. It took 11 days to decide, and for the first few days, the two traded leads as remaining ballots were totaled.
Kirkpatrick and Sinema won by about 9,000 and 10,000 ballots, respectively — incredibly narrow margins compared with the other congressional races.
Some Democrats point to the tight outcomes as evidence that the commission did its job.
“I think that proves that those districts were very competitive,” said Michael Mandell, a former state Senate Democratic chief of staff and attorney who monitored redistricting. “It’s fortuitous for Democrats that it turned out the way it did. But when you look at the Barber race, almost 1 percent of vote would have shifted the outcome.”
That’s not how Republican Timothy La Sota looks at it. “Notice how all these supposedly competitive districts just managed to swing to the Democrats?” said the Phoenix attorney, who led a group critical of the redistricting panel. “I think there’s a clear Democratic edge in all of them.”
Rep. David Schweikert, a Fountain Hills Republican who served on the state Legislature’s 1991 redistricting committee, believes the GOP can be competitive with the right candidates.
But he also blasted the redistricting commission, arguing that the maps were gerrymandered to crowd Republican voters into a few safe districts, giving Democrats advantages in the competitive races. GOP voter registration, however, was higher in two of the three competitive districts.
Schweikert, who defeated Quayle in an incumbent-vs.-incumbent primary, predicted the competitive districts will skew toward the Democrats more as Arizona’s population changes.
“Part of the great scam that was committed on the Arizona voters is not only were these districts designed to perform Democrat, the future growth in population was also very carefully designed to keep it that way,” Schweikert said.
Arizona’s senior Democratic congressmen also said the maps were drawn in ways that benefited Democrats.
U.S. Reps. Ed Pastor of Phoenix and Ra�l Grijalva of Tucson said they lost high-turnout parts of their districts to the toss-up districts, resulting in a drop-off in voter turnout in their races this year.
“The maps performed like they were designed,” Pastor said, chuckling. “Ann Kirkpatrick winning was a result of the efforts to create a district that leaned Democratic (in northern Arizona’s District 1).”
In southern Arizona’s District 2, the map at the time “was being created for Gabby Giffords,” he said, though the commission is not allowed to create maps with incumbents in mind. “The anticipation was that Gabby would need more help, so we took out many of the Republican-leaning precincts from the old district and inserted more Tucson, Democratic-performing districts that came from Grijalva.”
Grijalva concurred, noting the loss of Democratic voters in his district aided Giffords’ replacement, Barber.
Similarly, many of Pastor’s former precincts in Phoenix that voted heavily Democratic were drawn into the Valley’s newly added District 9, where Sinema won.
In addition, “we thought we’d try to pick up every Hispanic we could in the East Valley, so we went into Mesa and even into Chandler,” Pastor said.
Colleen Mathis, chairwoman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, did not return a call for comment.
But Jennifer Steen, who teaches political science at Arizona State University and has studied redistricting, downplayed the congressmen’s take on the process.
“They were not on the commission,” she said. “They certainly had input, and there was a lot of stuff that happened behind the scenes. But for either one of them to use the first person and suggest (drawing the maps themselves is) what they were doing is strange. … To say it was set up for Democrats is not credible when you look at the election results.”
She added that Schweikert’s prediction of future population changes is impossible to make.
Instead, Steen praised the commission for meeting the goal of competitive districts.
A lawsuit challenging the congressional map was tossed out in Maricopa County Superior Court recently. But the judge invited plaintiffs to refile.
Reporter Mary Jo Pitzl contributed to this article.