Thursday, November 11, 2021

Proposed Arizona congressional map could force incumbents to make tough decisions

Posted By on Thu, Nov 11, 2021 at 6:45 AM

Several members of Arizona’s congressional delegation may have big decisions to make before next year’s election based on the proposed boundaries of the state’s new political map. 

The draft congressional map approved last month by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission puts several incumbents into unfavorable districts. Some of those district boundaries will change by the time the commission approves its final maps, likely sometime in late December, and those revisions could be to some incumbents’ benefit. Exactly how different the final districts will look is impossible to predict.

Members of Congress don’t have to live in the districts where they run, only in the states they represent. That leaves several Arizona representatives with options if the AIRC doesn’t change the map to their liking.  

U.S. Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Peoria Republican, currently represents a heavily GOP district that includes her hometown, along with Surprise, Sun City and surrounding areas. When the AIRC approved its draft map, however, the area she represents was largely split between two districts — and she doesn’t live in either of them. 

By just four houses, Lesko now lives in the proposed predominantly Latino, overwhelmingly Democratic 3rd District. Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego lives in the district, which is similar to the district he’s represented since he was first elected in 2014.

If Lesko is still in the 3rd District when the commission approves its final map, she’s certain to run elsewhere. Most of Peoria is in the 8th District, a Republican-leaning but competitive district that extends into Glendale and north Phoenix. Large chunks of her current district are also in the 9th District, an overwhelmingly Republican district that takes in must of the West Valley — from Sun City West and Surprise in the north to Goodyear and Litchfield Park to the south — and extends to the state’s western border, taking in La Paz and Mohave counties and part of Yuma County.

The 8th District is a natural fit for Lesko, said Doug Cole, a longtime Republican lobbyist and political strategist, who noted she represented the area for years not only in Congress but before that in the legislature. And while the 9th District is more solidly Republican, with virtually no chance that a GOP nominee would ever lose a general election there, Cole said it’s less appealing because of how geographically large it is, compared to the small, compact 8th District

“Even though it is more competitive, she did very well over the years representing that area,” Cole said of the 8th District. 

Will an incumbent move if it forces a primary contest?

There’s another factor that could be important if Lesko has to choose between districts: A campaign for the 9th District may force her into a tough primary against a fellow GOP incumbent. Congressman Paul Gosar has indicated that he’s likely to run in the 9th District if the proposed 2nd District, where he lives, isn’t altered to include Mohave and La Paz counties. 

“That would be a race to watch. But I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Cole said. 

Gosar told the Arizona Mirror that the 2nd District is a “great district” and that he loves the “breadth and width of my current district and its great people.” But he’s hoping to see changes. Specifically, he said he doesn’t want Mohave and Yavapai counties to be separated. And if that split remains on the final map, Gosar suggested that he’ll stick with Mohave rather than Yavapai.

“I am confident Mohave and La Paz counties are in my future one way or another,” Gosar said.

Mohave County’s future most likely rests with District 9. The AIRC’s two Republican members wanted to include Mohave County in District 2, which would have made it a far more Republican district, with a 15% Republican advantage under the commission’s metrics, compared to about half that under the current proposed boundaries. 

But independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg and the two Democratic commissioners opposed the idea, largely due to the effect it would have on representation for the Navajo Nation and other northern tribes that predominantly vote Democratic. Without Mohave County, Neuberg said, the tribes would still be able to have a voice in the new district.

Gosar doesn’t live in the 9th District. But lack of residency hasn’t stopped him before.

In 2010, Gosar was originally elected to represent the old 1st District, which included both Flagstaff — his longtime home — and Prescott. When the last AIRC split Prescott off from the new 1st District, one of the only competitive districts in the state, Gosar switched districts to run in the new District 4. He said he would move his residence to Prescott, though his house in Flagstaff remains listed on property tax records as his primary residence. The move took Gosar out of a highly competitive district and put him into an overwhelmingly Republican one where he would never have to worry about a tough general election.

Moving from the 2nd District to the 9th District would have a similar effect. District 2 is slightly outside the range that the AIRC considers competitive, which doesn’t bode well for incumbent U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, a centrist Republican-turned-Democrat who’s represented the area for the past three years. But Gosar has become infamous for his extreme positions, outlandish statements and questionable associations. While O’Halleran might find it tough to win re-election in the proposed new district, Cole said a race between him and Gosar would be competitive, even in a district that favors the GOP.

Stanton and Schweikert might face challenging districts

And while Lesko may decide to run in District 8 despite not living there, the proposed district is home to another incumbent congressman: Democratic U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton. 

Stanton currently represents a district that stretches from Ahwatukee and Tempe through central Phoenix and into the northern part of the city. The new 4th District includes Ahwatukee and Tempe, but doesn’t take in other parts of Phoenix, instead pushing further into west Mesa. That leaves Stanton, who lives in north-central Phoenix, in a Republican-leaning, competitive district. The 4th District, with much of the area Stanton currently represents, is two districts away.

Nonetheless, barring any changes that substantially alter the map, political observers expect Stanton to run in the 4th District. Steven Slugocki, a former chairman of the Maricopa County Democratic Party, said Stanton can win in whichever district he runs in, whether it be the 1st, 4th or 8th. But no one wants to run in a district that leans toward the other party, and Slugocki said it makes the most sense for Stanton to run in the 4th District. Also, if Stanton runs in either of the GOP-leaning districts, he’s likely to face an incumbent Republican in the general election.

“He will have to decide what’s best. But I would guess (District) 4,” Slugocki said.

Cole noted that Stanton previously lived in Ahwatukee and represented the area for years on the Phoenix City Council. And his old district includes much of the area that’s now in the 4th District. 

“His historical political base is in the new CD4,” he said. 

Republican Congressman David Schweikert is likely also hoping to see some changes before the new districts are finalized. 

Schweikert, of Fountain Hills, has represented a Scottsdale-centric district for more than a decade. But unlike his current district, the proposed 1st District takes in heavily Democratic areas of central Phoenix. That moves Schweikert from a solidly Republican district into a highly competitive one. The 1st District is still Republican-leaning, but Democrats would have better odds of winning his seat than they’ve had in years. 

Not everyone who was drawn out of their district will have a difficult decision to make. U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, a Gilbert Republican who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, currently resides in the proposed District 4. Much like Lesko, he’s a stone’s throw away from a more favorable district that includes the bulk of the area he currently represents, which is in the staunchly Republican 5th District, encompassing east Mesa, Queen Creek, Apache Junction and parts of Chandler, Gilbert and San Tan Valley.

Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.

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