Electoral Autopsy

Questions and answers about last week's election

This was a Republican year. How did Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords hold on to her seat against Republican challenger Jesse Kelly?

When you have a race as close as this one—with just a handful of votes remaining to be counted as of our press time, Giffords' margin was less than 4,200 votes out of more than 281,000 ballots cast—then just about any factor can be credited with carrying Giffords over the top.

She had a top-notch campaign team headed up by Rodd McLeod (who had experience stemming from his work running her 2006 campaign) that worked hard to target voters and get them to the polls. She's delivered great constituent service in the district and made a point of reaching out to the multitude of interest groups. She raised enough money to run an effective campaign on TV and through direct mail.

But we'd say the race boiled down to this: Republicans nominated a candidate who was far to the right of many GOP voters in the district. It's the same reason that Republican Sharron Angle lost to Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell lost to Democrat Chris Coons in the Delaware Senate race.

After winning the primary, Kelly didn't do anything to move to the center to attract moderate voters. As a result, he suffered the same fate as the 2006 GOP nominee, Randy Graf, another conservative who was able to win over GOP primary voters but not the general electorate.

Team Kelly hoped that his "send a message to Washington" narrative would overcome Giffords' "my opponent is too extreme for the district" narrative. In the end, Kelly's own purity on his platform did him in.

Would Jonathan Paton, the former state senator who lost to Kelly in the GOP primary, have run a stronger race against Giffords? Paton had baggage of his own—his work for the payday-loan industry, for example, polled poorly among GOP voters—but he wouldn't have produced the same kind of video footage that Team Giffords was able to assemble for the TV ads that labeled Kelly as "a risk we can't afford."

One final point: Sarah Palin famously targeted 20 districts that had voted for the McCain-Palin ticket, but whose House seats had been won by Democrats in 2008. Of those 20, 18 of them flipped to the GOP. Only Giffords and Rep. Nick J. Rahall of West Virginia survived the 2010 wave.

What's next for Giffords?

It's a little early to start handicapping 2012, given that the state will draw new boundaries for the congressional districts before then. And there's been speculation that Giffords might make a formidable challenger for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Jon Kyl, but given what happened this year to all Democrats who ran statewide campaigns, that's looking like a long-shot right now.

Assuming that Giffords does decide to seek re-election in Congressional District 8, there's no shortage of potential challengers. Kelly could take another shot at it, although another campaign runs the risk of turning him into a professional politician. Former auto dealer Steve Christy, who chaired the Conservatives for Congress Committee that hammered Giffords with negative advertising, has told us that he had some interest in running in the past and hasn't ruled out a future campaign. Paton could always take another shot at the office. And state Sen. Frank Antenori, who made his political debut with a run in CD 8 back in 2006, also covets the congressional seat.

How did Republican Ruth McClung come so close to knocking out Democratic Congressman Raúl Grijalva in such a heavily Democratic district?

A general anti-incumbency feeling, combined with high unemployment in places like Yuma, did a lot to create problems for Grijalva—but it was Grijalva's call for a boycott of Arizona that really put him in trouble. You can bet that Grijalva won't want to even say the word "boycott" in the future, much less call for one. His job now is to see what he can do to repair the damage he did to himself.

With the exception of Giffords and Grijalva (and U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, who was never in any trouble in his district), Arizona Democrats really got hammered on Election Day. How bad was it?

About as bad as it could get for Democrats. Republicans swept the statewide offices and won just about every legislative seat that was up for grabs. Down here in Southern Arizona, Democrats lost a Senate seat when Sen. Manny Alvarez was defeated by Republican Gail Griffin, and two House seats when Rep. Nancy Young Wright lost to Terri Proud in Legislative District 26, and Rep. Pat Fleming lost to Republican Peggy Judd in Legislative District 25.

Republicans now hold a veto-proof majority in both the House and the Senate, but we'll see if all of them hold together if Gov. Jan Brewer does veto something.

Voters rejected the Legislature's efforts to grab money from land-conservation funds and tobacco taxes that are now directed toward early-education efforts. What does that mean for the state budget?

It means the state is now facing a shortfall of at least $800 million in the current fiscal year—and given that all of the gimmicks have already been played out, big cuts are going to have to be made. (BTW, the shortfall for the next fiscal year is somewhere around $1.4 billion.)

That means that the new Republican legislature—or the Tea Party Senate, as new Senate President Russell Pearce has dubbed it—will be taking out a very big budget ax, especially since the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives isn't likely to approve more aid to the states.

Perhaps Arizonans will embrace the new austerity measures that the GOP will be offering. That's a question we'll be answering in Election 2012.

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