Legislative District 25 is one of Arizona's largest districts, covering most of the huge expanse of the Arizona-Mexico border. It is a graveyard for lost immigrants, a mean terrain to cross for drug traffickers and migrant workers and the home district of slain rancher Robert Krentz. In short, it is ground zero for the immigration and border debate.
Despite the district-wide Democratic voter registration advantage—out of roughly 100,000 voters, 40 percent are Democrats and 30 percent are Republicans—LD25 is one of the state's rare swing districts. The district is made up of vast conservative rural areas and more populated and Democratic border towns.
Democratic Sen. Manuel "Manny" Alvarez currently holds the Senate seat while Democratic Rep. Patricia Fleming and Republican Rep. David Stevens split the two House of Representatives seats.
Alvarez has found a tough opponent in Gail Griffin, a former state Representative and past chair of the Cochise County GOP. Though neither candidate returned phone calls from the Weekly as of our deadline, current Cochise County GOP chair Vera Hylsky says Griffin is well known in the district and has a reputation as a hard campaigner with a lot of party support.
"We have a really big push for Gail Griffin," says Hylsky. "One of our top priorities is to get rid of Manny Alvarez."
Griffin hasn't picked up a whole lot of campaign cash for her Senate bid—she has raised roughly $15,000 to Alvarez's $38,000 in Clean Elections funds—but Republicans in Pima County and Sierra Vista have been hitting the phone banks to get out the vote, says Hylsky.
Alvarez "is pretty complacent," says Hylsky. "Because I don't think he's ever had to really campaign like this."
But Cochise County Democratic Chair Bob Bland says Alvarez isn't lazy, he just has his own style of campaigning.
"Watching Manny run for office is a different experience," he says. "He's really laid back and you don't really think he's doing anything, but then he wins with huge margins."
When the two went head-to-head for a House seat in 2006, Alvarez won by 3,000 votes.
He says that thanks to SB 1070 the Hispanic and Native American voters who make up more than half of the district are ready to vote in record numbers, leveling the playing field in what most see as a strong year for Republicans.
A recent Rocky Mountain Poll agrees that Arizona's Hispanic turnout will be unusually high. The survey says that 73 percent of Hispanic voters claimed they would definitely vote in this year's election, on par with the general population and especially high for a mid-term election. Those numbers are overshadowed, though, by the 89 percent of Republicans who say they will definitely vote.
From the New Mexico border to the Yuma County line, LD 25 covers Ajo into Marana, Douglas up to Willcox and parts of Sierra Vista. It spans five counties including relatively small parts of Pinal and Maricopa counties, but the district's power seat, where half the voters and all the candidates live, is Cochise County.
The voter registration margins in Cochise County are narrow, but Democrats are used to coming in a few points behind, says Bland. Democrats have typically been able to recover that and more in the heavily Hispanic Santa Cruz County.
Democrats have made a big push to get people on the Permanent Early Voting List, says Bland, and in Cochise County alone, he has helped add more than 6,000 new Democrats to the rolls.
Bland says if the Democrats can just tie in Cochise County and turn out the vote in Santa Cruz, they can send Alvarez back to the Senate.
But Linda White, the Secretary for the Arizona Republican Party and former executive director of the Pima GOP, says it's going to be a GOP year nationally and in Arizona.
"I am absolutely confident that Gail Griffin will unseat Manny Alvarez," she says. "The enthusiasm of Republicans this year is electric."
While it's generally agreed by both sides that the Senate is more likely to change hands than either House seat, Republicans fielded Peggy Judd, a Tea Party organizer and first-time candidate, to run on the ticket with Stevens, while Democrats picked former state lawmaker Ruben Ortega as Fleming's running mate.
Freshman lawmaker Stevens pulled off a narrow and impressive victory in 2008—impressive because he was running while working as a defense contractor in Kuwait.
Stevens also didn't return phone calls from the Weekly to talk about his campaign, but has attributed his success in the 2008 election to Griffin, who did a lot of stand-in campaigning for him.
Stevens was a prime sponsor of the House version of SB 1070, the La Raza Studies bill that would ban the ethnic studies classes, and voted to sue the federal government over Obamacare.
Fleming, on the other hand, voted against all those bills. She says the voters should send her back because she has voted "to stop the bad bills." Her strong ties to the rural communities and her record of constituent services prove she deserves to be re-elected, she says.
Trying to nudge her way in from the right, Republican Judd also supports SB 1070 and takes a hard stance on social issues, saying, for example, that abortion should be illegal even in cases of incest or rape.
Ortega served in the House of Representative from 1988 until 1996 and says the voters of the district should elect him because he understands the legislative process and the rural issues and can be effective, even in the minority.
Protecting fire districts and making sure rural school districts get their fair share of transportation-offset money are among his top legislative priorities. He criticizes Stevens for not keeping in touch with the voters of the district, saying, "I think David Stevens is following his 2008 strategy."
Whether or not the candidates are hitting the campaign trail as hard as they should, the voters are interested this year, says Bland.
"There is no enthusiasm gap for the voters in Cochise County and District 25," he says.