Gains in Legislature elude Arizona Democrats - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Gains in Legislature elude Arizona Democrats

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Posted: Saturday, November 8, 2008 5:39 pm | Updated: 9:37 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Arizona Democrats hoping to cash in on the anti-Republican sentiment came up short of achieving their goal of taking control of the state Legislature. In fact, they lost ground in the state House - and maybe even in the Senate.

Current vote tallies show Democrats picking up just one of 60 contested House seats. But Republicans converted three Democrat seats to the GOP column.

That would give Republicans a 35-25 edge in the new session that begins in January, up from the current 33-27 margin.

In the Senate, a close race remains for the seat being vacated by Sen. Charlene Pesquiera, D-Tucson, who did not seek re-election.Results Saturday afternoon showed Republican Al Melvin with a lead of more than 1,300 votes over Democrat Cheryl Cage out of more than 87,000 votes counted.

If Melvin is elected, that brings the GOP edge in the Senate up by one, to 18-12.

Pollster Bruce Merrill said the simplest explanation may be that the Democrats did what they tend to do every two years: register a lot of people - but not get them to the polls.

Total voter registration for this election was 2,987,451. That is a 16 percent increase from the 2006 race.

Democrats had the biggest share of those, followed by independents, with Republicans trailing.

Secretary of State Jan Brewer had predicted a turnout of 80 to 85 percent.

While thousands of ballots remained untallied at the end of the week, turnout may end up at just 65 percent.

"It's the same thing for the Democrats that's happened over and over and over in Arizona," he said.

"There were large numbers of Hispanics that were registered," Merrill said. "But the Hispanics simply did not vote in the percentage you would have expected them to vote."

A turnout of 65 percent would be one of the worst in a presidential race in more than three decades. Only once before since the 1976 election have less than 65 percent of registered voters actually shown up at the polls.

The failure of the Democrats to gain legislative ground came even as several independent groups and unions - including one financed by the state party - spent more than $1.4 million to help their candidates get elected. Those funds were on top of what each candidate got in public financing.

But party chairman Don Bivens said he refuses to consider the election in any way a defeat for Democrats.

He said John McCain was held to single digits over Barack Obama in the Republican's home state. The party also managed to defend the congressional seats of two first-term lawmakers and even picked up one more.

Bivens said the decision was made to pour money into the legislative battles once they realized the funds would not be needed in the congressional races.

"We chose legislative districts that are a very, very steep incline for us," he said, noting the GOP registration edge in most of those. And Bivens said the fact that the party was largely unsuccessful in ousting Republicans "bodes very well for us in 2010."

"We did not have Janet Napolitano at the top of the ticket this time," he said. Bivens predicted that will be different in two years, with Napolitano running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by McCain.

Napolitano herself declined to blame the party, saying it did everything possible.

"They recruited very good candidates, they had a good budget, they had good plans," she said. But the governor said party registration in many of the state's 30 legislative districts is so lopsided, one way or the other, that many races are really decided in the primary.

Then there were factors outside the legislative races themselves.

"I think having Sen. McCain at the top of the ticket, with a nine-point spread (over Barack Obama), had an impact," she said. And Napolitano said having Proposition 102 on the ballot, a constitutional ban on gay marriage, may have also affected results, given the people who came out to vote for it.

Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, the newly chosen House minority leader, said he believes Democrats would have done better had there been anyone other than McCain heading the Republican ticket.

"Having him on the ticket, a lot of people voted straight Republican down the ticket," he said. "And we had pretty strong turnout on the Republican side."

Pollster Earl de Berge said Bivens may be correct in believing that 2010 will be a better year, legislatively, for Democrats.He said the voter registration figures show that more Arizonans are registering as Democrats and independents than are choosing the GOP.

He also questioned how strong the Republican ticket is going to be in 2010.

"Certainly, McCain is going to face serious opposition because (Democrats will) want to go for that seat," de Berge said.

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