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In Arizona, courting the independent vote requires a new playbook

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Tim Castro’s cellphone was blowing up. President Donald Trump had just mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a campaign rally, questioning her sexual assault allegation against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. It was early October, and Kavanaugh’s fate remained in doubt, the final Senate vote still days away.

As he watched the CNN highlights of Trump’s Oct. 2 speech at his home in Phoenix, Castro, a leader in independent voter circles in Arizona, kept getting interrupted by angry text messages from friends. One friend, a registered independent, did not mask her fury.

“I can’t believe this man,” she wrote.

Yet the anger wasn’t directed only at Trump. Few independent voters in Arizona viewed the ugly Supreme Court confirmation fight as an isolated incident. For many, it was just the latest example of political gridlock in an era of bitter partisan warfare.

“Many independents are falling into this box of ‘I’m not 100 percent behind either party,’” Castro, who led the group Independent Voters for Arizona during the 2016 presidential election, said in a recent interview after Kavanaugh’s confirmation. They want a “happy medium” between the two parties, he added. “And it’s just not prevalent right now.”

Independent voters matter more in Arizona than arguably anywhere else in the country this election cycle. Registered independents and voters unaffiliated with any political party made up just 11.6 of Arizona’s electorate in 1988, according to state election data. Three decades later, the figure now stands at 33.5 percent, surpassing the state’s share of registered Democrats (30.6 percent) and nearly equaling registered Republicans (34.8 percent).

The independent vote will be critical in Arizona’s U.S. Senate election. Republican Rep. Martha McSally and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema are vying to replace Sen. Jeff Flake, an outspoken Republican critic of Trump who is stepping down in January. The race has emerged as one of the closest Senate contests of the midterms, forcing both candidates to reach beyond their political bases in a state Trump carried by just 4 points in 2016.

But courting independents in Arizona requires a different playbook than it did in the past. Along with its growth in numbers, the voting bloc has also begun shifting from the center-right to the center, according to interviews with dozens of voters across the state, political scientists, elected officials and Democratic and Republican Party strategists.

TEMPE, AZ - AUGUST 28: U.S. Senate candidate U.S. Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) speaks during her primary election night gathering at Culinary Drop Out at The Yard on August 28, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. U.S. Rep. Martha McSally won the Arizona GOP senate primary. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., speaks during her primary election night gathering on August 28, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Being an independent used to be [viewed as] ‘What’s wrong with you?’” said Stan Barnes, a veteran Republican political strategist and former Arizona state lawmaker. “It’s something you wouldn’t admit at a cocktail party. Now it’s a bragging right.”

The old assumption was that registered independents “were really Republicans” at heart, said Brian Seitchik, the Arizona state director for Trump’s 2016 campaign. Now Republicans can’t take independent voters for granted, he said. “Independents are becoming more moderate.”

Why candidates need independents

The fact that registered independents in Arizona have tripled in the last 30 years is indisputable. There’s less agreement about the reasons why.

Theories abound. The most popular ones: Arizonans are simply “independent” by nature, a trait rooted in the rugged, self-reliant culture of the American Southwest; people are increasingly fed up with both parties, Congress and the never-ending dysfunction of Washington; #NeverTrump Republicans registered as independents to show their displeasure with the direction of the party.

Still others point to the rising influence of young voters: 44 percent of millennials self-identify as independents, according to a Pew study, more than voters from any other generation.

Voters gravitate to the cultural intangibles, the Arizonans-are-uniquely-independent explanation. Political scientists focus on the data and changes in state voter registration laws, in particular a 1998 rule that opened the door in the state for independents to vote in primary elections. Barbara Norrander, a University of Arizona professor who studies political parties and polling, noted that Arizona isn’t alone. “There’s been a national trend toward more independent voters starting in the 1960s,” she said.

According to Gallup, 42 percent of Americans identified as independents last year, up from 32 percent in 1988. The poll found a 3 percent uptick in self-identified independents from 2016 to 2017, the largest post-presidential election jump in three decades.

Lumping all independents into a single category can also be problematic, Norrander and other experts said. Polls show that a large percentage of independents lean one way or the other, and turnout among independents is typically lower than for partisan Democrats and Republicans. Still, the trendline points to a uniting theme: growing public frustration with the current political system, said Patrick McWhorter, who led a failed 2016 initiative to turn Arizona into an open primary state.

“Today, with growing polarization, if you’re very partisan you’re playing into that divisiveness,” said McWhorter, the head of an Arizona-based urban policy think tank. “People are rejecting that polarization, and one way to say that is they’re independent.”

In Arizona, the real reason for the state’s independent voter surge is likely a combination of all of these factors — a messy, unsatisfying answer. One thing is clear, though: Arizona’s growing Latino electorate may get more attention, but until Latinos turn out in larger numbers, independents will remain a key voting bloc in the state. McSally and Sinema need to turn out their core voters, but they need independents as well.

‘Independent, just like Arizona’

On a recent fall evening, Sinema supporters crowded into an office in central Phoenix, waiting for the candidate to arrive to kick off the campaign’s early-voting drive. Sinema was running a little behind schedule.

She had just finished a live interview with Univision, where she gave a short opening statement in passable Spanish before taking questions in English on immigration, border security and Kavanaugh. It was supposed to be a debate, but McSally, who represents a conservative border district in Southern Arizona, had declined to attend.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 21: Reps. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., talk before a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Rayburn Building titled Oversight of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on June 21, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, R-Ariz., began targeting independent voters over the summer, even before her primary campaign was over. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Jeffrey Blair, a disabled Navy veteran and registered Republican, had traveled from his home in the nearby city of Chandler to see Sinema speak in person for the first time. While not officially an independent, Blair described himself as a “semi-Trump supporter” who sometimes voted for Democrats and was considering backing Sinema this year — in other words, exactly the kind of moderate voter Sinema and McSally are after.

“I haven’t made my decision yet,” Blair said as the room filled with people ahead of Sinema’s speech. “I need to see more of her record.”

Sinema began an aggressive push for independents and moderate Republicans over the summer, even before her primary campaign was over. (She beat her opponent, a civil rights attorney, by 61 points). The strategy became clear in July, when her campaign released a not-so-subtle television ad titled “Independent.”

“We have the desert in our blood. Arizonans are strong and independent,” Sinema says at the start of the ad, as a sunrise scrolls across the screen. A male narrator takes over, touting her “fiercely independent record” and “reputation for working across the aisle.” “Independent, just like Arizona,” the narrator adds at the end, in case viewers hadn’t gotten the point.

As a piece of political messaging, the ad played to Arizonans’ views of themselves as unusually independent, no-nonsense folks who prize person over party. In interviews, veteran Arizona strategists — Democrats and Republicans alike — called it the most effective statewide campaign ad they’d seen in years, maybe ever. None seemed surprised. Sinema’s personality and political ambition have always stood out.

A former state lawmaker, Sinema won a U.S. House seat representing the Phoenix area in 2012. She was the first openly bisexual member of Congress, and was also often described early on in her congressional career as one of the only nontheist or atheist lawmakers serving in Washington, despite frequent efforts by her office to reject the characterization.

Politically, Sinema carved out a niche from the start as a moderate Democrat, a shift from her work as a liberal activist and member of the Arizona state legislature. Sinema belongs to the Blue Dog Coalition, a shrinking group of conservative House Democrats, and her voting record and positions on key issues include examples of crossing the aisle.

In 2017 Sinema voted against the House Republicans’ health care overhaul and the GOP tax bill. She received an 100 percent rating this year from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. But Sinema has also worked with Republican lawmakers on bipartisan bills to reform the Veterans Administration and immigration system. Just last month, Sinema drew criticism from liberals for voting in favor of a tax package, known as “Tax Reform 2.0,” that included a measure to make the income tax cuts in last year’s tax law permanent. Only two other House Democrats joined Sinema in supporting the plan; one of them, Nevada Rep. Jacky Rosen, is also locked in a tight Senate election.

View of the downtown Phoenix, Arizona city skyline as seen from South Mountain Park, August 28, 2018. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Sinema is well known in her Phoenix-area congressional district, but has had to work to build name recognition elsewhere in the state. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Her track record has inevitably raised questions about what Sinema really believes, and if she’s a liberal posing as a moderate for political gain, as McSally often suggests.

In a memorable ad of her own, an image of McSally in uniform — she was the first female Air Force pilot to fly a combat mission — appears alongside an old photo of Sinema, dressed in a pink tutu, at a rally against military action after the 9/11 terror attacks. The contrast is striking.

McSally’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Sinema’s campaign declined to make her available for an interview. Sinema’s allies insist her moderate record isn’t politically motivated. The election hinges in part on her ability to make voters agree.

When Sinema finally arrived at the campaign event in Phoenix, the place immediately started to buzz. She was introduced by a campaign volunteer and launched into a short speech about health care, education and jobs, ending it with a plea for the assembled audience to help her campaign get out the vote.

Central Phoenix has “99,880” Democratic voters, she said at one point, rattling off details on the local political landscape. “We need to talk to all of them,” she said, then joked, “probably tonight. We can probably bust through the list tonight.” The crowd erupted in laughter.

It was a charming, effortless performance. Her speech over, Sinema was asked to pose for a selfie with supporters. She plopped down unceremoniously between a couple seated in the first row. “I’ll just scoot in between you two,” Sinema said as she made herself comfortable. Turning to the woman, she said, “those shoes are adorable.”

On her way out, Sinema stopped to speak with Blair, the disabled Navy veteran and undecided “semi-Trump” supporter, who had positioned his wheelchair in a hard-to-miss spot en route to the exit. They spoke for several minutes — an eternity in election year meet-and-greet time — with Blair doing most of the talking as people around them snapped pictures of Sinema on their phones. She ignored them and appeared to listen in rapt attention, using the politician’s tactic of making Blair feel as if he was the only other person in the room.

After Sinema left, Blair called their conversation, which had centered on veterans’ issues, “very fulfilling.” He said he still respected McSally, though, and would need some more time to make up his mind. But then Blair added, “if Sinema’s a person of her word, I’m impressed.”

The Trump balancing act

If claiming the moderate lane has been a more natural fit for Sinema than her opponent, McSally has nevertheless made a targeted, though less overt, push to win over independent voters as well. It may be harder to spot, since her campaign hasn’t put out a blatant “Independent”-themed T.V. ad, but the signs are unmistakable.

As Republicans go, McSally is not a diehard pro-Trumper. She criticized candidate Trump after he was caught bragging about sexual assault on the old “Access Hollywood” tape that came out near the end of the 2016 election. McSally wasn’t alone at the time: prominent Republicans from House Speaker Paul Ryan to then-vice presidential running mate Mike Pence also condemned Trump’s 2005 comments about groping and kissing women without their consent. But the criticism from McSally and others stood out compared to other Republicans who chose not to publicly take on Trump.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 9: Martha McSally, Republican candidate running against Rep. Ron Barber in Arizona's 2nd Congressional district, speaks with supporters at a breakfast in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

McSally on campaign trail in 2014, speaking with supporters at a breakfast in Tucson. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The controversy was seen within the Trump campaign as an are-you-in-or-out inflection point. When he took office, McSally found herself placed in the camp of Republicans who were on the outside looking in.

Since then, McSally has continued to distance herself from Trump’s controversial behavior in office. But she has largely supported his political agenda on taxes, health care and immigration, a necessary move for a Republican in a traditionally red state where the GOP base remains overwhelmingly loyal to the president. Trump rewarded McSally by endorsing her in the GOP Senate primary, where she tacked to the right to fend off several more conservative challengers.

McSally’s balancing act has come at a cost, however. Her vote for the House Republican health care plan last year was especially polarizing. The party’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act ultimately died in the Senate, thanks in part to late Arizona Sen. John McCain’s dramatic “thumbs down” vote. But the bruising fight left McSally on record as supporting a plan that would have weakened protections for people with preexisting conditions, one of the most popular parts of Obamacare.

McSally has defended her health care vote and denied she supports stripping protections for people with preexisting conditions. But Sinema has repeatedly attacked her on health care and the message seems to be breaking through with voters across the state, including in McSally’s Tucson-area congressional district.

“I voted for McSally the last time [she ran for her House seat,] but her health care vote turned me off. I’ll never vote for her again,” Dawn Perry, a Democrat, said in a recent interview outside of Bread and Butter Cafe, a popular diner on the outskirts of Tucson.

Beverly Granillo, a retired federal government worker who also lives in McSally’s district, was even more blunt. “She’s too Republican. She’s not moderate enough.” Granillo described herself as a longtime Republican who had given up on the party. She’s planning to vote for Sinema this year.

Looking for votes in the middle

Republican leaders in Arizona freely admit the state’s demographics and political makeup are changing, including when it comes to independents and other voters who don’t declare a party affiliation. But that doesn’t mean they’re giving them up without a fight. In an interview Jonathan Lines, the chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, said the party has made a concerted effort to go after independent voters.

“For a year we’ve been targeting party-not-declared [voters] and independents who specifically support the president and his agenda,” Lines said. He added, “the reaction has been strong and overwhelming in support of his policies.”

Voters wait in line in front of a polling station to cast their ballots in the US presidential election in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 8, 2016. / AFP / Laura Segall (Photo credit should read LAURA SEGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Voters wait in line in front of a polling station in Scottsdale on Election Day, 2016. Two years later, independents could have a big impact on the midterms in the state. (Photo by LAURA SEGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Others dismissed the idea that the state’s independents as a whole were rapidly shifting to the center. They pointed to places like Yavapai County, in central Arizona, a region with a growing number of independents but one that has continued to vote reliably Republican. The county’s share of registered independents has tripled in the past three decades. And yet Trump still carried it by 31 points in 2016.

Voters like Doug Reed are one reason why. The owner of a tour company in Prescott, Yavapai’s county seat, Reed switched his party affiliation from Republican to independent during the 2016 election. But he voted for Trump and is planning to back McSally this year. If the midterms are a referendum on the GOP under Trump, Reed said in an interview outside of his small business, he’s not ready to jump ship yet.

“At the end of the day, he’s a disrupter, and I’m a big fan of disrupters,” Reed said of Trump.

McSally seemed to be speaking directly to Reed and other independent voters at a campaign rally last week in Gilbert, a middle class Phoenix suburb. There were plenty of die-hard Trump supporters in the crowd. But when McSally bounded on stage at a local events center, she was joined by 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney — a vocal opponent of Trump’s and a deeply unpopular figure with the party’s far-right base.

In his introductory remarks, Romney called McSally an “extraordinary person.” Romney, who is running for the Senate in Utah this year, praised her support for regulatory reforms and the tax law, without ever mentioning Trump by name. Soon it was McSally’s turn to speak, and it quickly became clear she would follow suit.

An energetic speaker with an impeccable public service resume, McSally ran through her biography, lingering on her barrier-breaking U.S. Air Force career. Then she pivoted to Sinema, arguing that her opponent was too liberal for the state. She brought up Sinema’s pink tutu rally, drawing boos from the crowd. Sinema is “out of step with Arizona values,” McSally said, adding, “Why doesn’t she move to California?”

The crowd loved it. McSally continued for several more minutes. She spoke about taxes and the economy, but avoided health care. She said Democrats and independent voters were flocking to her campaign. McSally never uttered Trump’s name or alluded to the president in any way. For a moment it was as if Trump didn’t exist, and McSally were campaigning in an alternate universe, alongside a conventional, pro-business Republican commander in chief.

That will change Friday evening, when President Trump arrives in Mesa, Arizona, for his first general election rally in the state. Based on his recent campaign events, Trump will likely give a different speech than McSally did that afternoon in Gilbert, less big tent outreach and more red meat. Meanwhile, McSally and Sinema will continue looking for votes in the middle.