Races To Watch This Election Season
You’d be forgiven if you were under the impression that the only political race worth tracking was Obama versus Romney. But you’d be wrong. In fact, here in the Southwest, there are some fascinating political contests that will ultimately impact us a great deal more than the presidential race.
I dug into the southwestern political nitty-gritty -- in search of the candidates, campaigns and issues that reflect our changing region, our changing demographics and political stripes. Now I’ll outline some races in the three land-locked and somewhat swing states in our region, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. Next up, the outliers, California and Texas.
THE BIG STAKES
In races across the country, Democrats and Republicans are battling for control of Congress. Right now, of course, the Democrats control the Senate and at the helm is Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid. In contrast, the House is currently dominated by Republicans, the loudest of whom were voted in in 2010 on a platform of fiscal and social conservatism. Ergo, Washington political gridlock. So, some big stakes basic stats: in the Senate, the GOP needs four seats to gain control; in the House, the Democrats are hoping for 25 seats to wrest back that body from the GOP and the Tea Party.
In Nevada, the Senate race to watch is between Republican incumbent Dean Heller and Democratic upstart Shelley Berkley. Right now Berkley trails in the polls, and Heller has some powerful Republican Super PACS (like the warmly-named, “Friends of Traditional Banking Super PAC”) backing him up. But what makes this race interesting is that it’s a classic Nevada split: a southern (read: Las Vegas-based) Democrat up against a northern Republican. As the population has surged in southern Nevada in the past decade or so, Democratic political clout has started encroaching on the state’s traditional rural and northern Republicans. Both sides are, of course, reaching out to Nevada Latinos, currently 14.7 percent of the vote and 26.5 percent of its residents.
Another fascinating Nevada race displays this same, growing north/south divide. This is race in North Las Vegas for a seat on the state Senate, and it is one of five competitive state Senate races that could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control that house in 2013. Currently the Dems have a one-seat advantage. In Senate District 18, Democrat Kelli Ross is taking on Republican Assemblyman Scott Hammond. In a recent debate Ross advocated keeping more tax dollars for education in southern Nevada’s Clark County instead of sending funds north to the less populated and less prosperous north –- a radical proposition! Republican Hammond, knowing he needs those Republican votes in the north, would not commit to bearhugging those education funds in the south.
As the national poster child for immigration crackdowns, Arizona shows little sign that it’s traditional deep red political stripe is turning blue. That’s despite a growing Latino population and a Latino backlash against laws like SB 1070, law enforcers like Sheriff Joe Arpaio and lawmakers like Governor Jan Brewer. Currently Brewer’s popularity rating in the state is about 51 percent, Arpaio has a 53 percent approval rating in Maricopa County, and Romney is leading Obama in state polls by more than 6 percentage points.
Still, the GOP may be getting a little nervous about the Senate race to replace retiring Republican Jon Kyl. It’s a runoff between Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, who originally supported comprehensive immigration reform but now opposes it, and the former U.S. Surgeon General, Democrat Richard Carmona. Flake currently leads in the polls, by about 3 percent, but the Democratic Senatorial Campaign committee has just invested more than a half-million dollars for television advertising for Carmona.
Another interesting race there has little to do with immigration or political party lines. It’s the battle for a seat in Congress in a newly redistricted part of Phoenix that is apparently up for grabs party-wise, pitting an openly bisexual gay-rights advocate Kyrsten Sinema, against African-American Republican Vernon Parker. Sinema has served eight years in Arizona’s legislature and, while openly acknowledging her sexuality, has long-claimed it has nothing to do with her political positions. She’s one of four gay candidates running for office in Arizona this election year, and is part of a strong slate of gay candidates running in national races.
District 9 is new to Arizona, a gift after decades of population growth. It runs in a broad band from north central Phoenix down to central north Tempe and is considered a toss-up in terms of party affiliation. More Republicans are registered, but the district went for Obama in 2008 and for statewide Democratic candidates in 2010.
If elected, Vernon Parker would become one of the few African-American Republicans in Congress. Likewise, if elected, Sinema would be the first openly bisexual member of Congress.
In New Mexico the battle for the U.S. Senate is focused on the campaigns of Republican Heather Wilson and Democrat Martin Heinrich and, like so many of these races, it's all about the Latino vote. New Mexico has the highest percentage of Latino voters in the nation and there is a robust “get-out-the-Latino-vote” campaign. Romney's camp has all but pulled out of New Mexico, seeing the writing on the wall as Obama currently leads Romney in polls there by 11 percentage points. Of course Romney and his fellow Republicans didn’t win many friends in this state with some of the worst poverty stats in the nation with his now infamous “47 percent speech."
In fact, Republican Hispanic Governor Susana Martinez, a key Romney ally, even distanced herself from the presidential candidate’s remarks, saying, “I think, certainly the fact that New Mexico provides that safety net is a good thing.”
The Democratic contender to replace retiring Democrat Jeff Bingaman in New Mexico, Heinrich, has clearly positioned himself as a pro-immigrant, pro-DREAM Act candidate, while Wilson is inescapably allied with the GOP’s positions on these critical Latino issues. Perhaps that explains Wilson’s lackluster poll numbers thus far.
On the more micro scale in New Mexico, its interesting to watch Governor Martinez’ campaign to unseat some of her legislative foes, especially state Senate Majority leader Michael Sanchez. A state super-PAC named Reform New Mexico is reportedly targeting 24 legislative districts, including Sanchez’, to, “to counter the trial lawyer and labor union special interests” and elect candidates who support Governor Martinez’ policy initiatives, especially her campaign to outlaw driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Martinez has been frustrated in her efforts to push that driver's license law and is now fighting hard to clear the legislature of those who would continue to push back.