Just Thinking

Five Districts Could Alter Composition of Legislature

by Richard Gilman

Arizona’s new legislative map presents as much opportunity to Democrats and threat to Republicans as the congressional districts that are getting all the attention.

The newly drawn congressional map features three districts, out of a total of nine, that appear to be very competitive.  One of them, situated smack dab in the middle of Phoenix, really has upset the applecart.

But the Legislature has the potential for equal or greater drama that is yet to be recognized, at least not publicly.  What happens in five districts could alter the composition – and perhaps the complexion – of the state Capitol for the next 10 years.

Absent major population or political shifts, the outcomes of elections in 25 of the state’s 30 legislative districts are all but pre-ordained by their heavy concentrations of voters of one persuasion or the other.  Republicans will control 15 of them.  Democrats will have the upper hand in 10.

But in the five key districts, the results are not so assured.  The districts may not fully qualify as “competitive” in the technical sense of the term, but both parties have to view them as viable targets.  Democrat chances slip in latest voter registration figures.  How those races end up will have enormous consequences.

A Big Swing in Possible Results

At one extreme, Republicans would need to win all the seats (one for each district in the Senate, two for each in the House) in all five districts to maintain the supermajorities they now enjoy in both chambers of the Legislature.  Even short of that, each of the seats they win will pad the size of their majorities.

At the other extreme, the result would be game-changing.  Obviously, whatever seats the Democrats pick up in the five districts will cut into the Republican majorities.  But if all the seats in the five districts were to swing in their direction, Democrats would achieve the almost unthinkable goal of splitting the Legislature down the middle. That would surely change the dynamic on the floor of the Legislature, if not throughout the state.

The Independent Redistricting Commission, which completed the legislative and congressional maps just before Christmas, gave final approval to both maps by 3-2 votes in a contentious Jan. 17 meeting that displayed the sharp divisions among commission members.   The Republicans on the commission criticized the process and the outcome.   The Democrats defended both.  The chairperson, an independent, cast the deciding vote in favor of each map.

At least one step remains before the new boundaries can be implemented.  The commission must now convince the Justice Department that the maps comply with the Voting Rights Act.  Beyond that, the previous commission had to defend itself against a lawsuit challenging its work.  There is the possibility that will occur again.

The five legislative districts in question are located around the state:

Thinking Arizona map by Tony BustosThe new LD 6, which stretches from Flagstaff on the north to Payson on the south, and from Holbrook on the east to Williams on the west, covers portions of four largely rural counties.

 The new LD 8 encompasses parts of Pinal County – the east side of Casa Grande, the San Tan Valley and the county’s central and eastern sections – as well as part of Gila County.

The new LD 9 is on the north side of Tucson.

The new LD 10 is on the east side of Tucson.

The new LD 18, on the far southeast side of metro Phoenix, includes Ahwatukee and the west side of Chandler.

More detailed maps of Maricopa and Pima counties.

The districts vary in their likely competitiveness, but they appear to have one thing in common.  More so than in the other 25 districts, both parties have a shot at winning.

The redistricting commission had trouble settling upon a standard of competitiveness to guide its work, and to measure the result. The commission’s mapping consultant put forward nine different formulas made up of various combinations of previous election results and voter registration figures.  In the end, the consultant recommended a formula that incorporates results from the last four elections along with the number of registered Republicans and Democrats. That standard is the basis for this article.

25 Legislative Districts Are ‘Decided’

Judged by this particular gauge, Republicans have advantages of more than 10 percentage points in the 15 districts referred to above.  The differences range from 11 to 34 percentage points.

Democrats, meanwhile, have advantages of more than 10 percentage points in the 10 districts they will control.  The size of the advantages, which were intentionally padded to protect the interests of minority voters under the terms of the Voting Rights Act, ranges from 12 to 46 percentage points.

By comparison, the five districts in question have differentials below 10 percentage points.   Some slightly favor the Democrats, some the Republicans.  Here’s a look:

Dist.     Republicans     Democrats       Differential

6          54.5%              45.5%              +9.0% for Republicans

18          52.7%              47.3%              +5.4% for Republicans

8          49.0%              51.0%              +2.0% for Democrats

10          47.7%              52.3%              +4.6% for Democrats

9          46.6%              53.4%              +6.8% for Democrats

The figures indicate that of the five districts, the unlikeliest reach for Democrats will be overcoming the 9 percentage point shortfall in District 6 in northern Arizona.  The gap is darn near as large as the 11.2 percentage points in the next highest district.  By the estimation of redistricting commissioner Jose Herrera, District 6 should be more properly counted as a 16th district in the Republican camp.

On the flip side, the biggest reach for Republicans will be making up the 6.8 percentage point gap in District 9 on Tucson’s north side.  The district includes the affluent foothills area but dips into the stronger Democratic areas of midtown.

Political scientists may quibble with how many of these districts deserve to be called competitive.  They will argue that the differential should be within 3.5 percentage points, or at most 5 percentage points, to qualify.  Indeed, by other standards, the gaps are rather large:

The differences in voter registration between Republicans and Democrats look a little daunting in several of the affected districts.  On the other hand, analysts rely more on the complicated formulas to weigh competitiveness because they reflect how people vote rather than just how they register.  A synopsis of the data, including voter registration, for all the districts. 

The margins for all but one of affected districts  are much wider than the infinitesimal differences in three congressional districts that have been labeled as competitive.

Six Congressional Districts Are ‘Decided’

In comparison to the 30 legislative districts, there are only nine congressional districts.  By the same formula used above, Republicans have an advantage of more than 10 percentage points in four of them.  Democrats have an advantage of more than 10 percentage points in two others.

That leaves the three competitive districts in which the margins are not just less than 10 percentage points, they are much less.

Dist.     Republicans     Democrats       Differential

2          50.2%              49.8%              +0.4% for Republicans

9          50.0%              50.0%              +0.0

1          48.0%              52.0%              +4.0% for Democrats

Thinking Arizona map by Tony Bustos

The new District 1, much of which is now represented by Republican Paul Gosar, groups Navajos way north in Window Rock with retirees way south in Saddlebrooke outside of Tucson.  The new District 2, much of which is now represented by Gabrielle Giffords, covers eastern Pima County and all of Cochise.

District 1 is sprawling.  District 2 is much more compact.  Together they cover the entire eastern part of the state.

But it is District 9, which cuts a crescent through the middle of Phoenix, that has caused the biggest stir.  More detailed maps of Maricopa and Pima counties.

Republicans aren’t happy and Democrats are licking their chops over District 9, which draws upon urban-core Democrats to its west and suburban Republicans to its east.

The opportunity it presents has ginned up a lot of activity and speculation.  One of the questions is whether Republican congressman Ben Quayle will run in the new district, which is where he resides, or against another sitting congressman, David Schweikert, in the remnants of his old district.  At least two prominent Democratic state legislators are also jockeying for position.  Senate minority leader David Schapira has formed an exploratory committee and former senator Kyrsten Sinema resigned her legislative seat last week to focus on a congressional campaign.

The five legislative districts have yet to generate the same level of public interest – but it is sure to come.

Any competitiveness index such as the one quoted here is only a projection.  The proof will come from real election results.  The outcomes in those five districts will depend on which party best seizes the initiative, the mood of the voters in each particular election cycle, the quality of the candidates and their success both at energizing their respective bases of support and winning over converts, and the impact of independent expenditures that will surely pour into their districts.

For both sides, all five districts fall within the range of possibility.  The spotlight, at least at the start of the decade, will be on them.  The composition of the Legislature hangs in the balance.



Which party can be expected to win these five legislative districts, either one of the districts specifically or all of them as a group?


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  1. Harrison Shirley on said:

    Let’s just say the outcome of 2012 will be quite a surprise to the AIRC members, especially Herrera.

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