November 3, 2010
By Jonathan J. Cooper
Every two years, Doug Quelland and Jackie Thrasher are involved in one of Arizona’s closest elections – races sometimes decided by a fraction of a percentage point.
In 2004, it was 1,675 votes, or 2 percentage points. Two years later, it was just 231 votes – a small fraction of 1 point. In 2008, it was decided by 553 votes, again less than 1 percent.
Thrasher and Quelland have taken turns representing Legislative District 10, the most competitive in Arizona, on the north side of Phoenix. As a rare district that is evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents, District 10 is a perennial target for both parties, which have focused heavily on defending their incumbents and gaining new ground. The back-and-forth has forced razor-thin election margins and allegations of electoral shenanigans, but some candidates say it’s the purest way to keep the politicians responsive to their constituents.
“I love the give and take with both sides,” Quelland said. “It’s basically the only reason why I want to stay in politics.”
The district is, according to data from the Arizona Secretary of State’s office, very equally divided among political persuasions. Republicans represent 34.4 percent of the district’s registered voters, Democrats 32.6 percent, and independents 31.8 percent.
Although the Republicans hold only the slightest of edges, they have consistently elected Sen. Linda Gray and Rep. Jim Weiers, who was House speaker for six years. But the district’s other House seat has been a tug-of-war for years. In the past three elections, Quelland won twice and Thrasher once.
“The electorate in that district has the ability to cross over and vote for whoever they feel is the best candidate, and we’re hopeful this year that that candidate is our Republican candidate,” said GOP spokesman Matt Roberts.
With close races come high stakes. And as a consistent battleground, District 10 is no stranger to political gamesmanship and allegations of chicanery.
Democrats accuse Republicans of lining up “sham candidates” to run as Green Party nominees and siphon votes from Democrats. Green candidates are a tempting choice for some liberals, and Democrats worry that, in a very close race, Greens might pick up just enough Democratic votes to make a difference.
District 10 seems to support their concerns.
In 2008, the first year the Green Party was a recognized political party and given a line on the Arizona ballot, Green candidate Margarite Dale received 2,358 votes. Thrasher lost to Quelland that year by just 553 and to Weiers by 919.
Democrats say Dale was loyal to Republicans, and they blame her candidacy for Thrasher’s narrow loss. Dale has denied that she was recruited by Republicans, and GOP officials say candidates can run for office under any party they want. Quelland’s victory gave Republicans a 35th seat in the 60-member House.
The district is once again in Democrats’ crosshairs, this time in the Senate battle. The party filed a lawsuit in September alleging that Green Party candidate Christopher Campbell was planted by Republicans to help repeat the success of Dale’s candidacy in 2008.
“We’ve seen this is a competitive district in the past, a district that’s been willing to send Democrats to the legislature,” said Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Party. “So it was important to make sure that the candidates on the ballot were legitimate.”
Under pressure, Campbell withdrew from the race and a Maricopa County Superior Court judge later ruled that he was running for office under false pretenses. His name will not appear on the ballot, a development that Democrats consider a key victory.
Geographically, District 10 is one of Arizona’s smallest.
“You have some districts where it takes you two months to go from one side to the other,” Weiers said. “You can literally drive one end of District 10 to the other in 30 minutes.”
The eastern portion includes the North Mountain Preserve and some relatively affluent neighborhoods that border it.
The western portion is densely populated with mature neighborhoods, apartment complexes and modest working-class homes. It’s a hub for higher education, home to Arizona State University’s West campus and Glendale Community College, which is among the largest campuses in Maricopa County’s junior college system.
One in five voters is Hispanic, according to the 2000 Census.
District 10 wasn’t always so competitive. Six years ago, 41 percent of voters were Republicans and 34 percent were Democrats. Just one in four was independent.
In the time since, Republicans lost ground and independents soared. The increasing influence of independents reflects a general national trend away from the Republican Party since the 2004 election. But as Republican fortunes have rebounded since President Obama took office in 2009, GOP registration in District 10 has stayed almost flat.
For voters, living in the state’s most competitive district means their votes really count.
“Get informed, get educated and just hope for the best. That’s what I’m going to do,” said Manuel Rodriguez, a Republican who says his vote is up for grabs this year because he’s disappointed in his party’s support for SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law.
The duel between Quelland and Thrasher will not be repeated this year. Quelland lost in the GOP primary after having been removed from office this summer following a year of appeals to a ruling by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission. The commission found that he supplemented his publicly funded 2008 campaign with private spending – a violation of campaign finance laws. Quelland denies he did anything wrong.
Encouraged by her one victory and strong showings even in defeat, Thrasher is again in the running this November. Along with Democrat Aaron Jahneke, she is taking on Republican nominees Weiers and Kimberly Yee.
This could be the last election that this region is in a hyper-competitive district. The Independent Redistricting Commission will meet following the release of the 2010 Census to draw new boundaries reflecting population shifts throughout the state.
But even though they’re caught continually on the edge of an electoral cliff, Quelland and Thrasher are hoping for more battleground districts like their own.
Lawmakers from safe districts, where general election victories are all but guaranteed, worry only more about their party’s primary, they said. As a result, they only have to please a narrow portion of the electorate in their districts.
With low turnout primaries, elections in safe districts are decided by a small fraction of motivated voters from the majority party.
“When you come up from a competitive district like mine, you either have to represent 100 percent of the people, or you better be darn sure you can get 50.11 percent of the votes every time out,” said Quelland, a business owner with distinctive campaign signs that show simply a giant red “Q” on a white background.
If nothing else, District 10’s hypercompetitive nature makes for interesting elections. Just ask the woman who’s both won and lost by fewer than 600 votes.
“That’s what makes District 10 more exciting,” said Thrasher, a former teacher. “It’s not a given. Nobody knows who’s going to win. Everybody needs to get out there and plead their case, and (voters) react very positively to that.”
Jonathan Cooper just completed a nine-month stint in the capitol bureau of the Associated Press. He is a 2009 graduate of Arizona State University, where he majored in political science and journalism.
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