Dems, GOP craft 2nd District voter turnout strategies

Erik Schoenecker and Dan Duffey arrive at the Pima County Republican Party headquaters. Duffey, state data director for the Arizona GOP, worked on President Donald Trump’s campaign in Philadelphia. (Photo by: David J. Del Grande / The Tombstone Epitaph)

With Democratic enthusiasm surging, record-breaking turnout might come to Arizona’s Second Congressional District midterm election, said Ron Barber, a former holder of the seat. 

“If that kind of energy continues, I think we’re going to have a different kind of midyear voter turnout,” Barber said.

The seat is held by Rep. Martha McSally, who is running for U.S. Senate.

Arizona’s Second Congressional District includes the eastside of Pima County and Cochise County, and is considered a battleground race. 

Seven Democrats are campaigning for the seat: Ann Kirkpatrick, former member of the U.S. House; Billy Kovacs, local entrepreneur and co-founder of “Prep & Pastry”; Mary Matiella, former assistant secretary of the Army Financial Management and Comptroller; Bruce Wheeler, former member of the Arizona House of Representatives; Barbara Sherry, a rancher from McNeal; Matt Heinz, a physician at Tucson Medical Center and former member of the Arizona House of Representatives; and William Foster.

Lea Márquez-Peterson, president and CEO of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is running as the Republican candidate.

Barber said Democratic candidates need to adopt a centrist, or moderate, position and need to support the interests of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Fort Huachuca. Furthermore, they must advocate for local veterans, he said, because roughly 80,000 retired military service members live in CD2.

Identifying and committing to a moderate platform on social issues is invaluable, he said. Barber was fairly conservative financially, but also championed a woman’s right to choose and marriage equality. “It was a balancing act, in a way,” the Democrat said.

Even though Arizona is a Republican state, the district is split three ways, Barber said, which usually makes for a tight race. Cochise County is more conservative and the eastside of Pima County is centrist, or center-left, he said. Typically, a Democratic candidate tries to narrow their loss in Cochise. One way to bridge the gap is to push for a big turnout in towns like Douglas or Bisbee, focusing on how to win liberal votes in a conservative area.

In the 2014 midterm election, McSally ousted Barber by 167 votes, but failed to control Pima County. However, McSally won both counties in 2016 by large margins, securing a win over Heinz, who is running again this year.

Democrats haven’t captured Cochise County during a congressional race since 2008, when Gabrielle Giffords locked in a win by 253 votes. Barber replaced Giffords after she resigned in 2012, having survived an assassination attempt.

Historically, the president usually loses a few seats in Congress during the midterm elections, said David Eppihimer, chairman for the Pima County Republican Party. The GOP wants to keep that to a minimum, especially in Southern Arizona, he said. 

When Eppihimer started in 2017, he decided to make the party more visible.

“I think we need to be engaged and out there, so to speak, so people can see that the Republicans, and the Republican Party are alive and well,” Eppihimer said. “Only through relevance do our candidates get elected.”

Eppihimer said the GOP is growing in Arizona. The Republican Party added about 9,000 registered voters statewide since October, while the Democrats netted only 161 voters. Many Pima County Dems believe that President Trump’s low approval ratings will assure them a boost at the polls, but he disagrees.

Debbie Hickman, chairwoman for the Cochise County Democratic Party, said one strategy to bring a win is to focus on Douglas voters, who are concerned about health care following the closure of Cochise Regional Hospital.

The rural facility was stripped of its Medicare financial services in July 2015.

The Cochise Dems are planning multiple meet-and-greet events, increasing voter registration and kick starting a monthly town hall meeting. They are also hosting a mixer at the Gadsden Hotel, in Douglas on April 13. Their goal is simple: motivate Democrats. 

“We’re not so much interested in changing people’s minds, we could win if we got the vote out,” she said.

Both counties are evenly divided, according to the latest state statistics. Cochise County residents lean conservative: 39 percent Republican, 35 percent Independent and 26 percent Democratic. While Pima County voters are more liberal: 38 percent Democratic, 32 percent Independent and 30 percent Republican.

But turnout slumped in the district during the last three midterm elections.

Between 2006 and 2014, turnout for active registered voters in Cochise County dropped 9 points to 53 percent. Pima County decreased from 48 to 37 percent.

Voter motivation research shows that a door-to-door campaign can increase turnout.

That’s what the Democrats want to do. Jo M. Holt, chairwoman for the Pima County Democratic Party, said there’s a dramatic increase in the number of precinct committee volunteers, who will do that work.

President Trump’s first year is prompting some lifelong Democrats to pitch in for the first time, Holt said. “But I think it’s been a very high price that we’ve had to pay for this kind of motivation,” she said, “because of damage being done to the country by this president and, quite frankly, by Congress.”

Leading up to last year’s presidential race, Pima County Dems noticed a swell of volunteers, who are filtering back to help along the midterm elections, she said.

“We’re positive, we’re hopeful and that helps energize people even further,” Holt said.

Keeping Democrats educated and excited is essential, because the district is balanced in terms of voter registration, she said.

Pima Dems should be pushing the issue of wage inequity, she said.

“Economic issues have to do with the fact that wages have stagnated for the great majority of Americans,” she added.

Holt said the Dems can use the recent tax overhaul, where more than 80 percent of benefits will be funneled to the top 1 percent of Americans, to bolster turnout. “It’s not wrong just because it’s not moral, it’s also wrong because it’s not sustainable,” she said.

Following President Trump’s inauguration, the number of people registering with the GOP is on the rise, said Sue Mitchell, chairwoman for the Cochise County Republican Party.

Cochise County residents are concerned about border security, she said, and believes people favor a wall. Sealing the border could bring more jobs to Cochise County, she said, and she believes the added protection could decrease drug trafficking.

The Republican National Committee is building a larger presence in Pima County, she said, and they’re sending field representatives from the Trump campaign. 

The Trump administration will help the GOP hold the local seat, Mitchell said, and the president’s immigration policies will keep Republican voters energized in Cochise County.

David J. Del Grande is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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