Friday, February 22, 2008

AZ 01 Showdown: Flagstaff vs. Prescott

This CD was famously drawn by Arizona’s nonpartisan redistricting commission to give rural Arizona a voice in a rapidly suburbanizing state. Today, DOJ announced a widely expected indictment against the incumbent, Rep. Rick Renzi (R). As Renzi’s legal woes mounted, he abandoned reelection plans. This cycle, the Cook Political Report lists this race as a “toss up.”

In 2006, to my surprise, neither Cook, CQ nor National Journal would rate this CD any more competitive than “Likely Republican,” and only in the last weeks, despite a very narrow Cook Partisan Voting Index of a mere R+2, demographic shifts and voting trends that pointed to increased Democratic competitiveness, not to mention the first reports of scandal dogging the incumbent.

Part of the assumption of Renzi’s invulnerability rested on his assiduous work on behalf American Indian issues in a CD that is 22% Indian and his history of over performing in heavily Democratic and Indian Navajo and Apache counties. But, significant increases in turnout in those two counties from 2000 to 2004 signaled that many newer Democratic voters might not be familiar enough with Renzi to cross party lines.

Perhaps the most telling indicator was how preposterous it was for Renzi to bill himself as “a hometown, Flagstaff boy” - based on his captaining Northern Arizona University’s football team years before he returned to run for Congress - in a city that grows farther away from Renzi’s social conservatism, the more it grows in population. Coconino County’s new residents turn it redder every cycle.

Also growing is the more reliably Republican Yavapai County, where Renzi racked up his largest vote totals. The Almanac of American Politics notes “Barry Goldwater always began his Arizona campaigns” in historic downtown Prescott - Yavapai’s county seat - and it still retains a Republican base, but one that is eroding slightly as its streets start to resemble those of Flagstaff, whose once seedy "Whiskey Row" is now dotted with art galleries and B&B's.

Throw in a growing Hispanic population and Sedona - Arizona’s “little Sante Fe” - and the AZ01’s Republican base of the Phoenix most remote exurbs, ranching crossroads and dying mining towns - the latter, hotbeds for Eugene Debs a century ago, but heavily Republican in last half century - is diminishing. Take away Renzi’s strength among Indian Democrats, and you have 2008's "tossup."

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