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A decisive vote for democracy in Arizona

Arizonans, who pride themselves on a maverick spirit, unexpectedly delivered Democrats their best results in decades

Voters at a polling station at the Guadalupe Mercado shopping mall on Election Day in Guadalupe, Ariz. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

PHOENIX — In the waning weeks of Arizona’s midterm election campaign, from the red rocks in the state’s north to the desert border in its south, one word reverberated: democracy.

Democrats warned that the stakes for the nation were life-or-death, that the country’s system of governance itself was on the ballot, while Republicans doubled-down on their attacks against the rule of law and democratic norms.

In the end, after nearly a week of ballot counting, voters here returned a resounding verdict.

Rather than picking for governor a Trump-endorsed election denier who wanted to remake voting in this crucial swing state ahead of the 2024 presidential cycle, they chose the Democrat who oversaw the 2020 election and emerged as a voice for the people’s will while she weathered an avalanche of attacks from ousted president Donald Trump.

In the U.S. Senate race, voters rejected a first-time candidate who declared in a campaign ad that “Trump won in 2020” and instead reelected a Democrat who ran on bipartisanship and evacuated the U.S. Capitol as rioters overtook it on Jan. 6, 2021. And for secretary of state, who oversees elections, they jettisoned a state lawmaker who was on the Capitol grounds that day in favor of an outspoken liberal who pledged to protect and expand voting rights.

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In a purple state where fewer than one in three registered voters is a Democrat, and where inflation has reached historic levels, Republicans were confident about their chances for an emphatic victory. Instead of pivoting to issues with broad appeal, they took the MAGA roadshow into the heart of suburban Phoenix, home to discerning independents and moderate Republicans with a history of ticket-splitting. They claimed victory even before the results were known.

But Arizonans, who pride themselves on a maverick spirit, unexpectedly delivered Democrats their best results in decades. Defying pollsters and political strategists, voters backed candidates who promised to preserve the guardrails of democracy.

It was a trend that defined this year’s midterm elections across the country.

Democrats kept control of the Senate and netted at least two governorships and at least three statehouse legislative chambers. While the GOP is still favored to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the party has gained far fewer seats than expected.

In Arizona, experts and analysts said Republican candidates misread the electorate, betting that Trump-style talking points would energize the party’s base. But the results suggest that approach alienated many moderates and independents, who appear to have sided with Democrats, abstained from certain races or sat out the election altogether, delivering liberals one of their largest victories in state history.

“In this election, Arizonans chose solving our problems over conspiracy theories,” Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs (D) said at a victory rally on Tuesday. “We chose sanity over chaos, and we chose unity over division. We chose a better Arizona, and we chose democracy.”

Hobbs, the current secretary of state, narrowly defeated the former TV anchor Kari Lake, one of Trump’s most strident supporters. Hobbs oversaw the 2020 election in Arizona and gained a national profile in the months that followed, appearing often on television to swat away baseless claims of wrongdoing that blossomed here following Trump’s loss.

Lake repeatedly refused to recognize Joe Biden as the nation’s legitimate president and said she would not have certified Arizona’s 2020 election results — the governor’s legal duty. The race remained close until the end, and Lake, who made election denialism a central component of her campaign, has called the results “BS.” She has not called Hobbs to concede, as of Tuesday night.

Lake’s advisers and allies continued to weigh possible legal options Tuesday as they awaited results from the final batches of ballots, according to a person close to the campaign. The discussions were unfolding in coordination with Abraham Hamadeh, the Republican nominee for attorney general who was trailing his Democratic opponent but whose race had not yet been called.

In the state’s other marquee race, Sen. Mark Kelly (D) was projected to beat Republican nominee Blake Masters, the venture capitalist whose campaign commercial advertised his disbelief in the 2020 election results. Masters on Tuesday called Kelly to concede and congratulated him on his reelection.

Those expected wins cap a recent streak of success for Democrats that analysts say started with Trump.

“The trend in Arizona is quite clear: Voters have told us this is not a Trump state,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican strategist in Arizona who blames Trump’s influence for tanking his party’s performance. “If there is anything that Donald Trump has accomplished in the last several years, it is turning Arizona from a reliably red state to a purple state. That is his legacy in Arizona.”

Until the 2016 race, Republican nominees had captured more than 50 percent of the vote in four straight presidential elections and in 14 of the previous 16 contests, dating back to 1952 — often by decisive margins. In 2016, Trump won the state’s 11 electoral votes with just under 49 percent of ballots cast. Four years later, he fell short of 50 percent again and became the first Republican to lose the state since 1996.

Meanwhile, Republicans in recent cycles have maintained a consistent share of registered voters. In this political climate — especially given skyrocketing inflation in the Phoenix metro area — the GOP “should have crushed it,” said Samara Klar, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies political behavior. But the party nominated candidates far to the right of the statewide electorate.

“Arizona is switching from red to blue, or red to purple, not because the voters are changing,” Klar said, “but because the candidates are changing.”

Democrats saw “a great window of opportunity” after the Republican primaries in August, said John Loredo, a Democratic political consultant who served four terms in the Arizona statehouse.

“These were the most extreme candidates we’ve ever seen,” Loredo said.

The results didn't surprise him, because issues like election denialism may win in the Republican primary, he said, “but that’s not the majority of Arizonans.”

“As long as the Republican Party remains hijacked by these really extreme folks, nothing is going to change,” Loredo said. “Democrats are going to win more and more and more.”

Democrats in statewide races pitched themselves to independents and traditional Republicans either by downplaying their connection to the national party, or by portraying themselves as moderate alternatives to their radical opponents.

On the trail, Kelly did his best to appear independent of the national party. He didn’t often appear with Arizona’s other Democratic hopefuls, and he avoided mentioning President Biden.

“When he gives speeches, he sounds like a Republican,” said Klar, the University of Arizona professor.

As of Tuesday, Kelly had received 12,000 more votes than Hobbs, an indication that some residents may have cast their ballots for him and then chose not to vote for governor at all.

Meanwhile, Adrian Fontes, Arizona’s new secretary of state, did not moderate his message. Rather, his campaign shifted the target audience.

About two and a half weeks before Election Day, the Fontes team moved his political advertising off MSNBC and other outlets deemed too left of center and onto Fox News, along with making a big push on talk radio stations popular in rural areas.

“Those are the folks we needed to win,” Fontes said in an interview. “A lot of Democrats campaign as if they’re running to govern for Democrats. You’ve got to campaign as if you’re running to govern for everyone, because that’s the truth. Democrats in Arizona are the minority out of the three main voting blocs. So you have to talk to Republicans, you have to talk to independents, it’s just a no-brainer.”

During the Democratic primary, Fontes’ slogan, “Protect Democracy,” was plastered on his website and printed on his signs. But when he kicked off his general election campaign, his staff made a subtle rhetorical shift: He was now running to “Protect the Republic.”

Fontes acknowledged the change in diction was meant to appeal to voters on the right, where some argue that the United States is a republic, not a democracy, and they treat the latter like a dirty word.

“I don’t want to be nice, I want to win,” Fontes said of the strategy. “And if sharing the exact same message using slightly different language that is more politically acceptable to a certain group is going to get it for me, I’m not proud enough or pure enough to say that I’m going to insist on just one way of doing it.”

It’s unclear how many Republicans wound up voting for him, but as of Tuesday, Fontes had received more than 1.3 million votes, more than any other Democrat but Kelly.

Fontes favors making voting easier, and he courted controversy as Maricopa County recorder in 2020, when he announced he would mail early ballots to all of the jurisdiction’s registered Democrats ahead of the party’s presidential preference election — contrary to state law — to address pandemic-fueled fears over in-person voting. A court blocked the move, and Hobbs rebuked him in an email.

On the campaign trail, Fontes underscored opponent Mark Finchem’s history of extremism, including his membership in the Oath Keepers militia group and his presence in a mob outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. Finchem, who would have been charged with overseeing elections, said he would not have certified Biden’s victory and suggested he might reject future Democratic wins. He seemed unwilling to accept his own loss, urging supporters on the site Truth Social to get out their Trump flags and to “Get ready to rumble.”

In the attorney general race, Democrat Kris Mayes, who was a registered Republican until 2019, cast her contest as one of high stakes and national import. At an election night celebration, she told a crowd of supporters that Republicans would “dismantle our democracy.” A week later, she held a slight lead in the race, but it remained too close to call.

Her opponent, 31-year-old first-time candidate Hamadeh, made baseless allegations of election malfeasance one of his campaign’s central issues. He has repeatedly promised to pursue criminal charges against “those who worked to rob President Trump in the rigged 2020 election.” In one social media post, he vowed “a day of reckoning” and added an image of handcuffs. With votes still being counted, Hamadeh urged supporters to “FIGHT LIKE HELL,” a Trump rallying cry in 2020.

So far, few of the candidates’ backers have appeared willing to fight — at least not in the aggressive, militaristic manner groups displayed following Trump’s loss.

Outside of Maricopa County’s ballot tabulation center, the site of raucous protests in 2020, small crowds of conservatives gathered in recent days. On the first occasion, they numbered near 100. On the second, their ranks had dwindled to a couple dozen.

The mood was subdued, and the protests peaceful. Sheriff’s deputies outnumbered attendees, and a drone buzzed overhead. People prayed or waved signs, alternately urging workers to “count the votes” and alleging that Democrats were corrupt.

Carol Gairing, 67, was one of a few people who attended both events, making the 45-minute drive from her home in Chandler twice in three days. On Monday, she held a Kari Lake sign and said she wasn’t sure “if anything nefarious is happening,” but that she just wanted “the truth to be revealed.”

“We’re not a rowdy group,” Gairing said, adding that she’d “like to see a recount” in the Lake race, but wasn’t hopeful about legal challenges.

“I’m not sure I trust that the courts are going to be in our favor,” she said.

The next day, at Hobbs’ victory party inside a small, Latina-owned business in downtown Phoenix, the mood — and the outlook on the country’s future — was decidedly different.

Gov. Doug Ducey (R) had just called to congratulate her, beginning an orderly transition of power. When Hobbs took the mic, she faced the same throng of television cameras that spent much of the past year following Lake, and she warned that attacks on democracy would continue.

“It is on all of us to continue to defend it,” she said.

Michele Newcomb, a 64-year-old Phoenix resident, watched from the crowd. She had been dismayed by her state’s open grapple with basic democratic traditions, and the unexpected win gave her hope.

“I support democracy,” she said, tears in her eyes.

Hobbs left the stage accompanied by a state police detail that is now responsible for her protection. She is expected to be sworn into office on Jan. 2.

Isaac Stanley-Becker and Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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