As Randall White pondered his choices in Arizona’s midterm elections, he watched debates, searched for information online and flipped among CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and One America News, a conservative outlet.
In the U.S. Senate race, he picked Democrat Kyrsten Sinema because she ran on a “positive message,” and he agreed with her positions on health care and immigration. For governor, White voted for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey because he likes many of the things the governor has done so far, including responding to public pressure to increase teachers’ wages.
Even at a time of intense political division in the country — when it seems as if every voter is firmly planted in one political tribe or another — there are still hundreds of thousands of voters like White who cast votes for both Republicans and Democrats.
“I really think that most people are toward the middle — I don’t think most of us are far left or far right,” said White, 59, a recently retired electrical engineer and independent who lives 15 miles north of the Mexican border. “I think it’s incumbent on each person to do their own research and not be a sheep.”
Of the more than 2.3 million Arizonans who voted in the midterm election, roughly 188,000 appear to have voted for Democrat Sinema and Republican Ducey. Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county and home to Phoenix and its suburbs, also split its votes overall.
Although Ducey was easily reelected, Sinema won by just under 54,000 votes out of more than 2.3 million cast, so those split-ticket voters played a major role in the outcome. Democratic and Republican strategists say that although they started in different camps, Sinema and Ducey both found victory by being aggressively moderate and presenting themselves as problem solvers, not partisans.
“I think that resonated with a lot of voters,” said Chad Campbell, a Democratic strategist in Arizona who said he was surprised by the number of split-ticket voters and wonders if the intense partisanship in the country has actually “reinvigorated the middle.”
He imagines split-ticket voters casting their ballots and reasoning: “I’m going to vote for these two quote-unquote moderates and maybe they can get something done.”
A handful of other states also elected leaders from a mix of parties — and had basically the same rate of split-ticket voting that they did during the last major election in 2016, despite assumptions that the intense polarization in the country could dramatically lessen the number of those voters.
Massachusetts, Maryland and Ohio also elected Republican governors and Democratic senators. In Massachusetts and Maryland, voters sided overwhelmingly with Democrats in U.S. House races — as did voters in Vermont, where its Republican governor also won reelection. Iowa voters elected a Republican governor, along with Democrats to three of their four House seats, baffling many political strategists. John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster, noted Iowa’s new governor is a Republican woman and the two newly elected members of Congress are Democratic women.
“It’s almost like gender ticket splitting,” said Anzalone, a partner at ALG Research, which worked on two races in Iowa, Sinema’s campaign in Arizona and a number of others.
Even in states where one party eventually won all or most major statewide races, there was often variance between the amount of support the winners received, another indication of split-ticket voters.
In Texas — where Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke actively tried to woo Republican voters — Republican Sen. Ted Cruz won by a nearly 220,000 vote margin. But the state’s Republican Gov. Greg Abbott won by 1.1 million votes. In both races, about 8.3 million Texans cast ballots.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin won by more than 288,000 votes while Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers won by roughly 30,600 votes. And in Minnesota — which had two Senate elections this year to fill the seat vacated by Al Franken (D), who resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) won 51 of the state’s 87 counties, including many in rural and conservative parts of the state, while Sen. Tina Smith (D) won 20 counties and received 195,000 fewer votes than Klobuchar. Minnesota’s Democratic candidate for governor, Tim Walz, similarly won 22 counties.
“There was clearly a set of voters who have a special feeling for and relationship with Amy Klobuchar, so they crossed over to vote for Amy and then returned to their party for all of the other races,” said Jeff Blodgett, a Democratic strategist in the state, who noted that Klobuchar frequently campaigns in rural parts of the state, far from the major metropolitan areas where Democrats usually focus.
Strategists say voters also seem to have different motivations as they pick which politicians they want to send to Washington, where many assume not much will get done, and which ones they want running their state and making decisions on taxes, the state budget and education that they feel have more impact on their lives. A vote for a politician headed to Washington was often closely tied to a voter’s feelings about President Trump, while many gubernatorial candidates were able to distance themselves from the polarizing president.
Anzalone, the pollster, cautions that there are variables to explain many of these splits beyond Americans seeing past party, including a big one: Some of the races that attract split-ticket votes aren’t especially competitive, making it easier easy for a Republican to contemplate casting a ballot for a Democrat or vice versa.
As Anzalone pointed out, the top two Democratic candidates in Florida’s highly competitive races — Andrew Gillum, who was running for governor, and Sen. Bill Nelson — both got about the same number of votes despite being far different in style and ideology.
In Arizona, Sinema ran on a militantly moderate message aimed at winning over independents and Republicans — even though she started her career as a Green Party spokeswoman, was an antiwar activist in the 2000s and once considered herself the most liberal member of the Arizona legislature.
But Sinema has moderated her positions over the years, especially after being elected to the U.S. House in 2012. In her campaign to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, she rejected many of the liberal stances that other Democrats have championed, including expanding access to Medicare to all Americans.
In her victory speech, delayed by an extended vote count, Sinema praised the late Republican senator John McCain, who she said “taught us to always assume the best in others, to seek compromise instead of sowing division and to always put country ahead of party.”
“She, from the very onset, did not run a progressive campaign,” said J. Charles Coughlin, a GOP strategist in Arizona. “She didn’t take the bait of the left, and she didn’t take the bait of the right and bash Trump.”
Sinema had the advantage of not having a contentious primary — unlike her opponent, Republican Rep. Martha McSally, who was dragged through a particularly nasty one that forced the congresswoman to closely align herself with Trump.
McSally continued that messaging in the general election, abandoning Republican voters more in line with Flake and McCain, both longtime critics of the president.
The gubernatorial race was almost the reverse of the Senate contest. Democrat David Garcia, a Latino Army veteran, college professor and education activist, ran on a sharply liberal platform in which he proposed “replacing” Immigration and Customs Enforcement with a different agency and taxing the richest 1 percent of Arizonans to raise money for public schools — positions Democrats cautioned were too liberal for the state.
Ducey’s campaign says it heeded early warning signs that many women, especially those in the suburbs, would turn out in record numbers to vote for Democrats. Those voters became the campaign’s No. 1 target.
When volunteers working at phone banks learned one of these voters was undecided, the campaign would mail her a letter from Arizona first lady Angela Ducey, explaining her husband’s positions. The governor focused on touting that he increased the pay of teachers — although critics accuse him of doing so too late and only under political pressure — and promising to secure the border without using the phrase “illegal immigration.”
The result appealed to voters who also sided with Sinema — in each case choosing the candidate who appeared more reasonable.
White — the Ducey-Sinema voter who lives in southern Arizona — said that whenever he heard Republicans talking about protecting the border, he knew they were trying to stir the same emotions that Trump capitalized on in 2016. White, who voted for Hillary Clinton because of Trump’s demeanor, said he has had less and less reason to vote for Republican candidates since Trump, and Trump acolytes, began dominating the party.
“The Republicans only offered fear,” he said. “It was the only thing they offered — fear of immigration, fear of your guns being taken away. It was the only thing they ran on, fear of everything.”
Ducey’s warnings of danger at the border were almost enough to lose White’s vote, but the retiree felt as though the Democratic candidate, Garcia, didn’t provide a clear vision for the future. White, who said he wishes more voters would decide the way he does, plans to carefully monitor Sinema and Ducey over the next few years and is prepared to vote for someone else if they fall short of his expectations.
“If these people knew that their jobs were on the line, they would do better,” he said of politicians in general. “They don’t care what their constituents think.”
Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.