Democratic and Republican strategists Matt Grodsky and Tyler Montague took time to answer questions about what they feel the state of politics is in Arizona today, how the budget negotiations between the Democrats and Republicans should go, what could be common ground policy priorities the parties can pursue, is there a place for a third party and independent candidates in Arizona, and how the electoral system can be reformed so fringe candidates stop winning primaries.
The questions and their responses are below.
- What do both of you feel is the state of both political parties this year in Arizona, going into 2024 at the local, state, and congressional levels?
Tyler: “The Republican party just took some stinging losses at the statewide level, and they barely hung on at the legislative level. I think part of that is because of the continued adherence to the election fraud conspiracies and the deep allegiance, to Trump and some of the things about him that turn off the general electorate. Everybody that was endorsed by him, and it was on election conspiracies from 2020 that were embraced by some of the anti-immigrant type stances, et cetera. It turned off just enough people to lose statewide. Not with a majority of the center-right but enough to make a difference and, and to deliver those losses. Had they run mainstream candidates. Had Karen Taylor Robson been, the nominee, I think she would’ve won the governorship. Bo Lane might have won the Secretary of State. I think Mark Kelly may have won anyway in the Senate race. But then again, the offering was a conspiracy guy. I think that has been a losing formula. The candidates that didn’t run on conspiracies won, some of them handily. Michelle Yee and even the disgraced Tom Horne won. There are some other dynamics going on with that. But he wasn’t co-branded with that message partly because he just didn’t have enough money to do that. I think there was a covid backlash that Kathy Hoffman ended up inheriting there.”
“But the problem is that heading into 2024 is the conspiracy faction has a firm grip on Republican primaries, and they just seem hell-bent on, on repeating those mistakes. So, we may see another round of those types of candidates for the US Senate race. You may see Kari Lake jump into that as she’s kind of saying no but acting like yes. So, the state of the party is actually grim, which is a frustrating thing for mainstream Republicans because Arizona still leans red and they should still be able to win, but there are just so many people committed to this stuff that aren’t pragmatic about it. That is a problem. That’s the state of the Republican party in a nutshell from an election victory perspective.”
Matt: “I mean, I think Tyler is absolutely correct. The other guys are going to be tripling down, maybe could quad down on their losing strategy, depending on what election cycle you want to pick.”
“The Democratic Party in Arizona: they’ve got their family spats every now and then on substantive policy, on budgets, on tamales as we’ve seen. But I think that there is a shared focus headed into 2024 on flipping the legislature which we’ve been saying for a few years now, but I think we’re actually primed to do in the next cycle. Now that the president has announced his intention to run. I think there’s going to be a coalescence around the incumbent president. I think we’ve got a lot of good things to talk about and a lot of good things to focus on. I think that despite working out some of the kinks here during this session, I think we’ve had a lot fewer problems than the other guys.”
Anything you both want to add before we go on to the next question?
Tyler: “I’ll just add that I agree with Matt that that’s a fair assessment the way I see it. “
- At the State Capital, do you think the center and both parties will prevail in budget negotiations and if so, what budget items are likely to see increases? Which ones are likely to remain the same or be cut out? Which worthwhile budget items are likely not likely to see increases?
Matt: “Well, I’m certainly hopeful that Secretary Fonte’s budget requests will make it through. I think on the other stuff, it’s anybody’s guess. My biggest fear, honestly, and I’d have to check my years on this, is that you get to some type of gridlock issue, like what we saw in Illinois between a Republican Governor and a Democratic Legislature a few years ago. I want to say it was 2014 and lasted through 2017. They had a massive standoff on the budget that tanked the state and ground everything to a halt. We’re a long way from that kind of situation but it remains my biggest fear for this session. We’re just going to have to watch the next few weeks here and just see what deals can be made, but we know that the sides are talking. I am keeping my fingers crossed on that.”
Tyler: “I actually had a conversation with the Speaker Ben Toma about it a couple of weeks ago. I came away thinking, all right they are actually going to get to something. His comment was there’s trust in the room and people are acting in good faith. If they do that, they’re going to be able to resolve their differences. I don’t think anybody wants to see a shutdown of the state. You have divided government and so you’re just going to see easy movement on consensus items and compromise on others, and it’s probably not going to look a whole lot different than what the last budget we had from last year. There’s a general consensus to keep funding education, at least at the level we’re doing and try to grow that. I think they’re going to work it out, but I don’t think it’s going to look dramatically different. You’re not going to see any far right or far left dramatic advances in budget priorities. It’s going to be a consensus budget.”
Matt: I completely agree with his take on that. I think in this cycle especially, you never can anticipate exactly what’s going to pop up. We’ve had some weird doozies show up every now and then. So, it’s anybody’s guess what we’re going to see in the next three weeks. I think the conversations we’re having today might be completely different based on what weird new thing pops up. Time will tell.
Are ESA scholarships the jump ball of this budget negotiation?
Tyler: I mean, that’s going to be a point of contention, and I think the ESA expenses are wildly out of line with what the projections were. It’s a lot higher than they thought. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If anyone thinks, oh, we’re going to kill the program in the budget that’s not going to happen. There may be some guardrails thrown up to keep it under control. That might happen. I don’t know what that is, and I’m not speaking from firsthand knowledge of a specific plan. That’s a hot button for the right. They want it. It’s a hot button for the left. They hate it. I would think that you’re not going to see it grow. I think there’s probably going to be some willingness to make sure that it stays in its lane in terms of what the rejections were and what’s allocated to it. That might be the most that happens. My guess. Don’t buy stock in that.”
Matt: “I defer to Tyler on this. I think that’s a fair assessment.”
- Other than the economy, what are at least three issues the parties should be dealing with together to move Arizona forward and help lift Arizonans up?
Matt: “I think water is the obvious one. I’m going to go out on a limb a little bit. Normally we associate this as a federal issue, just given how it has escalated over the last few years, but I think there’s a lot of potential bipartisan ground to be found with opposition to Chinese tactics in the global market as well as their military and authoritarian actions overseas. I like the TikTok Ban for instance. I think that there’s more room for some bipartisan consensus in that area. I’d like to see that starting at the federal level and working its way down to the state level, and, I think we could get a little bit of unity back from that aspect. There’s also room for conversation about additional Red Flag Laws and different common sense approaches we can take to gun violence in Arizona and across the country there are some Republicans willing to play ball in that area, but it requires taking the rhetoric out of the conversation.
Tyler: “I would agree. Again, the incentives are in the primaries for a Republican to say, yeah, let’s do something hard. But if you look at what majorities think, Most people would like to find a smart way to keep guns out of the hands of crazy people. If you’re a normal person in society, not involved in the drug trade, your likelihood of becoming a victim of any type of gun violence is very, very low. It’s only really the self-inflicted, suicide or whatever that had happened except for, it’s still statistically small, but it’s still important, these mass shootings by crazy people. I think if we can find smart ways to keep guns out of the hands of folks like that here’s support to do it.”
“The way we elect people right now isn’t conducive to those types of solutions. Big consensus on the water in Arizona. It’s a big deal. Arizona has its act together on water better than anywhere else in the country, but it’s still a problem. You know, California lets it all flow into the ocean. They’ve got and then, and because they don’t have the willpower to build a dam anywhere because some snail or something’s going to be threatened. And so what they do is they take all of our water out of the Colorado River and let all their water run into the ocean and won’t do desalinization, which is expensive or it’s a problem and it requires federal intervention locally. It’s really easy to get consensus on that.”
“There’s also a growing consensus in education. I know there are fights over the ESA thing, but I think if you look at what the public wants, overwhelmingly in all the polls, the public supports a strong quality public education program. The legislature’s been seized by special interests for the charters and the private schools. They control the Republican caucus effectively, but 85 percent of Arizona families are sending their kids to the traditional public schools, and even people that don’t send their kids there want these to be effective for all our kids. Effective means you walk out of there and ready to do the next level where that’s to go into the trades or go into college or to go in into business. People want our K through 12 to work. They want the universities to be good and to be affordable and, so those are areas, there’s a lot of areas where we can work to, to come up with good consensus solutions.”
- Do you think a third party, like No Labels can make headway in Arizona if they qualify to field candidates like hypothetically a Clint Smith in Andy Biggs district or even Kyrsten Sinema, should she decide to go that route? And as a quick follow-up, is Kirsten Sinema potentially the Arizona Joe Lieberman or Agnus King?
Matt: “The No Labels thing is pending litigation at the Secretary’s office, which I’m obviously involved with. So, I’ll, I’ll hedge on that one. However, I’ll just say, in terms of their viability. I think Democrats are still in third place when it comes to the voter registration deficit in Arizona. I think if they focus their efforts on registering voters, having a compelling message, and continuing to bring in moderate voters like they have the last few cycles, then third-party things that pop up aren’t going to carry the amount of relevance that I think that they’re wringing their hands over. Tyler, and I can maybe chat more about this later on in the interview on changing how we do primaries specifically so that the crazies and I’m thinking of the Republican side in the primary process aren’t shoehorned into general elections. I think that has much more strength and way more legs to it than these third-party operations.
“Going to Sinema. I don’t think she’s a Lieberman. I don’t think she’s an Angus King. I’ve got numerous reasons for that. There’s a difference between being independent at heart and wanting to do things to truly solve problems. And then there’s wanting to be at the center of attention of things and getting attention from obstructing good legislation. I think that’s what differentiates one politician from the other.”
Tyler: “Third parties have never worked. I don’t think it’s going to work this time. I do think, and Matt and I agree. We’ve talked about this before. Changing the way we elect people so that everyone in every election has to face all of the voters kind of like we do for city councils. These are people that can problem solve. Red areas are still going to be red. Blue areas are still going to be blue, but what you’ll get are people whose incentives have changed and who answer to all of the voters, and not just one-third of that show up to vote in the primary. That is the big problem.”
“Kyrsten Sinema has an uphill battle. I know a lot of Republicans that think she’s all right, but they’re still going to vote Republican. Democrats are going to vote Democrat. If she’s in the race, what I think she’ll do is she’ll spoil it for Ruben Gallego, and we’ll end up with a Kari Lake type and that would be a disaster. I think people like her are a disaster for the state and you get the vote-splitting problem again, we need to change the way we run elections. That’s why I think the third parties aren’t going to work. I helped run Clint Smith’s campaign. There was a path there, but the Democrat had to get out and bless his heart, he was coming from a good place and everything, but he just did not understand the math. I’m not trying to insult him, but he was very obstinate in terms of understanding the reality that you are not going to go in and win in a district that’s a plus-15 red district. We had a way to defeat Biggs, but he had to be out. So, with Javier Ramos staying in the race, it just became not viable. It was just a symbolic race for Clint Smith at that point as the independent against Andy Biggs. For an independent, when there’s a Republican and a Democrat in the race, there’s just no path. Sinema would probably do better because she has the money, but there’s no way she wins. I mean, I’m not saying it’s impossible if it all split up just right, but I, it just doesn’t seem likely.”
- Is there anything I covered in the last four questions that you think the readers should know about the political dynamics in Arizona as we hopefully come to the end of this legislative session?
Matt: “I think that redoing the way we vote in primaries is a key one to, keep covering in, in future stories that you do. Tyler’s obviously a great resource for that if you want to pick his brain more. That’s the big one on my mind.”
Tyler: “Me too. Obviously. I think that’s important. And what you won’t see is that coming out of any of the parties, right? People in power got there in the current system and they’re not eager to disrupt it. There’ll be some but you saw that the entire Freedom Caucus of Arizona came out against the new way of voting.”
We’re talking about rank-choice voting?
Tyler: “Rank choice might be the methodology, but the real reform is making everybody face all of the voters. It doesn’t have to rank choice. It could be some other method, but the real reform is that you could have our current method of primaries and use rank choice and it’s not going to do much of anything for you. It’s people facing all the voters. You won’t see. Jake Hoffman, Liz Harris, and Wendy Rogers advocating for that because those, those people don’t exist in the new system. Right. You would not have those types in there. Some of those people are Exhibit A for why we should do it. Mark Finchem is Exhibit A. Those people need to go to the right level of true support from the public, which is very low. Right now they’re exploiting the vote-splitting problem that we’ve created for ourselves and the problem with the way we do our primaries and the general to win with actually a very small amount of support. I think we should change it. We don’t use black powder rifles and horses anymore and everything else from when the country came about. We don’t need to conduct our elections the exact same way. We can evolve and be smarter.”
Matt: I think what Tyler said is spot on. I mean, I think the example that was used earlier about making it like the way we hold city council races. I think that’s a key thing and I’m hopeful that, you know, this will get explored more as we get closer to 2024. It’s not going to get solved in time for that. I mean, this is a multi-year, multi-step project. It’s bigger than the parties. It’s bigger than one election cycle. It’s about getting us back to a sense of normalcy because when I tell Democrats all the time, based on the number of crazies you’ve got running on the other side, we’re not going to win every election. Not every election cycle can be an existential threat to our democracy. One, that’s exhausting for the electorate. Two, if you lose one of those, you’re in a really bad spot. So let’s not play with fire and fix the problem.”
Tyler: “The way we elect city councils are, are well known for having police fire, getting the garbage collected. They’ve problem solved effectively. People are most happy with them. And it’s not because of the city council. It’s because of the way we’re electing them. They’re not perfect, but they govern, and your cities aren’t in deep debt. Your cities work well. How would you like all the rest of the governments to work that way?”