Martha McSally vs Mark Kelly; legal weed on ballot
PHOENIX -- Joe Biden is taking the lead in Arizona, hoping to flip a longtime GOP state that President Donald Trump won in 2016.
*Counties are colored red or blue when the % expected vote reporting reaches a set threshold. This threshold varies by state and is based on patterns of past vote reporting and expectations about how the vote will report this year.
With 80% of the expected vote counted, Biden was ahead by 5 percentage points, with a roughly 130,000-vote lead over Trump with about 2.6 million ballots counted. The remaining ballots left to be counted, including mail-in votes in Maricopa County, where Biden performed strongly.
Arizona has a long political history of voting Republican. It's the home state of Barry Goldwater, a five-term, conservative senator who was the Republican nominee for president in 1964. John McCain, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, represented the state in Congress from 1983 until his 2018 death.
But changing demographics, including a fast-growing Latino population and a boom of new residents - some fleeing the skyrocketing cost of living in neighboring California - have made the state friendlier to Democrats.
Many of the gains have been driven by the shifting politics of Maricopa County, which is home to Phoenix and its suburbs. That's where Biden sealed his victory. Maricopa County accounts for 60% of the state's vote, and Biden ran up huge margins there.
In 2016, Trump carried the county by 4 percentage points, which helped propel him to a win. But two years later, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema flipped the seat from Republican control by winning the county by 5 points.
If Biden flips Arizona, it's a sign of Democrats' ascendant influence in the state.
In 2018, Sinema became the first Democrat in three decades to win a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. Democrats also won three statewide offices and five of nine congressional seats and made gains in the state legislature that year.
In 2016, voters ousted Republican Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County's hardline sheriff, who built a national profile on his harsh treatment of immigrants.
Democrat Mark Kelly won the Arizona Senate seat once held by John McCain, riding Arizona's changing electorate to flip a Republican Senate seat in a state long dominated by the GOP.
Arizona will send two Democrats to the Senate for the first time in nearly 70 years when Kelly joins Kyrsten Sinema in Washington.
Kelly, a former astronaut, defeated Republican Martha McSally, who was appointed to the seat by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey after McCain's death in 2018.
In his first run for political office, Kelly positioned himself as a pragmatic centrist with no patience for Washington partisanship. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, he retreated to mostly online outreach, minimizing face-to-face campaigning while blasting McSally and President Donald Trump for allowing the pandemic to get out of control.
"The work starts now. And we desperately need Washington to work for Arizona," Kelly told a small group of family and reporters gathered for his victory speech in Tucson. "My top priority is making sure we have a plan to slow the spread of this virus, and then getting Arizona the resources our state needs right now."
Kelly flew four space shuttle missions and leaned heavily on his NASA background in campaign ads and speeches, but he's perhaps best known in Arizona as the husband of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt during a constituent event in Tucson in 2011.
Giffords introduced Kelly when he launched his campaign, appeared in a television ad for him and joined him at events for supporters in the campaign's closing days.
McSally did not speak publicly, nor did she concede.
Four years ago, residents in the Grand Canyon State narrowly defeated an initiative to legalize recreational cannabis. It failed by fewer than 67,100 votes, with 51.3% of voters saying no.
The 2016 measure was hotly contested, attracting a combined $13 million from high-profile donors such as soap company Dr. Bronner's, which was in favor of the measure, and opponents such as billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, tire retailer Discount Tire, and pharmaceutical company Insys.
This time around, the backers of the recreational cannabis initiative include some of the biggest names in the US cannabis business -- an industry that has matured significantly during the past four years. State election finance records show that contributors supporting Proposition 207 include multi-state cannabis producers and retailers such as the Tempe, Arizona-based Harvest Health & Recreation and firms such as Curaleaf and Cresco Labs, which have cultivation and retail operations in Arizona's medical cannabis industry.
Still in staunch opposition are Governor Doug Ducey, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national organization that opposes the legalization and commercialization of cannabis.
For the most part, Proposition 207 is structured similarly to 2016's measure. It would allow adults 21 years and older to possess, consume or transfer up to 1 ounce of cannabis and create a regulatory system for the products' cultivation and sale. Some key differences with the new measure include the addition of social equity provisions and criminal justice reforms such as record expungement.
According to estimates from industry publication Marijuana Business Daily, recreational sales in Arizona could total $700 million to $760 million by 2024.
Voters in four states from different regions of the country could embrace broad legal marijuana sales on Election Day, and a sweep would highlight how public acceptance of cannabis is cutting across geography, demographics and the nation's deep political divide.
The Nov. 3 contests in New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota and Montana will shape policies in those states while the battle for control of Congress and the White House could determine whether marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
Already, most Americans live in states where marijuana is legal in some form and 11 now have fully legalized the drug for adults - Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. It's also legal in Washington, D.C.
The cannabis initiatives will draw voters to the polls who could influence other races, including the tight U.S. Senate battle in Arizona.
In Colorado, one supporter of legal cannabis could lose his seat. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who is struggling in an increasingly Democratic state where some in the industry have lost faith in his ability to get things done in Washington.
Despite the spread of legalization in states and a largely hands-off approach under President Donald Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate has blocked cannabis reform, so under federal law marijuana remains illegal and in the same class as heroin or LSD. That has discouraged major banks from doing business with marijuana businesses, which also were left out in the coronavirus relief packages.
"Change doesn't come from Washington, but to Washington," said Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "States are sending a clear message to the federal government that their constituencies want to see cannabis legalization."
The presidential election could also influence federal marijuana policy, though the issue has been largely forgotten in a campaign dominated by the pandemic, health care and the nation's wounded economy.
Trump's position remains somewhat opaque. He has said he is inclined to support bipartisan efforts to ease the U.S. ban on marijuana but hasn't established a clear position on broader legalization. He's appointed attorneys general who loath marijuana, but his administration has not launched crackdowns against businesses in states where pot is legal.
Joe Biden has said he would decriminalize - but not legalize - the use of marijuana, while expunging all prior cannabis use convictions and ending jail time for drug use alone. But legalization advocates recall with disgust that he was a leading Senate supporter of a 1994 crime bill that sent droves of minor drug offenders to prison.
Even if there are lingering doubts about Biden, the Democratic Party is clearly more welcoming to cannabis reform, especially its progressive wing. Vice presidential nominee and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California has said making pot legal at the federal level is the "smart thing to do."
Familiar arguments are playing out across the states.
Opponents fear children will be lured into use, roads will become drag strips for stoned drivers and widespread consumption will spike health care costs.
Those backing legalization point out the market is already here, though in many cases still thriving underground, and argue that products should be tested for safety. Legal sales would mean tax money for education and other services, and social-justice issues are also in play, after decades of enforcement during the war on drugs.
An added push this year could come from the virus-damaged economy - states are strapped for cash and legalized cannabis holds out the promise of a tax windfall. One Arizona estimate predicts $255 million a year would eventually flow for state and local governments, in Montana, $50 million.
Despite the pandemic and challenges including heavy taxes and regulation, marijuana sales are climbing. Arcview Market Research/BDSA expects U.S. sales to climb to $16.3 billion this year, up from $12.4 billion in 2019.
The Arizona measure known as Proposition 207 would let people 21 and older possess up to an ounce or a smaller quantity of concentrates, allow for sales at licensed retailers and for people to grow their own plants. Retail sales could start in May. State voters narrowly rejected a previous legalization effort in 2016.
Arizona Democrats are targeting one of four solidly Republican U.S. House districts with a polished candidate who has a big fundraising edge against a wounded GOP incumbent with a slimmer-than-normal bank account as they look to extend their control of the congressional delegation in the shifting battleground state.
The party makeup of Arizona's congressional delegation has been remarkably stable for the past decade, with only the 2nd District flipping between Republican and Democratic control since the addition of the 9th district after the 2010 census. Democrats currently occupy five of the nine seats.
Democrats hope to change that this year with Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, who is challenging five-term Republican Rep. David Schweikert in the suburban 6th District that takes in much of north Phoenix, Paradise Valley, Scottsdale and Fountain Hills.
While Arizona has been shifting from solid red to purple, Schweikert seems especially vulnerable after he admitted to a series of ethics violations in July and earned a rare unanimous reprimand from his House colleagues.
"People understand that they deserve somebody better than what they have," Tipirneni said. "He has not gone to D.C. and represented them - in fact he has fought against the issues that really matter to the families of the 6th District - and on top of it he has shown himself to be completely unethical and lacking integrity."
Arizona's 6th District was once solidly red, but the Cook Political Report, which rates congressional districts by competitiveness, has moved it from leans Republican to a toss-up. Schweikert has easily won the past four elections, by 25 percentage points in all but 2018, when he beat another Democrat by 10 points.
Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Republican political consultant, said Schweikert may be in trouble this time.
"I think he's vulnerable, based upon the cycle and the turnout," Coughlin said. "There's a significant heightened amount of enthusiasm among Democrats, coupled with I believe a disconnect with Schweikert because of his problems."
Little change is likely among Arizona's other eight congressional districts, although that doesn't mean there's a shortage of challengers going after incumbents from both parties that could flip another seat.
Democratic Rep. Tom O'Halleran, who represents the sprawling 1st District that runs from Flagstaff east to the Navajo Nation and then south to take in parts of the suburbs north of Tucson, faces a strong challenge from Republican Tiffany Shedd, an Eloy farmer and attorney. That race is the only Democratic seat Cook rates as lean rather than likely Democratic.
In the 6th District race, Tipirneni has raised about $5 million as of Oct. 1, well above Schweikert's $1.9 million. She entered the final four weeks of the campaign with $1.5 million on hand to close the deal, compared with the less than $550,000 in the Republican's account. Outside groups have joined in, backing both candidates.
She's used her cash to pound him on his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and raise concerns about his backing of Social Security and Medicare, which she says Republicans have endangered. And she notes that most of her fundraising has come from individual donors, while her opponent has taken corporate PAC money she disdains.
"His voting record time and time again shows he voted in line with his lobbyist pals, with his corporate party donors and with his party leaders, not with the families of the 6th District," she said. "The proof is in the record."
Schweikert says Tipirneni is just wrong for the district and that he remains confident he will pull out a victory.
"Look, say it any way you want to, but my Democrat opponent is not a good fit for the district," he said. "Where she is on tax and spend, Green New Deal, socialized medicine, all those things, she's just a bad fit."
And Schweikert said he retains solid support in a district he knows well, and that he notes Tipirneni doesn't even live in.
"It's a combination of a couple things - we've been very successful at helping the district - everything from the PPP loans, to bringing jobs to the community, to being somebody who actually truly advocates for the community and knows it well," Schweikert said. "And the simple fact is, on the issues we align very well with the community."
Tipirneni said the swing toward Democrats in the district - seen in other suburban areas nationally and in Arizona - is telling.
"We brought it from likely to lean to a toss-up - that didn't happen by chance," she said. "Otherwise this should have been in the bag for him, right? Nobody thought this was even a competitive district. It's competitive because he is entirely ineffective as a representative. He's failed time and time again and he lacks integrity. He's unethical."
Schweikert isn't overly worried.
"It may be closer than we'd like but everything looks like we'll be fine," Schweikert said.
In the other three heavily Republican districts - the 4th, 5th, and 8th, GOP incumbents appear poised to cruise to victory. Rep. Paul Gosar is being challenged by Delina Disanto for the 4th District seat, Rep. Andy Biggs is being challenged a second time by Joan Greene in the 5th District, and Rep. Debbie Lesko faces Michael Muscato in the 8th District.
The same is true for four of the five districts now held by Democrats. In the 2nd, held by Ann Kirkpatrick, Republican Brandon Martin is underfunded in his effort to take the once-competitive district. Rep. Raul Grijalva is seeking a 10th term in the 3rd District and being challenged by Daniel Wood. Joshua Barnett is facing an uphill fight against Rep. Ruben Gallego in the 7th District and Rep. Greg Stanton faces Dave Giles in the 9th District.