Ariz. Dem Party hopes growth turns to gains

Just months after taking over the chairmanship of a shell of an Arizona Democratic Party in 2001, Jim Pederson started essentially from scratch and set some ambitious goals for the 2002 election: win the governorship, raise $3 million and win three congressional seats.

He succeeded on the first and second counts, helping Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) to a narrow victory, but fell two seats shy of the third goal.

Four years later, after failing to turn the state blue and have it vote en masse for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election, Pederson and Arizona Democrats are still waiting for the next breakthrough for their rejuvenated state party. And Pederson, who stepped down as chairman last year, said those two seats, along with his own run against Sen. Jon Kyl (R), will be the true test of everything he and the party have sought to do over the past five years.

“You’ve got to really keep your eye on the bottom line because, at the end of the day, nothing else matters,” Pederson says. “That’s the report card, and the bottom line for a political party is winning elections. It’s not about ego. It’s not about turf. It’s not about getting your fair share of the goodies. It’s about winning elections.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates the progress of the state party — or just how impotent it was six years ago — more than Pederson’s candidacy itself. Democrats didn’t even have a name on the ballot against Kyl in 2000. This year, Pederson has polled within six percentage points of the second-term incumbent.

Pederson says the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee came to the state and tried in vain to recruit him and others to run against Kyl that year. Nobody could commit the time or the resources to the run, Pederson says, and Kyl parlayed a mediocre approval rating into 79 percent of the vote.

In 2001, Napolitano, the state’s attorney general at the time, approached Pederson about a gubernatorial run but also expressed reservations about how much help she would get from the party if she ran a publicly funded campaign. Pederson dumped millions of his shopping-mall fortune into the race through the party.

“That was back in the good-old soft-money days,” he says. Napolitano won by one percentage point.

Pederson says it was an important first step. Napolitano is running for reelection with a 60 percent approval rating.

“I saw in her a real opportunity to get this state on the right track,” he says. “The Democratic Party, for all intents and purposes, had been dead throughout the entire decade of the 1990s.”

Pederson had to start with the basics when he took over, building a voter file and taking care of the most basic infrastructure.

Current state party Chairman David Waid says a major reason for the party’s growth is the shift to professional staff that occurred around that time. That staff has doubled in size since 2002. He also attributes the growth to providing more resources for operatives at the county and precinct level.

Setting up a fundraising base is still a work in progress, Pederson says, but the results are showing. Financial reports released in recent weeks show that the party has raised nearly $2.7 million nonfederal and $1.3 million federal this cycle, both more than five times as much as it had raised at this point in 2000.

Waid says Democratic donors are beginning to trust the party enough to contribute.

“People feel that their money is going to be spent well, that we have good, strong candidates that are well-prepared,” he said. “People are feeling very excited about our prospects this year, and, as a result, they’re opening up their pocketbooks and they’re putting their money where their mouths are and where their ideals are and they’re saying, ‘Let’s go and let’s elect some Democrats.’”

Arizona Democrats’ best chances have slowly emerged over the past few months in the Senate race, the open 8th District seat of Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) and the 5th District, where former state Sen. Harry Mitchell, who served as party chairman between Pederson’s and Waid’s terms, is challenging Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R).

Notably absent from that list is the 1st District seat of Rep. Rick Renzi (R), which was drawn to be the lone competitive seat and was a top Democratic target in 2004. Leading Democratic candidate Jack Jackson Jr., a Navajo Indian, dropped out in March, citing fundraising problems and suggesting the national party had given up on the seat.

Renzi won a second term in 2004 largely on the strength of his work on Indian issues and the subsequent support he got from the American Indian population, which makes up almost a quarter of the district.

Waid insists Jackson’s exit doesn’t hurt the party, but Pederson notably neglected to name the 1st District when describing Democrats’ pickup opportunities in the state. He acknowledges that Renzi has “done a pretty good job,” especially with constituent service, and says it has been disappointing that the party hasn’t competed against him.

Renzi’s decisive 59-36 win in 2004 compounded Democrats’ disappointment from Kerry’s loss in the presidential race there. They’re still underdogs in the state, where they face a 40-35 registered voter disadvantage, but the state is young and growing at the second-fastest rate in the nation and they see an opening this year.

“This is a state that is very much in flux,” Waid says. “It’s in flux because there are a lot of people who are moving in, who have no allegiance and no particular ties to the history of this state or to the history of the politics of this state.

“Those folks are people for whom we as Democrats have to make a case. And we have to make that case anew every time someone walks in the state.”