Arizona voters tossed out many current lawmakers in primary election. Here's what led to their losses

Debra Bowie places her ballot in the ballot drop box outside the Maricopa County Tabulation and Elections Center in Phoenix for Arizona's Aug. 2, 2022, primary election.
Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

Voters in Tuesday's primary election tossed out as many as 14 current lawmakers in a sweep of officeholders not seen for at least a decade.

With the country's economy rocked by historic inflation and global supply problems on the tail end of a devastating pandemic, the fresh candidates offered their polarized visions of change. Voters responded.

Trump-endorsed candidates and other Republican candidates who promised to bring more energy and stronger conservative values to the Arizona Legislature appeared to knock out eight sitting House and Senate members. Apparent primary winners in three of the eight face Democratic opponents in November.

"It's about refocusing on what the voters care about," said Joanna De La Cruz, who runs the conservative consulting firm The Resolute Group. "It's really the cultural issues that did people in."

Successful candidates focused on public safety, religious freedom, private-school subsidies, border and immigration problems, election security and the economy, she said.

On the other side of the aisle, five lawmakers lost their races, including three to progressive candidates in an overall leftward shift of the Legislature's Democratic caucus.

The results are based on Friday's vote counts and could fluctuate as election officials count the final ballots.

"Incumbents a lot of times unfortunately grow comfortable in their positions," said Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada, who's running for state treasurer against incumbent Republican Kimberly Yee. Channeling energy from their campaign work, more energetic, often younger candidates "show how to get it done."

The last heavy primary loss for incumbents came in 2012, when Tea Party candidates helped boot out seven lawmakers. Similar to then, advocates for change in both parties say the primary victories are indications that the public is ready for new ideas and bold action.

The success of Trump-endorsed Republican legislators, which echoes victories by GOP candidates statewide like that of election conspiracy promoter and former TV newscaster Kari Lake, will loom large in November's general election. Republicans have an edge in the midterm election with Biden as president and expect to see nothing less than a new conservative revolution, with new leaders in the Legislature and the offices of attorney general, secretary of state and governor.

Liberals' fear of that prospect could yet stomp it out in the general election. Democrats hope the primary success of a GOP slate of candidates that caters to election conspiracy theories and that would ban abortion will lead to victory for their side.

What led to losses for GOP candidates

Reasons for the heavy loss of so many officeholders are numerous. Money for ad campaigns helped some candidates or hurt others. Last year's redistricting process, which pitted sitting lawmakers against each other in crowded fields of candidates, played a role.

Sen. Kelly Townsend challenged national right-wing icon Sen. Wendy Rogers after redistricting put their homes in the same district. Sen. Vince Leach, who was accused by Democrats of manipulating the Independent Redistricting Commission to make sure his home was within the newly created Tucson-area Legislative District 17, ended up with a primary challenge from a woman who had previously run for office without success, Justine Wadsack.

Republican officeholders who appear to have lost in the primary are: Sens. Vince Leach, Tyler Pace and Kelly Townsend; along with House members Rusty Bowers, Judy Burges, John Fillmore, Joel John and Joanne Osborne. The Democratic officeholders replaced or squeezed out are Reps. Morgan Abraham, Christian Solorio Acuña, Richard Andrade, César Chávez, Sarah Liguori and Lorenzo Sierra.

Bowers, who was term-limited in the House, lost trying to go for a Senate seat against his Trump-endorsed old schoolmate, former lawmaker David Farnsworth. Andrade and Osborne lost while trying to go for a Senate seat.

Some of the losses came after an incumbents' political party targeted them for removal.

Osborne didn't lose her bid for the Senate solely because nurse Janae Shamp was endorsed by former President Donald Trump. The Maricopa County Republican Party condemned her along with Reps. Joel John and Michelle Udall — who lost her primary race for state schools superintendent to former superintendent and attorney general Tom Horne — earlier this year for their opposition to private-school tuition subsidies.

One surprise amid the success of hard-line conservative candidates was the apparent loss of John Fillmore, who introduced a bill this year that would have allowed the Legislature to overturn the election. He was running in Legislative District 7, the same district that reelected Rogers. 

"I feel very, very bad," Fillmore told The Arizona Republic. The Apache Junction lawmaker blames election problems in Pinal County and labor union spending on mailers that benefited incumbent Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, who appears to have kept his seat in the district. David Marshall Sr., of Snowflake, narrowly edged out Fillmore for the district's second House seat.

Redistricting put Flagstaff, Globe, Payson and Apache Junction (towns separated by more than 160 road miles) in one district, causing ripple effects even before the primary election. Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, ended her bid for reelection in May amid the field of three other House candidates.

One consolation for Fillmore is the election-security focus of the new Republican candidates. He expects that if they make it past the general election and into the Legislature, they will bring back his bill to take voting "back to 1958-style voting" with no machines and all ballots received and counted by hand on Election Day. That plan was criticized by one state senator as unfeasible and a potential "catastrophe" for elections.

Robert Scantlebury, a Trump-endorsed candidate who beat opponent Tyler Pace by a margin of about 2-to-1 in west Mesa's Legislative District 9, is a retired Mesa police sergeant and an insider in the district's GOP political sphere along with his wife, Heather. Republican leaders in the district grew frustrated with Pace over his last term and recruited Scantlebury to run against him.

Pace had supported a tax increase for roads that Gov. Doug Ducey ultimately vetoed, among other factors, such as Pace's wavering support on banning gender-affirming treatment and abortion, Scantlebury said.

Scantlebury said he knocked on about 6,000 doors of Republican voters during the campaign and heard from many who expressed disillusionment over what they felt was inept or soft Republican representation in government.

"A lot said, 'I'm not even going to vote'" after they opened their doors, Scantlebury said. Many voters felt "betrayed."

"It did help to say I'm running against the incumbent," he said.

Scantlebury said he was inspired by Trump's commitment to conservative values, and he had worked on Trump's 2020 campaign in Arizona. But with the former president's endorsement, "the hate for Trump comes, too," he said. A small minority of emotional anti-Trumpers "would slam the door" on him, he said.

But most seemed receptive to his message, which includes backing the military and police, border security, school choice and restoring voters' confidence in elections.

"This is the grassroots base of the Republican Party," Scantlebury said of this year's wave of conservative candidates. "People now feel they have a voice."

Progressives targeted some Democrats

The same basic feeling appears to have led to primary election victories by more left-wing candidates in the Democratic Party.

"Our win was based on the strategy that we had to get in front of the doors," said Anna Hernandez, a first-time candidate who denied César Chávez a fourth term in office. "I'm authentic and passionate. They could see it for themselves."

Voters told her many times she was the first candidate who had visited their homes.

Phoenix police shot and killed Hernandez's brother, Alejandro, in 2019 after he violated an order of protection and was found with a toy gun. She believes in the concept of defunding police and using the resources to enhance her district's access to education and better jobs.

"The long-term goal is to build community safety ... and hopefully one day eliminate the need for police to be in our neighborhood," Hernandez said.

Besides the losses of incumbent Reps. César Chávez and Lorenzo Sierra, who were seen by some as more establishment-connected in their West Valley districts, progressives who took open seats — without replacing an incumbent — include Analise Ortiz, Cesar Aguilar and Flavio Bravo in west Phoenix and Glendale districts; Leezah Elsa Sun in west Phoenix; and Oscar de los Santos in south Phoenix.

Progressives targeted the two incumbents for their bipartisanship with Republicans and use of PAC money. Chávez and Sierra were among four sitting lawmakers whose employment with charity Chicanos Por La Causa raised ethical questions. Chávez's late filings of campaign finance paperwork also made it more difficult to know who was backing him. Chávez's less-than-left-wing behavior led the progressive group AZ Poder to endorse Chávez's opponent, even though it had never previously endorsed a political candidate.

Many young people feel that representatives should more boldly push progressive issues as long as they are in safely Democratic districts, said Viri Hernandez, Poder's executive director.

"I think what we've seen is the Democratic Party not be able to hold its stance on values," she said. "They don't want to deliver on their commitment."

Progressive officeholders lost some races in the primary election, too. For instance, two-term lawmaker Rep. Richard Andrade competed with Rep. Diego Espinoza in the West Valley's Legislative District 22 and lost. Espinoza was helped in part by outside spending from a pro-life group as well as a PAC funded by a local plumbers union.

Andrade, who calls Espinoza a "corporate Democrat," said he was disappointed in the union's decision to benefit his opponent.

"An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us," he said.

Hernandez said she expected some friction next year between progressives and more traditional Democrats in the Legislature, but that it won't be as severe as divisions in the GOP. She expects moderate Democrats to get with the progressive program.

"We don't have to be friends, we don't have to kumbaya, we don't have to have drinks after whatever they might do, but they have to get aligned and talk about values," she said.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.