Tucson election '23: Not-so-sweet for GOP, but local results shouldn't excite Dems

This was not the most important election of our lifetimes. But let’s hope it’s not the last.

Mayor Regina Romero and the Tucson City Council’s three incumbent Democrats were re-elected and Republicans, again, are suffering 25-point blowouts.

All six area school bond and overrides passed muster with voters, and not by thin margins.

Related: Romero & Tucson Council Dems coast to wins; Vail incorporation fails

Council members may be finally on the verge of being voted a raise, as Prop. 413 leads by 557 votes out of nearly 77,000 counted so far.

Election workers still need to count about 19,000 ballots across the county, as of Wednesday afternoon. Some are provisional and others need signatures verified. So stay tuned on this issue.

My workload summing up local government meeting agendas remains unchanged (and it’s good that you are thinking first about me) because the Vail incorporation election failed. Hardly shocking. However, the 60-40 margin is a bit bigger than expected during the Sentinel’s morning meetings. What? It’s not like we have AP/ORC on the line polling “Vail incorporation.”

And nationally, interesting stuff happened but nothing terribly predictive of the future no matter what purveyors of conventional wisdom say. The Right got what it wanted with abortion, but not how it wanted it. The issue is no longer a national right, it’s a political issue. It’s just a political issue that keeps beating the GOP on their brain buckets.

A popular Democrat won a gubernatorial election in Kentucky, where Joe Biden has no shot in 2024. And Elvis’ cousin only lost by five to incumbent Republican governor Tate Reeves down in Mississippi. Again, it means nothing for 2024, no matter what the cable news talking heads might blather to fill time between commercials for expensive Boomer medications.

Romero winning a second term in Tucson means about as much for 2024 as Jonathan Rothschild’s reelection in 2015 portended a Hillary Clinton landslide a year later.

However, we can look at the national stories and find insights into lessons for the future of Tucson politics.

If Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear can win Kentucky and Brandon Presley can get close in Mississippi, then why the Hound Dog can’t Republicans get within 25 points in Tucson?

Money, money, money

Republicans used to win here. Now they can’t get close.

Sure, Democrats have a 2 to 1 advantage in voter registration and habitually vote for their candidates. It’s just that Republicans don’t exactly work up much of a sweat on these races. They definitely don’t open their wallets — and that’s what we have to go on to judge voter enthusiasm (other than actual votes), since there’s no metric to independently measure door-knocking.

I’m not blaming any of the Republican candidates for their lackluster fundraising because it’s been a trend in election cycle after election cycle. The rank-and-file need to start doing work to make elections competitive because that’s how democracy is supposed to work. East Side Democrats are still pretty conservative and Vail will vote for a Juan Ciscomani. 

Victoria Lem, running against incumbent Lane Santa Cruz, had a decent message of crime, the economy and roads. She didn’t throw down her whole lot on drag shows. And Republicans managed to give her $2,800 through August (her most recent campaign finance report). 

She’s down 25, with the Santa Cruz raising $74,000 and getting $71,000 in matching funds. 

Ross Kaplowitch ran in Ward 4 against incumbent Nikki Lee and his donors put $5,700 into his campaign. Lee raised $28,000 and got $18,000 in city matching funds. Yeah, she was winning by 31 points.

Ernie Shack raised $8,900 through October to run against Paul Cunningham. He’s losing by 32 points. He had 27,714 votes as of 10 p.m. Tuesday night. Are you telling me none of those people had money to donate? A hundred of them couldn’t have given $100?

Cunningham by comparison, barely broke a fundraising sweat and pulled in just $55,000.

Janet Wittenbraker ran a campaign that included vague talk about water conservation and “utility costs.” That was some nuance. She didn’t go on and on about “woke” or “transgender” or “critical race theory.” Good for her. Stay local.

She even had red meat for her base like cutting off all money to help asylum-seekers and zeroing out the Sun Tran budget and giving the money to the cops. She even raised – on paper – $46,000. The bad news for her is that $22,000 was from herself, after she paid herself back $4,000.

She did a very Republican thing and refused to concede on election night. She’s still waiting on a relative handful of votes to pull out a 29-point comeback. I’m still waiting for Peyton Manning to erase a 43-8 deficit in Super Bowl XVVIII.

Romero raised $131,000 and got $120,000 in matching funds.

Republicans, you are the people who want to keep money in politics. And yet when it comes to local elections, you never put money into campaigns.

But if they aren’t talking book-banning or border walls, the current Republican voter and activist base just isn’t into it. Republicans are becoming what Democrats used to be: Utterly uninterested if they aren’t running big, sexy races on national themes.

Red Inc

On the other hand, Vail’s failed incorporation shows that money isn’t everything.

That’s especially true when a few moneybags get ahead of the curve.

Developer David Mehl threw down $60,000 on the effort and Diamond Ventures tossed in $10,000 and Jim Click was good for $5,000. Southern Arizona Leadership Council wrote a $20,000 check. Retired contractor Tom Regina spent $50,000 on the doomed effort.

I don’t always agree with these guys but they are legit in their sense of service as they see it.

Mehl, for instance, has long been involved in local affairs going back to the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan and recently as a Republican on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

Jim Click used to be a huge Republican donor and the local Republican Party was even OK with it.

However, a few guys provided the majority of the cash raised in the $144,000 campaign to turn Vail into a town. It was probably worthwhile in a 55-45 sort of way but Vail voters disagreed. They have that right and exercised it, to the tune of “no” by a 62-38 margin.

A few well-off people can throw a big chunk of money at a ballot initiative but if the people aren’t into it, then it’s just check-writing folly.

I hear a smart-aleck right-wing shock jock smirking “Why are you talking money in Joe Biden’s economy? Everyone’s broke … heh, heh, heh.”

Right. Yeah. If I am looking for tea leaves to read, I can find some if I squint and tilt my head just right.

Free on bond

Every single school district budget override and bond issue passed in Pima County and they weren’t even close to failing.

Altar Valley, Sahuarita, Sunnyside, Flowing Wells and Tucson school districts all saw their requests for more money and higher taxes get the stamp of voter approval.

The closest call was in Sahuarita, where voters only approved Prop. 401 with 57 percent of the vote. County records don’t go back far enough to find a night as good as this to school districts asking for money.

Voters don’t tend to approve bonds and overrides when they are actually hurting financially. Voters in the Altar Valley and Sunnyside districts saw their bonds defeated three years in a row between 2010 and 2012. 

That was back when the economy was so in the trash that Sunnyside was laying off 300 teachers. That, folks, is a recession. It’s not the inability to find workers.

Voters now are feeling good enough about the their own financial situations and the economy as a whole to vote either for a tax increase or against cutting their property taxes. 

Oh, sure. People are still bitching about the “Recession of 2023” but I’m getting more convinced that voters know they’re doing OK. They just think we must be in a recession if there’s a president with gray hair and tight hamstrings. 

Some just want youth and temper-tantrums.

The end is nigh?

Election 2023 will be over-hyped as a harbinger of 2024 because over-hyping is what the national political media does. They shout their narratives from the rooftops of Georgetown and diners all across the U.S. of A.

Locally, the election means more of the same leadership on the City Council, and right now that’s not such a bad thing. It means school districts will get some money and Vail will stay Vail.

Nothing crazy happened.

Just realize that we have a former president leading in the polls and his people are already talking about declaring martial law on day one. 

Donald Trump’s lackeys are also discussing how to make the execution of the U.S. Code entirely rooted in what’s best for the Big Guy and not what the law actually says. (Note: No one does this if they ever intend on yielding power under any circumstance). 

We have a speaker of the House who doesn’t believe the U.S. is a democracy (and it is) and wanted Biden’s election “decertified.” Decertification is not a constitutional provision but the dude claims to be a constitutional lawyer so who knows if he brings 270-plus electoral votes for Biden to the floor on Jan. 6, 2025? That will depend on if Mike Johnson’s party still runs the U.S. House of Representatives.

Will 2023 be the last election that has any real meaning other than acclimation of minority rule? A lot of that is up to the voters of Southern Arizona.

So enjoy the quiet afterglow of a dull election that mattered. 

It’s about to get loud and it may all be coming to an end.