Breaking News
More () »

#BattlegroundAZ: AG hires GOP poll watcher to police state's 'elections integrity'

Arizona Republicans are clawing back role in 2020 elections. Also: Curt Schilling spitballs AZ run, incumbent Dem faces primary & triathlete senator well above water
A voter casts his ballot in a polling place on Election Day November 8, 2016 in Alexandria, Virginia.

PHOENIX — #BattlegroundAZ is a regular update on the week's significant political news in Arizona, a 2020 battleground state that could help decide which party wins the White House and U.S. Senate.

1. Who's watching our elections?

We got word last week of a hire for Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich's brand new "elections integrity" unit.

Attorney Jennifer Wright, a former Tea Party candidate for Phoenix mayor who more recently was involved in GOP poll-watching activities, is now an assistant attorney general.

Wright broke the news via posts on Facebook (she showed off her new badge) and LinkedIn. Until Wright shared her new job, Brnovich hadn't provided any information on the new unit.

RELATED: #BattlegroundAZ: Marijuana backers aim for 2020 vote, Democratic teacher wants rematch after narrow loss

During this year's session, the Republican-controlled Legislature budgeted half-a-million dollars for the AG's office to staff the new unit with four attorneys (the money's coming a legal settlement with Wells Fargo, according to the AG's office).

It came in the wake of unsubstantiated fraud allegations by Republicans after the 2018 mid-term election.

President Trump and the Arizona Republicans made claims about "stolen" elections as a GOP-held U.S. Senate seat was slipping from their grasp last November. 

Reviews of Arizona voting and elections have shown that incidents of fraud are exceedingly rare. 

Wright was involved with a Republican-allied group called Verify the Vote, which trained poll watchers.

Democrats claim the group focused only on areas with large Hispanic turnouts.

Brnovich spokesman responds

Brnovich spokesman Ryan Anderson responded to questions about Wright's hiring via email: 

"Jennifer has criminal and civil litigation experience. To the extent she will be working on elections issues, she has elections monitoring experience, she knows elections law, and is familiar with elections integrity issues and concerns that have been raised by all political parties for at least the past decade. She is also passionate about the integrity of our elections."

It's important to note that the 'Unit' could be housed over multiple divisions and sections: Criminal, ACL, Solicitor General's Office, Special Agents. A 'head' of the unit will be announced soon, and that person will likely coordinate the elections integrity and enforcement components across the office, including potential prosecutions."

Anderson also told me that hires for the new unit would be made from across the political spectrum. 

Republicans claw back elections role 

In 2016 and then in 2018, Republicans lost the top two elections offices in Arizona to Democrats, for the first time in decades. 

But without a single 2020 vote having been cast, the GOP has retaken oversight of elections run by one of the offices, in the state's largest county, Maricopa. (I reported last month on the Maricopa County Board's takeover.)

RELATED: Democrat Adrian Fontes was elected to run county elections. So why isn't he doing that anymore?

With presidential and U.S. Senate races on the 2020 statewide ballot, the Republican AG's elections integrity unit is also poised to influence at least the public perception of those votes, overseen by Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.

2. Schilling spitballs about Arizona run

It's been almost 20 years since Curt Schilling helped deliver a World Series championship to Arizona. 

Now he's musing about making a comeback, as a candidate for Congress. Schilling's "absolutely considering" running, he told Armed American Radio.

RELATED: Former pitcher Curt Schilling 'absolutely considering' congressional run in Arizona

President Trump's all in:   

Schilling was born in Alaska, but pitched in high school and community college in Arizona. 

Should he run, Schilling might feel most at home in the Democrat-held Congressional District 1 in northern Arizona, currently represented by U.S. Rep. Tom O'Halleran. It's the only Democratic district President Trump won in 2016, by 1 point. 

3. Incumbent Democrat gets primaried

O'Halleran, a two-term congressman, has more than Curt Schilling to worry about. The Sedona Democrat got a second primary opponent in his northern Arizona swing district. 

Former State Sen. Barbara McGuire of Kearny, who represented a legislative district in conservative Pinal County for two terms, announced she's getting into the race. An aide described her as a "consensus builder." 

McGuire had formed an exploratory committee in 2016 when the First Congressional District seat came open. 

Former Flagstaff City Council member Eva Putzova is already mounting a progressive challenge. 

In 2018, O'Halleran defeated serial Republican candidate Wendy Rogers by almost eight points in a district President Trump won by just one point two years earlier. 

O'Halleran has $400,000 in cash on hand, according to his second-quarter campaign finance report.

4. Triathlete Sinema well above water

A new poll shows U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema might be Arizona's most popular senator in years. But a newspaper in Eastern Arizona begs to differ.

The freshman Democrat's net approval rating among likely 2020 Arizona voters is plus 31, according to the survey, by OH Predictive

Sixty-two percent of respondents had a favorable opinion and 31 percent were unfavorable, with a net plus-35 among independents and minus-8 among Republicans.

Three thoughts:

- Former Sens. John McCain & Jeff Flake were underwater on favorability in their final years in office.

- It's a vote of confidence in Sinema's independent path, though many base Democrats are still gnashing their teeth. 

- Could Sinema's centrist path to victory in '16 be replicated in 2020 by Democrat Mark Kelly against GOP Sen. Martha McSally?

A Morning Consult poll last month of U.S. senators' approval ratings also showed that Sinema, who keeps constituents updated on her Ironman competitions, is above water. 

Sinema's favorability was a net plus 16: 46 percent approve/30 percent disapprove/24 percent don't know.

McSally, Sinema's 2016 opponent now facing a tough fight to win her seat in 2020, was a net plus 3: 40/37/24.

'You've never seen her'

Editors at the Eastern Arizona Courier couldn't tell you if Sinema was above water - they say they've never seen her in their part of the state:

"Kyrsten Sinema has yet to set foot in these two counties since being elected. In fact, she didn’t bother to make a stop in Greenlee or Graham during her campaign, either.

Sinema’s fellow senator, Martha McSally, has stopped in the area twice — once during the 2018 campaign and again this past February — so she at least knows where we are.

Maybe that’s the problem with getting Sinema here — maybe she doesn’t realize that Greenlee and Graham are actually part of Arizona. Perhaps she thinks we’re in New Mexico and not people whom, at least on paper, she represents."

Brahm Resnik covers politics for 12 News and is the moderator of "Sunday Square Off," at 8 a.m. Sunday on 12 News. You can find him @brahmresnik. 

Before You Leave, Check This Out