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Arizona independents are growing in influence and will shape the race for Senate

Arizona Senate candidates Kari Lake, a republican and Ruben Gallego, a Democrat, are both working to appeal to independent voters in Arizona.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images / REBECCA NOBLE/AFP via Getty Images
Arizona Senate candidates Kari Lake, a republican and Ruben Gallego, a Democrat, are both working to appeal to independent voters in Arizona.

On a recent hot evening outside Afri-Soul Marketplace in Central Phoenix, residents were seeking respite from the day’s triple-digit heat with a freedom day-themed cookout offering free burgers and live music.

It was also a hotbed of political conversation.

“It’s a big deal to register to vote,” Andrea Whiting explained from her booth set up to sign up new voters.

Five years ago, Whiting launched the nonpartisan group “Tomorrow We Vote” with her husband Brent to encourage new voter participation.

On this night, the Afri-Soul Marketplace was teaming with potential new voters, many of whom consider themselves independent— a label that applies to more than one-third of this battleground state’s registered voters.

And independents like them are expected to shape this race for Senate in Arizona and their votes could have national implications. Arizona is one of the battleground states slated to decide which party controls upper chamber in 2025.

An explosion in independent registration

Last year, independents claimed the largest share of registrations here last year for the first time since 2015. And the Whitings say independents could do it again this year.

“It’s an exciting time… what worked before isn’t working anymore,” says Andrea Whiting.

“People are sick of the two-party system,” adds Brent Whiting.

Top candidates for the state’s U.S. Senate seat have noticed.

Arizona Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego was once known for being to the left of his party on many issues. Republican Kari Lake, has been known for being very far right, lost a bid to be state governor in 2022 and has been entangled in legal challenges tied to claims of election fraud.

Now Gallego and Lake are trying to court voters in the middle.

University of Arizona politics professor Samara Klar is not surprised.

“Making this play to seem independent, is very smart for them. That's what they should be doing,” Klar said. Now, “whether they can pull it off convincingly is another question.”

So far, polls show Gallego with a single-digit lead over Lake. However, it’s unclear how the presidential race, with polling within the margin of error, will impact Senate candidates.

Klar notes that Gallego and Lake are trying to follow the formula for the state’s political success stories, which are filled with legendary careers by the late senators who bucked party labels like John McCain and Barry Goldwater.

Gallego and Lake running to replace another independent, retiring Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema who left the Democratic party in 2022 and will see her final term in office expire next year.

The struggle for authentic appeal to independent voters

But the state’s independents can be hard reach. Klar says through her own polling, she’s found they’re evenly split between ideological liberals and conservatives.

“It's sort of like the Arizona flavor of politics is a little bit rogue, maverick, nonpartisan, whatever you want, whatever term you want to use from the past,” she said.

Gallego, a Marine combat veteran, is showing off his security chops to show he’s tough on crime and immigration while pressuring President Biden to do more. It’s part of a larger trend where Democrats, including Biden, are moving to the center, Klar said.

Lake, a longtime Phoenix television news anchor who closely aligned herself with former President Donald Trump after she left journalism in 2021, is trying to soften her abortion stance.

That shift could be key for Lake. Abortion access could also be on the November ballot after the state’s Supreme Court reverted state law to a civil war-era abortion ban.

In a recent survey, Klar found a majority of Arizonans described abortion as a “very important” issue, while 41% wanted access to be legal at any stage in pregnancy. The poll of 800 registered voters in March also found only 8 percent said abortion should be banned in all cases, while 26% said it should available in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening illness.

Republicans “see the same polls that I see that Arizonans, Americans, don't support an abortion ban,” Klar said. “It's losing them elections.”

Two miles north of the Afri-Soul Marketplace in Central Phoenix, outside the city’s art museum, 24-year-old independent Emma Davidson says it’s a smart move for Senate candidates to pivot to the middle.

“More people connect to that, honestly. Most people that you actually meet are not so extreme,” Davidson says. “You just hear about the extremes because that's what makes the news.”

The push for a primary process for independents

Davidson was recently outside the art museum collecting signatures to get independents their own primary, which is nonexistent in this state.

“Hopefully this does get approved. So then more independents do vote so that we can actually have, like, more options,” she said. “And that's why I want it to be passed, too, because, like more voters, better options, more choices.”

By July 2023, voter registrations reached 1.5 million for independents, ahead of 1.4 million Republicans and 1.3 million Democrats, according to the Arizona secretary of state. It’s the first time independents edged out both parties since 2015.

By April, Republicans took back the lead in the state’s registrations, exceeding more than 1.4 million.

However, back at the cookout, some like the Whitings are betting independents will tally bigger numbers for the 2024 elections.

Brent Whiting says candidates who are not focusing on independents are doing an injustice to themselves and Arizona.

“And if people are not paying attention to that,” he says, “they're going to lose — big.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.