State Representative Maria Syms lost her reelection bid in Arizona’s Legislative District 28 Tuesday. The race was perhaps the ugliest, most spiteful state legislature contest in the entire midterm election cycle. In the end, both LD28 House seats went to the Democrats after Syms and the Strong American PAC repeatedly undermined other Republican candidates.
Maria Syms and the LD28 “one-shot strategy”
Arizona’s unusual electoral system splits the state into 30 legislative districts. Every two years each district elects one state senator and two state representatives.
Representatives are elected together in a “top two” election, where the two highest vote getters are declared winners regardless of party affiliation. While some districts are regularly represented by two members of the same party, split representation is common in swing districts.
The “top two” system means that if only Democrat or one Republican runs, however, their chances of winning are very high – especially in a swing district like LD28. The tactic is known locally as the “single shot strategy.”
Maria Syms was elected to represent LD28 for the first time in 2016 after fighting it out among a crowded field of five Republicans. Her fellow LD28 representative Kelli Butler was the only Democrat in the race and sailed through both the primary and the general election.
Syms seemed to be angling for a similar unopposed run herself in 2018. She was reportedly outraged when in June fellow Republican Kathy Petsas threw her hat into the ring as well.
Soon after Petsas’ announcement, Syms’ husband Mark Syms mysteriously decided to run as an independent candidate for the LD28 state senate race. According to Arizona political insiders, this was meant to disrupt the campaign of fellow Republican Kate Brophy McGee – a close confidant of Kathy Petsas. In other words, Maria Syms was allegedly hoping her husband’s longshot race would steal votes from Brophy McGee as revenge for Petsas running against her.
Breaking Reagan’s 11th Commandment
As the campaigns went on much nastier red-on-red spats broke out.
Syms’ disloyalty to the party had not been forgotten. Mailers sent out from the Arizona GOP in October did not list her as a party endorsed candidate. Governor Doug Ducey endorsed Kathy Petsas but apparently withheld his blessing from Syms.
Two weeks out from election day, radio ads attacking Petsas and and hitpiece website called bewarekathypetsas.com suddenly appeared. “Do NOT Waste a Conservative Vote on Kathy Pappas Petsas,” the site said, before lambasting Petsas for accepting $40,000 from the Environmental Defence Fund and for being pro-choice. Voters were instead encouraged to support Syms as the “only conservative” running.
The website and radio ads were paid for by “American Strong,” who also launched an attack website against Arizona Republican Michelle Ugenti-Rita. The California-based PAC was funded by GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons and a former GoDaddy Exec Christine Jones.
However Parsons and Jones both thought their money would be used only to support Republican candidates, not attack them. Speaking through a spokesperson, Parsons told the Phoenix New Times:
“My donation to American Strong was not intended for use in the negative campaign against Kathy Pappas Petsas. We have apologized to Ms. Petsas, and will be making a donation to her campaign.”
Parsons reportedly donated $10,000 to Petsas’ campaign, but the money failed to quell Petsas’ annoyance.
“So they get to do all this damage to my campaign? I’m really skeptical,” Petsas told the New Times. “I’m very curious that this is what it had to come down to, to know what his money was going to.”
Hoist by her own petard?
Unlike 2016, when Kelli Butler was the only Democrat in the race, Syms and Petsas faced two Democrats in 2018. In fact, new entrant Aaron Lieberman outraised all other candidates with $236,000 in donations, and Butler was reportedly not far behind.
Facing better-financed candidates in the sort of affluent suburban district that Democrats were surging in nationwide, neither Syms nor Petsas were in a strong position. Both were defeated.
But the margins were still very narrow: Butler topped the results with 27%, Lieberman received 25%, and the two Republicans got 24% each.
If there had been fewer embarrassing squabbles, and if the Republican candidates had focused on their opponents rather than each other, it is easy to see how things could have been very different.
LD28 Republicans must be hoping for a much more normal election cycle in 2020.