clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a vacant Arizona House seat explains Democratic politics in 2024

Raquel Terán’s just-announced run for Congress is a window into Democrats’ battle for a crucial swing state.

AZ Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Katie Hobbs Holds Election Night Event
Arizona state Sen. Raquel Teran speaks to supporters on November 8, 2022, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

Arizona has been at the center of the American political universe for the past three election cycles. In 2018, now-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema showed the country a winning formula. Democrats could win a perennial Republican stronghold if they rallied Arizona’s growing Latino population and base of young, diverse voters, while persuading independents and moderates in suburbs to vote off their dissatisfaction with Donald Trump.

A similar strategy worked in Mark Kelly’s Senate and Joe Biden’s presidential victories in 2020. In the 2022 midterms, Kelly, as well as Gov. Katie Hobbs and Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, built on this formula by contrasting themselves sharply with their more extreme GOP opponents to win over Republican voters as well.

At the center of these battles has been Maricopa County, a national political bellwether and home to Phoenix, the state’s largest city. The focus of the region, the Third Congressional District, is currently represented by Rep. Ruben Gallego (who, you might have heard, is running for Senate in 2024), but the seat will be open in the coming election cycle for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s a rare opportunity: The district is Arizona’s most Democratic region, it is majority Latino and working-class, and it has been represented by Gallego since 2014. The legendary Arizona politician Ed Pastor represented the seat for more than two decades before Gallego.

Now, the contours of a competitive primary are beginning to take form: Raquel Terán, a longtime leader in the state’s progressive and Democratic political movements and a former chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, has decided to enter the fray to succeed Gallego. She has a rival forming to her left, Phoenix vice mayor and city council member Yassamin Ansari, who announced her candidacy on Tuesday. And plenty more Arizona Democrats may still jump in.

But Terán enters the primary contest as the frontrunner. Her two-year term as the head of the state’s Democratic Party ended recently, and she oversaw tremendous gains for the party in statewide races while holding the Democrats’ minority share of seats in the legislature. She has served in both the Arizona state House and state Senate, where she was the minority leader and led efforts to halt anti-abortion legislation and protect increases in the minimum wage. And she has deep connections with many of the progressive organizations and activists in Arizona that have been crucial to turning out the Democratic base in past elections: She got her start as an immigrant rights activist and an organizer in Arizona’s Latino communities.

“I’ve been part of this movement in Arizona that has made Arizona a battleground state, and I am very proud of that,” Terán told me on the day she announced her candidacy. “We have built up political power, and when people bought into the narrative that Latinos don’t vote, we were like, ‘Yes, Latinos do vote!,’ ‘Si, se puede,’ and we’re going to have an impact.”

One of Terán’s early victories was leading the effort to recall Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, the hardline conservative lawmaker who authored and sponsored the infamous state law SB 1070, (known at the time as the “show me your papers” law), which impelled a wide-ranging crackdown on immigrants, including those in the country legally, and which the state’s Latino communities took as full-fledged attack on their presence in the state. That organizing effort powered the rise of other Latino politicians and activists in the state, including Gallego, who protested and organized alongside Terán in the 2010s. It also led to the more formal political mobilization of the state’s booming Latino population since.

The next target of this progressive anger was controversial, far-right Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who extended the state’s crackdown on immigrant and Latino communities and was accused of multiple kinds and incidents of police misconduct and racial profiling. Though he was under various investigations and at the center of several scandals, he won reelection in 2012.

“We had to challenge him and get him out of office. And we did it. It took us two election cycles,” Terán said, and in 2016 Arpaio lost reelection by a 13-point margin. Arpaio was convicted in 2017 of contempt of court for disobeying a federal judge’s orders to end his office’s profiling policies (then-President Trump later pardoned him).

Now, after uniting various diverse coalitions of moderate and liberal voters in various campaigns, Terán will likely have to clear a field of Democratic rivals over the next year and a half. Arizona’s primaries are held in August 2024, and whoever wins that contest is almost guaranteed to win the general election because of the Democratic bend of the district (Gallego won his last general election by 50 points). Terán hasn’t sought his endorsement, though she unequivocally backs him in the US Senate contest, which will likely pit him against a far-right Republican candidate and independent incumbent Sinema.

She expects the race to center on progressive credentials, concerns over climate change and climate justice, and reproductive rights and access to abortion in Arizona. Maricopa County, including Phoenix, is also one of the fastest-growing urban centers in the country, which has worsened the region’s affordable housing shortage, gas prices, and homelessness crisis. Phoenix endured some of the worst levels of inflation in the country last year, and prices and affordability may emerge as the central theme of the race.

If Terán wins, her district will also be a stand-in for one of the bigger challenges Democrats face in the state: persuading and turning out Latino voters, who will be crucial for Gallego to win the Senate contest and for Biden to win the state if he runs for reelection in 2024. The American Southwest’s Latino voters have gotten a lot of attention over the last four years for their allegiance to the Democratic Party and possible inroads by Republicans. Those gains didn’t materialize in Arizona, where Kelly improved on Biden’s 2020 showing and Democrats held steady with Latino voters. Terán hopes that by having a lively and optimistic campaign, which is starting to engage voters early on, she can also contribute to the margins that will be necessary for Democrats to win statewide.

“You need to make sure that voters are inspired, that they’re motivated, and that they’re not voting ‘anti’ something, but they’re voting for an opportunity for a better reality. That’s a case that we’re going to make,” she said.

A lot of the success Democrats in Arizona have had in the last few cycles has been because of their willingness to moderate their tone and appeal to the swath of voters in the political center who don’t align with either major party. Republican registered voters make up a third, independents make up another third, and Democrats make up slightly less than a third of voters. Democrats have also been quick to contrast themselves with “crazies” on the other side of the political spectrum, and played up worst-case scenarios of just how bad the alternative would be.

Terán thinks it’s still important to highlight the consequences of unbridled MAGA Republican control. But to inspire working-class voters and voters of color, she and Democrats will need to expand the Democratic base. In that way, her primary contest may end up becoming an important part of Democrats’ broader goals of retaining control of the Senate and the presidency, and flipping two neighboring competitive House seats.

“We want to expand the pool of voters that come out in a primary … and we know that when our communities come out and vote in a primary, it’s likely that they come out and vote in a general election,” she said. “Joe Biden won by 10,000 votes. Governor Hobbs won by 15,000. Let’s think positive and increase our votes. Those narrow margins can increase if our district, if a district like Congressional District Three, overperforms.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.