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Under Tucson’s Shadow, Democrats To Search for Senate Candidate

The situation in Arizona, where Republican Senator Jon Kyl announced Thursday his intentions to retire, is a little trickier to sort out than some of the other cases that we’ve looked at recently. So let’s start with the basics: what is the overall partisan orientation of the state?

In contrast to some of the states that it borders, like New Mexico and Nevada, Barack Obama failed to make any appreciable progress in Arizona in 2008, winning 44.9 percent of its presidential vote — just barely better than the 44.4 percent that John Kerry received in 2004.

But there is a good reason for that: Mr. Obama was running against an Arizonan, John McCain. The “home state advantage” varies a lot from election to election, but my work on the subject has suggested that on average it amounts to 3 or 4 percentage points — meaning that Mr. McCain’s total was perhaps 3 or 4 points higher, and Mr. Obama’s 3 or 4 points lower, than they otherwise would have been. Mr. Obama, then, would have won perhaps 48 or 49 percent of the vote in Arizona had Mr. McCain hailed from another state, enough to put him within striking distance of winning.

Even so, this would have lagged the 54 percent of the vote that Mr. Obama won in Colorado, the 55 percent in Nevada, and the 57 percent in New Mexico. Arizona, while it shares something in common with these states, also has a sunny climate that attracts a number of retirees, who are mostly white and Republican. In 2008, 18 percent of its electorate was aged 65 or older, according to exit polls, as compared to an average of about 15 percent in the other states of the Southwest. And the percentage of seniors in the 2010 electorate was an astounding 31 percent, high even by the standards of a midterm election, which usually attracts an older set of voters (nationally, the percentage was 21 percent).

This is enough to offset, and then some, the advantage that Democrats might receive from the state’s growing Hispanic population, and both exit polling and Gallup polling suggest that Republicans constitute the plurality of the electorate there. Still, Democrats are not so disadvantaged that they can’t win in Arizona in the right year or with the right candidate.

We can’t say yet what sort of year 2012 is going to be for Democrats. But because so few Republican-held Senate seats, just 10, are up for re-election, Arizona will be a major focus if 2012  turns out to be a favorable year for them. Although Democrats have more than twice as many seats, 23, to defend, their offense is looking at least somewhat more vigorous in the wake of the retirements by Mr. Kyl and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, as well as the potential Tea Party challenges to Richard Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe of Maine. (Two other Republican-held seats, those in Massachusetts and Nevada, are almost certain to be competitive regardless of other contingencies.)

The selection of a candidate, however, might be more of a problem for them. Democrats have fielded somewhat lackluster nominees for statewide office in Arizona in recent years. Their Senate candidate against Mr. Kyl in 2006, for instance, was Jim Pederson, a state party chair and businessman who had never held elected office; he lost by 9 points in a race that might have been winnable given how strong a year Democrats were having otherwise.

Early speculation is likely to center around the former Democratic governor, and now Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano. And ordinarily, a former governor would be a very strong candidate. But a recent survey by Public Policy Polling suggests that Ms. Napolitano has lost some of her luster since moving to Washington: 55 percent of Arizonans had an unfavorable view of her, versus 40 percent favorable.

Approval and favorability ratings can vary a lot from survey to survey, so it would be nice to have another data point to look at. But with those sort of numbers, she would have her work cut out for her against the most likely Republican nominee, Representative Jeff Flake. Although Mr. Flake is extremely conservative, he is also fairly polished; in order to win over the center of Arizona’s electorate, the Democrat would likely have to be seen as something other than a typical partisan, which is how Ms. Napolitano would probably be viewed after having served in Barack Obama’s cabinet.

Next in the pecking order would usually be a current U.S. representative. The Democrats have three of those in Arizona. One is Raúl Grijalva of the 7th Congressional district, who narrowly won re-election in November. But Mr. Grijalva, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and an ally of Nancy Pelosi’s, is probably too liberal to win a race statewide. Ed Pastor, the longtime incumbent in Phoenix’s 4th district, might be a more viable option, although as a 67-year-old who has not faced a competitive race in years, he might not be their most dynamic candidate.

The other Democrat is their congresswoman in the 8th district: Gabrielle Giffords. Had she not been shot in Tucson earlier this year, she would probably be their most formidable candidate — a telegenic moderate who had won her last three elections, under highly varied circumstances, in a district that is quite representative (both politically and demographically) of Arizona as a whole. Ms. Giffords, in fact, had contemplated entering the race had Mr. Kyl retired, according to the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza.

I apologize for the use of the past tense; Ms. Giffords, miraculously, is still with us, and her condition is improving. And some reports, like Mr. Cillizza’s, suggest that she could still conceivably be a candidate in 2012.

I would suggest, however, that there is a difference between our not being able to rule out a run by Ms. Giffords and it being anything more than a remote possibility. Recovery from severe brain injuries, to the extent it is achieved, often requires two to three years. And running for the United States Senate is something that would presumably require relatively full use of one’s mental faculties, even if Ms. Giffords would be graded sympathetically by voters.

This fairy-tale scenario aside, Democrats figure to have somewhat the weaker candidate in a somewhat Republican state. Although there a couple of other contingencies that need to be considered — in particular, how the Tucson shootings might reverberate on the race (apart from the prospect of Ms. Gifford’s candidacy), and whether Mr. Obama will make a play for the state in 2012 — their odds of winning in the Senate seat in Arizona are probably on the order of 20 or 25 percent.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.