Redistricting and Democrats' stalled agenda put this blue Arizona House seat in play
The path to keeping the Democrats' majority in the House of Representatives in November's midterms runs right through the Valley of the Sun in Arizona. Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton, a former mayor of Phoenix, won his district handily in 2020, but a redrawn map landed him on the GOP list of targeted lawmakers in 2022.
The Republican field to take him on is diverse and determined to make the race about President Biden and the Democratic majority's record in Washington, while Stanton zeroes in on local issues.
The 4th Congressional District's political breakdown could mirror that of the state's overall — roughly a third Democrats, a third Republicans and a third independents.
Border and immigration issues are prominent
Tanya Wheeless is one of the six GOP candidates vying for the nomination to challenge Stanton in November. The Republican primary is more than three months away but Wheeless stands out in the field, having secured the endorsements of top House GOP leaders like Elise Stefanik and the backing of the Congressional Leadership Fund, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's super PAC, to help her compete.
After touring 21st Century Healthcare, a vitamin and supplement manufacturing company based in Tempe, Wheeless sat down with the company's leadership.
"What are the issues that you want me to go to Washington and fight for?" she asked.
Steve Snyder, the CEO, didn't hesitate.
"My first and foremost, it's immigration. Why are we playing games with these folks? If people want to come here and they want to work, we need workers," he said, before adding with a sigh: "And get the politics out of it."
Snyder said his company has not only had difficulty filling open positions, but also keeping workers that are in Arizona on green cards and are forced to leave because of government logjams with paperwork.
Wheeless told NPR she would support a targeted, not comprehensive, immigration bill in Congress.
"[Republicans are] really passionate about getting more boots on the ground for Border Patrol, [Democrats] really want something done on Dreamers, let's talk and see what we can do," she said.
But when it comes to immigration, the debate right now is less about bringing in workers and more about border security.
Stanton deliberately put distance between himself and the Biden administration when it comes to the border, especially its plan to lift Title 42 next month — a policy put in place under former President Donald Trump that barred migrants from entering the country during the pandemic.
"I've been critical of this administration for not doing more on getting a modernized immigration system that advances our economy, including immigration reform," Stanton told NPR in his Phoenix office. "And I've been critical on the lack of preparedness for what's going to happen at the border if Title 42 goes away."
He sidestepped a question about whether the president or other high ranking administration officials need to visit the border, repeating his critique: "I need to see that this administration has a strong plan to prepare for what may happen, and I haven't seen it yet."
A new Arizona map is less favorable to Democrats
Stanton won his reelection bid two years ago in what had been the 9th Congressional District by more than 20 points. The new map, which carves out Scottsdale and parts of Phoenix and adds redder areas of Mesa to the new 4th District, is less favorable to Democrats.
But Stanton insists his strategy for the 2022 campaign won't change from his earlier bids for local office and for Congress.
"I'm going to talk a lot about my record because I am a mayor at heart," he said. "I have a track record of success and a track record of successfully reaching across the aisle to get things done for the people that I represent. That's always been how I've operated. That's always how I'm going to operate."
That record includes bipartisan efforts in Congress, including the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed the Senate last August. Stanton touts his seat on the panel that crafted the bill.
The Arizona Democrat spent much of the two week spring recess pointing to his track record at steering federal money – earmarks in this year's spending bill – to his district. After the GOP banned them for years, arguing the practice was corrupt and added to overspending, Democrats brought them back. Members of both parties, especially those in competitive seats, are highlighting the federal infusion into local projects.
"I work very closely with the cities that I'm lucky enough to represent in Congress, to go after their priorities, and the best way to do that is through the community project funding process," Stanton said. "There were some really good ones: water projects for the city of Chandler, helping small business in the city of Mesa."
But some of Stanton's constituents say, while those projects are fine, Democrats in Washington overpromised on what they could get done.
"It reminds me of a high school, like when there was someone running for class president," said Christina Sykes, an independent voter from Mesa. "They're like, 'We're going to give you pizza every day for lunch and Kool Aid in the water fountains.' So I'm like, well, you know, show up! You guys not showing up."
Democratic voters are also feeling disappointment
"They don't have anything to show. You have the House, the Senate, the White House, what did you accomplish?" asked Democrat Kelly Knepper. "I'm still waiting for student loan debt to be canceled."
Her partner Brian Knepper said Democrats made inroads in certain areas like pandemic aid and the confirmation of the first Black female Supreme Court justice, but aren't advertising their successes effectively.
"I think the things they didn't do are outshining the things they did do," he said. "In 10 years, we're going to recognize the benefits of a lot of this legislation and the impact it's had on this country, but no one is talking that up now and so no credit is being given for the accomplishments."
Knepper didn't mince words when it came to expectations for November:
"It feels like almost a foregone conclusion that they are going to lose the House and the Senate as soon as it is possible."
When asked about demoralized Democrats and concerns over potential low turnout in the midterm election, Stanton repeatedly said his strategy is keeping the conversation local and reminding constituents about his ties here.
"I've successfully won all of [my] elections by doing exactly what I'm going to do in this election: let people know who I am and what I have done," he said. "The voters know who has gone to work for them in advancing their interests and they also trust me."
COVID shutdowns loom large
Mike Tomlinson, from Chandler, is a conservative voter. He points to inflation and border security as issues people in the area are feeling now, but says he's focused on education, and that the memory of kids being kept out of classrooms during the pandemic still stings.
"Kids lost out on, gosh, 18 months, two years of schooling," he said. "I had a son that graduated in 2020, and, you know, there wasn't really a graduation."
Diane Ortiz-Parsons, a Republican from Mesa, is engaged in local campaigns and a retired teacher. She said the impact of the pandemic is still a major issue.
"I'm concerned about the amount of depression that I see. I hear of people's kids that are needing to go to therapy," she said. "Our churches are overwhelmed with people that need extra help right now."
Republican challengers like Wheeless say the way the pandemic was handled is part of the reason people will vote to switch party control of Congress.
"What I'm hearing from people is they're very unhappy with some key kitchen table issues," Wheeless said. "'My kids were locked out of school, the price of gas has gone up, it costs me more when I go to the grocery store. That ain't good and I want change.'"
Stanton said he plans to spend time back home talking about how Congress provided COVID-relief, like loans to businesses who were able to keep their doors open.
"We're going to talk about the work that we did during the worst pandemic in a hundred years to support families so that they could pay their bills and pay the rent."
Turning out the vote
Hispanic voters in the district are expected to be targeted by both parties.
Wheeless, whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, says she's a candidate who can help Republicans extend the inroads they made with Hispanic voters in the last election.
"We've got a message that particularly resonates with the Hispanic community, which is about faith, freedom, entrepreneurship," she said.
Stanton maintained he's been able to attract support from voters across the political spectrum.
Ortiz-Parsons, who said Democrats have "taken Hispanic voters for granted," added that she thinks Biden's low approval ratings will help swing independent voters to her party.
"Our greatest friend right now is President Biden. I expect real close to a complete sweep, because he's showing how poorly Democrats can run the country," she said. "All those independents, I'm expecting them to come our way."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
To maintain control of the U.S. House this coming fall, Democrats are going to have to defend some districts they used to win solidly, like Arizona's 4th District, where the redrawing of legislative maps may give Republicans an opening. NPR's Deirdre Walsh reports.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have three...
TANYA WHEELESS: Hi.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Automated lines here. You can see the various three different products running on each one. We have a melatonin product, a mega-multi-women's product and then a product...
DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Republican candidate Tanya Wheeless is touring 21st Century Health, a vitamin and supplement manufacturing company based in Tempe, which is part of the new district she's hoping to represent.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Up through this cylinder and then down, fed through the machine.
WHEELESS: This reminds me of when I was little. You know, you'd watch, like, "Sesame Street" and they'd...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.
WHEELESS: ...Tell you, like, how it's made. I feel like...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.
WHEELESS: ...I'm getting to do that right now (laughter).
WALSH: After the tour, Wheeless sat down with the company's leaders, including CEO Steven Snyder.
WHEELESS: What are the issues that you want me to go to Washington and fight for?
STEVEN SNYDER: My first and foremost, it's immigration.
SNYDER: Why are we playing games with these folks? The people want to come here, and they want to work. We need workers. And, you know, get the politics out of it.
WALSH: Wheeless is one of the six GOP candidates vying to challenge Democratic Congressman Greg Stanton on November's ballot. The primary is more than three months away, but she already has the endorsements of top House GOP leaders. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's super PAC is already pledging resources to help her compete. Wheeless, whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, says she's a candidate who can help Republicans extend the inroads they made with Hispanic voters in the last election.
WHEELESS: We've got a message that particularly resonates with the Hispanic community, which is about faith, freedom, entrepreneurship.
WALSH: And when it comes to immigration, the debate is less about bringing in workers and more about border security. Stanton, a Democrat, deliberately puts some distance between himself and the president when it comes to the border.
GREG STANTON: I've been critical of this administration for not doing more on getting a modernized immigration system that advances our economy, including immigration reform.
WALSH: Stanton says he has a record to run on, and there are some issues where he stands with the president.
STANTON: We passed the largest infrastructure investment bill in American history in a bipartisan way.
WALSH: But voters here say Democrats in Washington overpromised on what they could get done. Here's Christina Sykes, an independent voter from Mesa.
CHRISTINA SYKES: It reminds me of high school. Like, when there was someone running for class president, and they're like, oh, we're going to give you pizza every day for lunch and Kool-Aid in the water fountains. Show up. Like, you guys are not showing up.
WALSH: Even Democratic voters, like Kelly Knepper from Tempe, feel let down.
KELLY KNEPPER: They don't have anything to show. You have the House, the Senate, the White House. What did you accomplish? I'm still waiting for, like, student loan debt to be canceled.
WALSH: Her partner, Brian Knepper, didn't mince his words.
BRIAN KNEPPER: It feels like almost a foregone conclusion that they are going to lose the House and the Senate as soon as it is possible.
WALSH: Stanton won reelection in 2020 by a wide margin. The district then included more of Phoenix, where he was previously mayor. Now his district has fewer Democrats, and a lot of them are demoralized. But when asked about that, Stanton repeatedly told NPR he wasn't changing his strategy.
STANTON: I'm going to talk a lot about my record because I am a mayor at heart.
WALSH: He pointed to his ability to steer federal money, earmarks in this year's spending bill, to his district.
STANTON: There were some really good ones - water projects for the city of Chandler, helping small business in the city of Mesa.
WALSH: He also touted how Congress sent COVID relief to his constituents.
STANTON: We're going to talk about the work that we did, during the worst pandemic in a hundred years, to support families so they had the resources in their pockets so that they could pay their bills, pay the rent.
WALSH: But Mike Tomlinson from Chandler, who says he's conservative, says the memory of kids kept out of classrooms during the pandemic still stings.
MIKE TOMLINSON: You know, kids lost out on, gosh, 18 months, two years of schooling. I had a son that graduated in 2020, and, you know, there wasn't really a graduation.
WALSH: Republican challengers, like Wheeless, say the way the pandemic was handled is part of the reason voters will move to switch party control of Congress.
WHEELESS: What I'm hearing from people is they're very unhappy with some key kitchen-table issues. My kids were locked out of school. The price of gas has gone up. That ain't good, and I want change.
WALSH: Stanton's strategy is to keep it local and zero in on what he delivered for his district. Republicans want to nationalize the election, make it a referendum on President Biden's record and connect to issues that people feel very personally.
Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, Tempe, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.