In election year, Ducey aims at middle ground
State of the State lacked hot-button issues, openings for opponents
“There’s nothing that’s going to happen from here on out that doesn’t have something to do with the 2018 election. It’s election season. And we’re in it.” David Berman, senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, on Gov. Doug Ducey’s approach
Facing re-election, Gov. Doug Ducey used his most important moment of the year to appeal for unity.
This week, in his final State of the State address before asking voters to return him to the executive office, the Republican governor was not the bigtalking candidate of three years ago.
He did not take on hot-button social issues or unveil a signature policy issue, other than education funding — one he has long discussed.
Ducey sought to avoid a repeat of last year’s speech, in which he raised hopes of a bipartisan approach to education and significant pay raises for teachers. He gave Democrats few openings to attack him, though they did pounce on his lack of details.
The speech was so safe, it could have been delivered by any of his rivals — and several political observers say that was by design.
He invoked issues that should bridge any political or ideological divide, such as fighting opioid abuse, seizing illegal drugs and guns at the border, and going after impaired wrong-way drivers.
From a purely political standpoint, observers say, Ducey’s 56-minute speech Monday afternoon was likely intended to appeal to moderate voters — particularly Republican women and independents, a portion of the electorate that traditionally is up for grabs.
“He’s tailoring it for a broad appeal ... and he’s
floating the net to make this group happy and that group happy,” David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said of Ducey’s approach.
“He’s trying to do what he can to prevent some kind of disaster for himself and for the Republican Party here. There’s nothing that’s going to happen from here on out that doesn’t have something to do with the 2018 election. It’s election season. And we’re in it.” In an interview with The Arizona Republic prior to giving his address, Ducey, 53, said that for him, election time won’t start until the legislative session ends.
“Then begins the campaign season,” he said. “Then begins the political cycle. But I’ve got a day job this time around, and I’m going to focus on it.”
The last time Ducey ran, he was state treasurer.
Ducey, also a former CEO, was first elected in 2014 on promises to not raise taxes while reducing the income tax, cut regulations, support the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, and defend the right to life.
Ducey has drawn two well-known Democratic challengers: Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, and David Garcia, an associate professor at Arizona State University.
The Democratic candidates contend the race is competitive, and the national Democratic Governors Association has targeted the race and has already taken shots at Ducey.
Ducey and his aides appear confident, given the state’s estimated 4point GOP registration advantage, his fundraising capabilities, his connections to the conservative Koch donor network and the advantages of incumbency.
The speech, said Republican consultant Chuck Coughlin, “seemed like it was a checklist of things he wanted to check off ” ahead of his campaign launch. “And he did that.”
Ducey is most vulnerable on education-funding issues.
Over the past three years, he has faced intense pressure to get more money to public schools and has been besieged with criticism by activists, public-school proponents and some business leaders.
They say he has focused more on cutting taxes than on finding significant additional funding for students and teachers because of potential resistance from fiscally focused Republicans.
Among many in that crowd — and to the governor’s frustration — he has received little credit for resolving a longstanding lawsuit stemming from the state’s underfunding of public schools since the Great Recession.
In 2016, Ducey muscled through his ballot initiative, Proposition 123, that used the state land trust to give schools less money than voters had intended, but resolved the dispute.
He was silent on Proposition 301, the state’s 0.6 percent sales tax that funds education and will soon expire, though he reiterated frequent talking points about some top-performing schools, teacher pay and his “full commitment to accelerate” K-12 spending.
“In fact, 80 percent of our new budget priorities” will be dedicated to public education, he said.
He did not offer a dollar figure. The next day, Ducey announced a plan he said would “reverse Recessionera cuts” to school funding, starting with $100 million “permanent” and “flexible” school capital funding.
He said his 2019 budget proposal, which he will release today, would also provide $300 million in additional funding for other areas of K-12. That figure includes required funding for student growth and inflation.
“There will be many that will say that’s not enough,” said Coughlin, the GOP consultant. “But in an ’18 cycle, that sounds like liberal screaming, and he can say, ‘It’s never enough for you (education advocates).’ ”
Beyond education, Ducey charted a benign route through mainstream Arizona issues: safety on highways. Bolstering the state’s water supply. Helping freed prisoners rejoin society. Expanding his program to let parents take newborns to work.
Observers said only the most hyperpartisan voters could argue with the agenda.
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” said Republican consultant Matthew Benson, the former spokesman for exGov. Jan Brewer.
The governor called for a concurrent special session to tackle the opioid epidemic, a crisis claiming hundreds of lives and touching the poor and rich, rural and suburban, educated and uneducated.
“For grandparents and soccer moms — for everybody — it’s a family issue,” said Andrew Clark, an independent with libertarian leanings, and the state director for Americans for Prosperity. “You know somebody who’s been on drugs or who has OD’d.”
He wrapped his income-tax plan around veterans, a potent constituency, taking the issue of reducing state revenues away from critics.
He brandished his Second Amendment credentials with five words buried midway through his speech. It was tucked into a heartfelt story about a Good Samaritan — a former felon, no less — with a gun who saved the life of a state trooper.
“Thomas Yoxall says the good Lord put him there that day — and we are blessed that he did,” Ducey said. “And that fact, combined with the Second Amendment and a citizens’ God-given right to keep and bear arms, ended up saving Trooper (Ed) Andersson’s life.”
Ducey made a public overture toward Mexico, the United States’ oldest neighbor, but one that has taken the brunt of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
And he completely avoided illegal immigration, a divisive subject that helped propel Trump to the White House, but one that creates problems with moderate and Latino voters.
With his silence, he kept his Democratic rivals — namely Garcia, who is banking on a strong turnout from traditionally underrepresented voters such as Latinos — from scoring points.
Ducey stuck to his economic message, using the speech to play up the importance of trade with Mexico. He struck a distinctly different stance than Trump, who has said the U.S. is on the losing end of the the North American Free Trade Agreement.
He went further, inviting the leader of a foreign state, Sonoran Gov. Claudia Pavlovich, as his guest; she sat alongside his wife, Angela. Since the earliest days of Ducey’s governorship, Pavlovich, the first woman governor of the Mexican state, has served as the embodiment of his administration’s economic ties to Mexico.
“That actually did strike me as bold,” said Richard Herrera, an ASU associate professor of political science who studies the state’s governors.
“At a time when people are still talking about border walls in Arizona, and the relationship between Mexico, and the political and economic relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, not being painted in a positive light by many state and national politicians ... that actually is a really good move on his part.”
It is a message that could also resonate with business-minded voters, southern Arizona voters and Latinos. The governor’s remarks centered on the states’ trade, economies, jobs and increased border security.
Ducey did not mention illegal immigration but touted the work of a state bureau, known as the Border Strike Force, that has seized illegal guns, drugs and ammunition. He framed the seizures as a public-safety issue as opposed to traditional border-security enforcement.
Benson said Ducey approached the topic in a way that could make voters feel he is keeping them safe.
“By talking about it in that way, he’s avoiding what would be a controversial side of the issue,” he said: “Does the state have a role in border security?”
Ducey opened his speech with an anti-sexual-harassment message that would appeal to one of the state’s most coveted voting blocs: women.
That portion of the electorate helped Democrats take the Virginia governor’s office in November and will be a potent force during Arizona’s general election.
Ducey’s remarks drew bipartisan applause.
And his biggest occupational-licensing reform, a favorite of special-interest groups such as the Goldwater Institute, would most affect women who patronize hairstyling businesses.
Ducey endorsed legislation by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, that would eliminate regulations on hairstylists who blow-dry hair.
The governor said the state requires too much training and experience, and Ugenti-Rita has said lobbyists from a well-known blowout bar, Drybar, approached her about the legislation.
The company is known for its fast blowouts and hairstyles that can be done in less than an hour.
Blowouts cost $45 (not including tip), generally making the service something for women with discretionary income.
Drybar has a location in east Phoenix and two in Scottsdale, some of the state’s highest-income areas that are home to many high-efficacy voters.
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said the shout-out for the legislation was “condescending” in light of other issues women in particular fight for.
For example, she said, Ugenti-Rita’s bill that would make it illegal for children younger than 18 to marry, even with a parent’s consent, is more weighty than a “cotton candy” issue of hair-drying.
“I would not be surprised if the intent was to play into the base, given the locations” of the blowout businesses, she said. “And that would play to a segment of the (Republican) base.”
“I’ve got a day job this time around, and I’m going to focus on it.” Gov. Doug Ducey, on waiting until the end of the legislative session to think about his re-election campaign
Gov. Doug Ducey delivers his State of the State address Monday at the state Capitol in Phoenix. The speech was notable for its lack of controversial topics — and several political observers said that was by design.
Gov. Doug Ducey speaks during his State of the State address Monday. Beyond education, Ducey charted a benign route in the speech.