PHOENIX — Republicans hope the victor of a 3-way primary will flip a Phoenix congressional district full of independent voters come November, but with a popular former mayor waiting, Democrats think they will keep it.
Arizona's 9th Congressional District seat is currently held by Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who is running for U.S. Senate to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake. Sinema is expected to win her primary. And looking to keep the House seat blue is former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who left his post in May to run for Congress and is unopposed in Tuesday's primary election. The two-term mayor was first elected in 2011.
The three Republicans - former Navy chief medical officer and veteran Steve Ferrara, returning candidate David Giles and longtime resident Irina Baroness Von Behr - will face off Tuesday. The winner will meet Stanton in November.
The sprawling district stretches from Phoenix into suburbs to the east. It is one of two open congressional seats this year in Arizona, a state that national Democrats have their eye on in their quest to win the House of Representatives. Holding onto the 9th District, which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, is an important piece of the puzzle — but former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel says it's a likely keep.
"Every single nonpartisan political ratings agency or political ratings organization says that it's either safe or a likely Democratic district," he said.
Democrats in Arizona are hoping for a "blue wave" in November, propelled by Sinema at the top of the ticket and a movement for increased school funding that led to a six-day teacher walkout this spring that drew widespread support in places like Phoenix's eastern suburbs. Democrats consider Stanton "one of the best recruits in the country," Israel said.
The district has a slight Democratic edge —130,682 registered Democrats, compared to 121,533 registered Republicans. But both parties are outnumbered by 136,635 unaffiliated voters — plus a thousand or so Green Party registrants and more than 4,500 Libertarians.
Stan Barnes, a Republican consultant in Arizona, said while Stanton may have name recognition and strong financial backing, the Republican nominee will have an "issue advantage" due to the Trump administration's economic gains and border policy. Those could be a factor with average voters who cast their ballots based on their personal experiences, he said.
"There is much to work with if you are a Republican underdog in a congressional district now held by a Democrat in Arizona," Barnes said.
Ferrara is holding onto the most campaign cash, with almost $735,000 on hand compared to Giles' $295 and Baroness Von Behr's $5,108 as of the end of June.
Ferrara has received endorsements from well-known Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. John Kyl and Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the late Sen. Goldwater, and state-level leaders like House Speaker J.D. Mesnard and Senate President Steve Yarbrough.
Despite his ties to establishment Republicans, Ferrara says he's ready and willing to work across the aisle to solve problems — the same kind of message that Sinema, a centrist Democrat, has used in her campaigns. At a recent event at a supporter's antique store in Phoenix, an attendee asked if Ferrara if he would join the Freedom Caucus. Ferrara said he wouldn't join any caucus except the one for doctors.
"In the military I deployed under three presidents — two Democrats and one Republican," he told The Associated Press. "We were all about the mission and solving problems and that's what people want."
Giles, who worked in the oil business and at Wells Fargo, is a recurring candidate. In 2016, he won the Republican primary then lost by more than 20 points to Sinema. This cycle, he's doubled down on his support for President Donald Trump and policies like building a border wall.
Baroness Von Behr previously ran for Tempe City Council. Her face has been visible to motorists from a digital billboard off of Interstate 10. In Congress, she wants to address making health care more affordable.
Stanton thinks voters in the district are fed up with Trump administration policies on a bipartisan basis. It's one reason why he believes he'll sail to victory, citing his experience in running Arizona's largest city.
"We need that proven track record more than ever," Stanton said.
Jennifer Ferguson, a Republican in the Phoenix part of the district, said she's backing Ferrara in the primary. She praised Ferrara's military and medical background, saying she believes he can stay cool under pressure.
"He's also got a calm demeanor, I don't think he's ever going to lose his cool and just fly off the handle and do something not well-thought out," she said.
Ferguson thinks the district could flip to Republican. She associates Stanton with the expansion of Phoenix's light rail, which she calls a poor use of taxpayer dollars.
"I would hope that people who are independent, if they listen to (Ferrara's) presentation, would see that he is willing to solve problems," she said.