Independent voters will decide Arizona’s historic female Senate race

Throughout most of U.S. history, races for the Senate have featured two men.

This year is different. Twenty-two women are running for the U.S. senate. Six senatorial contests feature two women competing against one another.

It’s no surprise that gender is a vital theme in these midterms contests. The #MeToo movement and the contentious Supreme Court hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh have emboldened sexual assault victims and advocates for the rights of the accused, social conservatives and progressives – and men and women. But, as we’ve seen here in Arizona, where I study and teach gender and political science, these categories are not mutually exclusive.

Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema are running to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake in one of the most competitive senatorial races in the country.

Both women are highly educated, have previous congressional experience and have been “trailblazers” in their own right. In 1991, McSally became the first woman to fly in combat, and she rose to the rank of colonel in the Air Force before retiring from the military. Sinema, who was homelessness for a time as a child, graduated from college at 18 and went on to get her law degree. A Ph.D. and MBA soon followed. She is the first openly bisexual member of Congress.

Whoever wins will be the first female senator from the state of Arizona.

And whoever wins will need independent voters.

No party dominates

That’s because no one party dominates in Arizona. Republicans make up 35 percent of all registered voters. Democrats are 30 percent. And people registered as “other” – the “independent” voters – make up 34 percent of the electorate.

So who are these independents – and are they more likely to back a Republican or a Democrat?

Traditionally, “independent” in Arizona has been code for “Republican.” To paraphrase Daniel Elazer’s classic “American Federalism: A view from the States,” Arizonans tend to “buck” traditional norms and established categories while hanging onto conservative principles. More recently however, journalists have noted a trend of independents not leaning toward one party or the other.

A recent New York Times poll suggested that the race is a dead heat – with 45 percent planning to vote for each candidate. Just a week before the election, an NBC/Marist poll showed Sinema ahead by 6 points, but the poll at a 5.4 margin of error.