Arizona: The Battleground State With The Sharpest Divides

October 2, 2020 by Dan McCue
(Photo courtesy the Maricopa County Democratic Party)

You can call it the battleground state with the sharpest divisions. Like the jagged edges that course through the Grand Canyon, Arizona’s political landscape is marked by sharp distinctions, shadows and hazardous crevices.

As the Oct. 7 start of early voting in the state approaches, Joe Biden enjoys a lead in most polls over President Donald Trump. The RealClearPolitics average of polls for Sept. 11 through Sept. 20 has the former Democratic vice president up by 3.4% over Trump, leading him 48.2% to 44.8%.

The polls rolled into that average range from an ABC News/Washington Post poll of likely voters that had Trump up by 1% to a New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters that had Biden up 9%.

And Biden’s edge seems to be sticking. As of Sept. 29, the website fivethirtyeight.com had the Democrat up 3.6%, leading Trump 48.5% to 44.9%.

What’s more, the trend lines in the state appear to be making it a more favorable battleground for Democrats up and down the ticket.

This summer, and for the first time in a decade, Democrats supplanted independents as Arizona’s second largest voting bloc.

According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s website, as of August 2020, there were 3,989,214 registered voters in the state.

Of these, 1,389,960 or 38.8% were registered Republicans; 1,293,074, or 32.4% were Democrats; while 1,273,215, or 31.9% registered as “other” and 32,965, or 0.8% as Libertarians.

Little wonder then that Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the nonpartisan political newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, ranks Arizona, with its 11 Electoral College votes, as the best target for Democrats among the usually Republican Sun Belt states.

Home State of Goldwater Historically Conservative

Such a victory would indeed be noteworthy, as since 1952, Arizonians have voted Republican for president every election but one — in 1996. It’s still, as far as many are concerned, a staunchly conservative state that proudly calls the late Sens. Barry Goldwater and John McCain favorite sons.

What’s changed — figuratively and literally — is the face of the population that calls the state home.

Though still predominantly White (54%), immigration and in-migration, primarily from California, have left their mark. Hispanics now comprise nearly a third of the state (32%), with 5% identifying as Black, 5% Native American and 4% Asian-American.

At some point in the not too distant future, Arizona will join California, Hawaii, Maryland, New Mexico and Nevada as one of only seven states in the union with majority-minority populations.

Since minority populations tend to vote Democratic, this all augurs well for Democrats flipping the state. Already, in 2018, the state elected its first Democratic senator since 1988, Kyrsten Sinema, and five of Arizona’s nine congressional seats are now held by Democrats.

But for all this, it should be remembered Republicans are by no means finished in the state.

Exit polls in Arizona in 2016, found that 42% of voters identified themselves as “conservative,” while 32% said they were moderate and 27% liberal.

Among those voters who self-identified as conservative, 82% voted for Trump, and he garnered strong support from Mormons, who comprise 6% of the population.

Trump also did well in 2016 with older voters who have flocked to Arizona, making it one of the country’s top retirement locations.

About a quarter of those who voted in 2016 were 65 or over, and of this group, most preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton, 55% to 42%.

Hispanic Vote Could be Key

Dr. Stephen Nuño-Perez, a senior analyst at Latino Decisions, a firm specializing in Hispanic political research, is among those who believe the Hispanic vote will be the key to Biden defeating Trump, who won the state 51% to 46% just four years ago.

“I think what sets Arizona apart the most from other battleground states is the stark demographic divide between the Spanish and Whites here,” Nuño-Perez said.

“There are these two very different populations and those differences contribute to a lot of the conversations that Arizona has sort of been known for over the last 15 years,” he said.

The Hispanic population is young, with a median age of about 27; while the median age of the White population is about 47, according to Latin Decisions research.

The result is two populations, living side by side, who have very different needs and interests and things they want from the government.

For instance, though Hispanics currently represent about a third of the population, they also account for roughly 60% of the k-12 public school population– benefiting from a system paid for by comparatively wealthy, older White people in the state.

At the same time, Arizona’s sizable retirement population relies on younger neighbors to provide the local base while working in teaching, nursing and other professions.

Nuño-Perez, who holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Irvine, said the differences between the populations ultimately leads to tensions.

In 2005, Arizona passed a highly restrictive Voter ID law that was later struck down by a court that found it prejudicially applied to immigrants.

In 2010, the state adopted Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, also known as Arizona SB 1070, that at the time was the broadest and strictest anti–illegal immigration measure passed in the United States.

Federal law requires aliens 18 and older to possess any certificate of alien registration issued to him or her at all times; violation of this requirement is a federal misdemeanor crime.

The law barred state and local officials or agencies from restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws, and imposed penalties on those sheltering, hiring and transporting unregistered aliens.

“It’s little wonder that Arizona became a flashpoint for the immigration debate,” Nuño-Perez said. “The stark reality you see here is just something you really don’t see in other states.”

This year, the hot-button issue isn’t immigration but COVID-19, which struck Arizona particularly hard.

“There’s no question, the coronavirus has sucked the air out of the room” Nuño-Perez said.

“Our tracking polls show that about one third of Hispanics know someone who died of COVID-19,” he said. “So it’s a huge concern and it’s dominating the electoral conversation right now; that, and access to health care.

“What’s been interesting is what’s happened to discrimination as an issue,” Nuño-Perez said. “In 2016, it was front and center. Now, it’s third or fourth, though I think in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the Latino population sees it as a much broader problem than in the past, something that should be of concern to the entire country.”

Maricopa County Demographics Morphing

Sitting at the center of all this is Maricopa County, which Edder Diaz-Martinez, spokesman for the Maricopa County Democratic Party, unreservedly called, “the number one battleground county in the country.”

“That’s because if Trump wins both Florida and Wisconsin, Biden must win the state of Arizona to prevail in the Electoral College,” he explained.

“To win Arizona, you must win Maricopa County,” he said.

Maricopa, which encompasses Phoenix and its predominantly White suburbs, including Scottsdale, Chandler, and Glendale, represents about 64% of likely voters. Its changing demographics are the reason Arizona is in play this year.

“It’s a reflection of the change that’s occurred all over the state,” Diaz-Martinez said. “Currently, 42.2% of the state’s population is nonwhite, and the Hispanic population alone makes up 30% of the state’s residents.”

In Maricopa County itself, Nuño-Perez said, “the ratio of Hispanics to Whites is about 1-in-4, but in Phoenix, the Hispanic population is growing fast and now makes up nearly half of the population.” 

That’s significant he said, because historically, “As Phoenix goes, with its population of about 1.7 million, so goes the state.”

He went on to explain another key to Phoenix’s importance in Arizona elections, is that it’s “more of a cohesive political entity.”

“That gives it some structural advantages that other parts of the state don’t have,” he said.

As is the case in other states, moderate swing voters in the Phoenix suburbs are seen as being key to Biden’s chances.

“There are two reasons for this,” said Thomas John Volgy, professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona. “For one thing, Republicans are losing suburban women, but at the same time, there’s also a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo and the White House,” he said.

“The president is likely holding his base [in Arizona], but he cannot win without a majority of independents, who are moving towards Democrats,” the professor added.

One Biden campaign official, speaking on background, put it this way: “It wasn’t all that long ago that people like former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio held sway in the state; that’s just not true anymore.”

Arpaio became a national figure when he started arresting immigrants solely on suspicion that they were in the country illegally.

He failed in his re-election bid for what would have been a record seventh term as sheriff in November 2016, shortly after he was charged with contempt of court for having ignored a federal judge’s order to stop his infamous arrests.

But he continued to have his admirers. In August 2017, President Trump pardoned Arpaio, after the ex-sheriff had been convicted on the contempt charge. In doing so, Trump said he admired Arpaio’s efforts to protect the public “from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”

His continued anti-immigrant rhetoric, and his ongoing bro-fest with Arpaio aren’t likely to make him any more popular with Hispanics this time around.

Trump did not do well among Hispanics in Arizona in 2016, getting just 31% of that vote, compared to 61% who voted for Clinton, according to exit polls.

Diaz-Martinez said dissatisfaction with President Trump has significantly driven up political participation in the state since then.

“It’s certainly been the predominant factor,” he said. “Our precinct committee member numbers have more than doubled since 2016.

“There are people who we might otherwise call ‘neighborhood leaders’ or ‘organizers,’ and we now have well over 1,600 confirmed members,” he said.

Diaz-Martinez said there has also been a large increase in civic engagement interest in the Black and Latinx communities.

“Countless new organizations have been established throughout the years to boost voter participation and engagement,” he said. “Thousands of newly registered voters have now been added to the polls. The Maricopa County Recorder’s office has just confirmed that there are now 2.5 million registered voters across the county – making it the second-largest voting jurisdiction in the country – second to Los Angeles County.”

The 2018 midterm elections illustrated just how much ground Republicans are losing in the state.

Clinton lost Arizona in 2016, but she only lost Maricopa County by 3 percentage points, 48% to 45% — the best showing by a Democratic presidential candidate there in two decades — and she became the first Democrat since John F. Kennedy to do better in the county than she did in the rest of the state, which Trump won by 5%.

In 2018, Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally garnered just 30% of the Hispanic vote, going down in defeat to Kyrsten Sinema, who by netting 70% of the Hispanic vote became the first Democrat elected to statewide office in more than a decade.

Sinema also won Maricopa County 51% to 47% while losing the rest of the state 49% to 48%.

Professor Volgy suggested Sinema’s victory may well have been the moment the historically Republican state turned purple.

“It looks like that trajectory, that momentum towards purple status has continued since then,” Volgy said. 

“We’ll find out on Election Day,” he added.

McSally Seen In Tough Spot In Changing State

Martha McSally, of course, was later named by Gov. Doug Ducey to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain and is up for re-election in November. This year she is running for the seat for the first time.

Despite Sinema’s victory in 2018, Nuño-Perez said what he described as a “white supremacist influence Arpaio represents” is “still alive” in sections of Maricopa County and more rural parts of the state.

“There’s no question it’s still a force in Arizona politics,” he said, and he suggested it’s manifesting itself in this year’s high-profile U.S. Senate race between McSally and Democrat and former astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords.

“I mean, they’ve basically taken over the Republican party, after carrying out a revolt against the Bush wing of the GOP,” he added.

For most of the race, Kelly has enjoyed commanding leads in the polls, and the current RealClearPolitics average of polls has him up by 5.2%.

Nuño-Perez believes the current state of the Republican party in the state has made it nearly impossible for McSally to moderate her positions and perhaps pick up enough independent support to climb back into the race.

“In the meantime, you have candidates running against her, like Sinema and Mark Kelly, who ideologically are not so different from Jeff Flake and John McCain. They’re pretty moderate,” he said.

At the same time, he said, there are whispers that the Bush wing of the GOP, unhappy with its loss of control over the state Republican party, has been quietly making inroads, chipping away at the more right-wing faction.

“That’s why it’s so tricky for McSally and others, because she has to maintain the support of the base, but determining who that base really is is tricky, and it’s shedding numbers all the time,” Nuño-Perez said.

Professor Volgy said it’s not just McSally who is caught up in this, it’s also President Trump himself.

“I think this is happening around the country. I don’t see it any more or less here,” Volgy said. “If there is any difference on this between Arizona and the rest of the United States, it may be that the president’s constant insulting of John McCain and his legacy did not help with some Republicans on the fence.

“Of course, there aren’t a lot of Republicans on the fence, but some of the independents who used to be Republicans would fit into that category,” he said.

It should be noted here that The Well News reached out to the state Republican party, as well as the campaigns of McSally and Rep. David Schweikert, via email and through their campaign websites. None responded to requests for comment.

Diaz-Martinez maintains McSally values have simply never resonated with Arizonan.

“Crucially, she’s closely aligned herself with Trump, causing her to do worse over time,” he said.

“Mark Kelly, of course, rose in the public consciousness after his wife, Rep. Giffords, was shot at a campaign event, and he’s since emerged as a strong public advocate for sensible gun law reform.

“He’s also seen as a strong, independent leader, with a track record of service to our country — first as a Navy combat pilot, then as an astronaut,” the Democrat said.

Nuño-Perez said another factor in both the Trump/Biden and McSally/Kelly races is that times — and prejudices — have simply changed in Arizona.

“I think there was a point when even the country club Republicans, members of the Bush GOP, took advantage of immigration as a tool to mobilize folks to vote for lower taxes or greater flexibility in development, but it’s not being as tolerated anymore,” he said.

“One reason, of course, is that the Hispanic population has grown so significantly here, but another part of it is just greater understanding. I mean, when you had DACA kids sharing their stories, that disarmed a lot of the fear and resentment,” he said.

“And remember, the economy hasn’t been too bad, especially in Arizona,” he continued.

Indeed Arizona has experienced a tech renaissance in recent years, with businesses like GoDaddy, PayPal and Boeing all being lured to the state and setting up shop in its East Valley, near Phoenix.

This tech boom in what’s known as the “East Valley Technology Corridor” has attracted thousands of new people to the area.

In 2000, Diaz-Martinez said, Latinx adults made up only 21.3% of the state’s population. In 2010 they made up 25%. From 2000 to 2010 the state’s Hispanic population increased by 48.4%. In 2010 Arizona had 766,000 eligible Hispanic voters—approximately 18 percent of eligible voters in the state.  Arizona is projected to have a 108% population increase from 2000 to 2030. 

“As the population size continues to grow, so will the electorate,” he said. 

“Times were good before COVID. Maricopa County was probably among the fastest growing counties in the entire country,” Nuño-Perez agreed. “And people sort of realized that Hispanics are part of the engine of this economy.

“That’s when you started seeing suburban folks start peeling off from the siren call of the rural folks who saw the state changing and really wanted to go back to the way it was,” he added.

Volgy said a number of factors have contributed to the political shift in Arizona, but likely none so much as the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the professor, Trump’s handling of the pandemic, coupled with how hard hit Arizona was by it, cost the president in terms of older voters and suburban households.

As of Sept. 29, Arizona has had 217,510 confirmed cases of the coronavirus since the onset of the pandemic in March, including 3,259 in the past seven days. The death rate from the virus in Arizona is currently 78 per 100,000 people.

Republicans in the state, speaking on background, expressed the fear that if things go south in this election, the party will go into a kind of death spiral in which the activists and more right-wing leaders rationalize their losses, adopting the attitude that “it wasn’t that we have fewer supporters, it’s because we didn’t stick to our values.”

The nightmare is that the redistricting that so favored the Republicans in the past, will now result in deep red, but isolated pockets in Arizona, while the rest of the state moves in another direction.

“What you wind up with is a party that can’t put up candidates who can win in a general election,” one of these Republicans said. “And it’s compounded by the fact that they will also need very radical candidates in order to win in the primaries.”

Nuño-Perez shared that assessment. “It’s a situation where you have a party developing a systemic problem,” he said.

“And I think there are a lot of country club Republicans and folks like Gov. Doug Ducey who are very concerned that dynamic is playing out in Arizona,” he said.

Crucial Race in 6th Congressional District

This year’s must-watch U.S. House race in Arizona is in the 6th Congressional District where incumbent Republican Rep. David Schweikert is facing a stiff challenge from Dr. Hiral Tipirneni.

The staunchly Republican district encompasses a piece of Maricopa County and the northeastern suburbs of Phoenix. Trump carried the district by 10 percentage points in 2016, and Martha McSally carried the district by 3 percentage points over Kyrsten Sinema in 2018.

But Schweikert has been dogged by scandal. In July, the House Ethics Committee determined that the congressman had violated 11 chamber rules and federal laws, including campaign finance violations; misuse of campaign funds for personal reasons; errors in reporting contributions; misusing congressional office funds; pressuring staff to conduct campaign work; and stonewalling tactics that were evasive and delayed the two-year investigation.

Among the worst violations committed by Schweikert were that his former chief of staff made more than $270,000 in “impermissible outlays” on behalf of the campaign over several years; the campaign failed to properly report some $300,000 in loans, including a “fictitious loan” for $100,000 that Schweikert falsely claimed he made to the campaign; and a failure to report more than $140,000 in contributions.

Schweikert agreed to pay a $50,000 fine, and he was formally sanctioned in the House by a voice vote.

Tipirneni, a medical doctor, immediately issued a statement that said, “Arizonans are sick and tired of Rep. Schweikert breaking the law to take advantage of his office all while voting to hike health care costs and take away Social Security benefits from his constituents.”

But Schweikert is unbowed, telling KTAR radio in a recent interview that he’s confident voters will return him to Washington.

“You never want to downplay a race, you take everything serious, but you do have this thing called math,” Schweikert said during the interview.

“This is a district she does not live in, she has not run in this district—she ran in a district out on the west side a couple of times and lost there—and the math makes it very clear, particularly in a presidential race, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Diaz-Martinez suggested that the numbers might not be what Schweikert thinks they are.

“In 2012, Mitt Romney won this district by 21 percentage points. In 2016, Trump won the district by only 10 points,” he said.

A recent poll conducted by the progressive firm GQR for Tipirneni’s campaign showed her leading Schweikert by three points, 48% to 45%.

Tipirneni said the poll was “just the latest evidence that Arizonans are ready for leaders who will fight for them, not for personal gain or their corporate special interest donors.”

Nuño-Perez said despite his bravado, Schweikert’s ethics travails have left him isolated within his own party.

“He’s kind of the worst case scenario when the top of the ticket is so polarizing,” he said. “To people who already don’t like Donald Trump, Schweikert is the personification of rank opportunism and corruption, and the Democrats can make a compelling argument that he’s just utterly abused the trust of folks in his district.

“Despite that, this is politics and this race is likely going to be all about turnout,” Nuño-Perez said. “I think the fear among members of the Republican party, in light of the other things we’ve talked about, is that GOP voters will sit this year out, or at least races like this one, and say, ‘it’s just not worth it to me’ hurting the party’s prospects in lots of other races.”

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