McCain no lock in Arizona

I recall a lot of grumbling and grousing among Democrats after the 2000 election that had Al Gore only been able to carry his own state, he would be president. A lot separates Tennessee and Arizona, including nearly a continent of mountains, plains, rivers and deserts. But the message I was hearing on a trip to John McCain’s home turf this week suggests that the “presumptive” (why do we have to keep using that word? Isn’t it a done deal?) Republican nominee may have some work to do to make sure this traditionally red state stays that way.

No public or private poll that I’ve seen shows Sen. McCain with over 50 percent of the vote in Arizona. They do show him 11 or more points up on Barack Obama, but McCain’s ceiling seems to be about 48 or 49 percent. That’s territory that would be worrisome were he running for reelection. But as Arizona’s “presumptive” native son I found those numbers rather remarkable — and possibly the indication of a real opportunity for Obama.

Arizona has changed a lot in the last decade. Growth in the state has been astronomical. Once, the newcomers were mostly retirees with generally conservative political views. That has changed in recent years. Much of Arizona’s recent growth has been among younger, educated professionals attracted by high-tech jobs and a better family lifestyle. The growing Hispanic population is not all illegals, either. Many are citizens and voters. Arizona State University has become the largest single college campus in the nation, and the University of Arizona is growing rapidly as well.

The state has always been quirkily independent, electing a Mo Udall alongside a Barry Goldwater. Now independent voters actually outnumber both Republicans and Democrats.

These changing demographics underlie a real shift of power in the cactus patch. Gov. Janet Napolitano has kept her favorability ratings in the mid- to high 70s throughout her second term while not shrinking from taking on fierce political battles. When the legislature refused to give her a comprehensive statewide transportation plan, she organized business, environmental and community groups to mount a petition drive that seems certain to be on the November ballot. She threw her weight behind a statewide land use initiative channeling growth to the transportation corridors she would build and preserving vast swaths of sensitive desert and mountain areas. Then she organized a deal in which Arizona’s powerful homebuilders not only agreed not to oppose the land use plan, versions of which they have defeated three times, but threw their support to her transportation initiative as well. The governor, one of Barack Obama’s earliest and leading supporters, definitely has got game on her home turf.

Arizona Democrats are charged up this year, growing confident that they’ll capture two congressional seats and actually have a shot at controlling one house of the traditionally Republican legislature, though that will take some upsets in rural Arizona districts. The 1st congressional district, where Rep. Rick Renzi (R) is retiring under a cloud of scandal, will likely go Democrat. The 3rd district seat of Rep. John Shadegg (R) looks far from safe and may well go to the Democrat primary victor come November. That is John McCain’s old House seat, for crying out loud!

So, while I’m not ready to predict that John McCain will suffer Al Gore’s fate in his home state, I do think Obama could do some powerful mischief out west. With the cash he’s likely to have, he could afford to make McCain defend his own turf.

McCain has many of the same problems with Arizona’s Goldwater wing of the party that he has nationally. The Kennedy-McCain and McCain-Feingold legislation do not sit well with those who still cherish Barry’s principles. Arizona’s growing independent voter population, and a lot of not-so-conservative Republicans, are uneasy with their senior senator’s enthusiastic embrace of George Bush’s foreign policy. Those voters will respond well to Obama’s positioning of McCain as George Bush’s third term. Democrats who have been too long out of power in a state that once belonged to their party are “Fired up. Ready to Go,” as their standard-bearer often chants from the podium.

Now, is all this enough to make Arizona voters turn their back on a favorite son? Questionable. But many of them have never really considered John McCain a favorite, and the right messages from Obama could make him spend more time than planned hanging around the home place. It is certainly a strategy the Obama campaign should consider while they contemplate their re-making of America’s electoral map.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com

More in Brent Budowsky

Brent Budowsky: John McCain the patriot

Read more »