Why Trump, GOP are running into trouble in Arizona
President Trump and Republicans are running into trouble in Arizona, where polls show them trailing in both the presidential race and in a key Senate battle that could help determine the balance of power in the upper chamber.
Arizona has been a reliably Republican state in presidential and Senate contests and has only voted for a Democratic president once in the past 70 years, when former President Clinton won the state in 1996.
But things are changing.
In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democratic senator from Arizona in more than two decades. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who was appointed to the Senate after losing to Sinema, is trailing Democrat Mark Kelly in the polls and in fundraising.
In the race for the White House, polls have consistently found former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of Trump, although the race is close and pollsters and operatives view it as a pure toss-up.
The Biden campaign says it will treat Arizona as a battleground and has described it as their best chance at flipping a traditionally red state to blue in November.
Dennis DeConcini, who before Sinema was the last Democrat to represent the state in the Senate, said he believes the Biden campaign should invest heavily in Arizona.
“I do think Democrats can win here, and it’s quite surprising for Arizona,” DeConcini said.
“The turning point was the last election when Kyrsten Sinema got elected running on a centrist ticket. Arizona responds to that, as it did when I was there, and it will again with Biden and Kelly.”
Trump’s struggles with suburban voters have hastened Arizona’s move from red to purple.
The president is polling abysmally with women and with white voters who have a college education, turning the once reliably red suburbs around Phoenix into a light shade of blue.
Those dynamics were behind a big year for Democrats in the state in 2018.
Democrats flipped four statewide offices in Arizona last cycle and nearly won a majority in the state House.
Of the 313 precincts in 2016 that voted for Trump in Maricopa County — the largest county in the state — 88 flipped over to Sinema in 2018, while McSally was unable to flip even one of the 317 precincts that supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Polls show Trump’s support has eroded among key groups that supported him in 2016, such as older people and white voters without a college education.
In addition, changing demographics from domestic migration have altered the political landscape in Arizona, which is one of the fastest growing states in the country. Blue states such as California, Oregon, Washington and Illinois are among the biggest feeder states into Arizona. A growing tech industry has attracted a younger and more liberal workforce.
Independents make up the fastest-growing political force in the state, and at the moment at least, polls show them breaking for Biden over Trump, helping him to a 7-point lead in a survey released by Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights (OHPI) this week. Biden leads by 4 points in Arizona in the RealClearPolitics average.
“The reality is, Republicans have a big issue with suburban voters and they’re not doing as well with the older demographic, which is typically conservative,” said Mike Noble, the managing partner at OHPI. “That’s been behind the big shift and part of why they lost four statewide races in 2018.”
If the Electoral College map stays the same as in 2016 but Biden wins back Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania from Trump, he’ll win the White House.
Republicans in Arizona say it’s not time to panic yet, believing the polls conducted amid the coronavirus pandemic and catastrophic unemployment numbers are capturing the president at his low point of the 2020 cycle.
Some in the GOP believe that Arizona will play out the way Texas and Georgia have in the past, with intense media scrutiny and Democratic interest leading up to Election Day before voters come home and deliver another victory for Republicans.
Kurt Davis, a GOP operative in Arizona and former adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), acknowledged that there are “cracks and fissures” in the GOP’s support in the suburbs but said the independents in Arizona are equally turned off by the left-wing politics of Democratic leaders in Congress.
He said the influx of “economic refugees” from blue states and young tech talent migrating to Arizona are registering as independents and are not anchored to either party, making them true swing voters with a propensity to break late in the contest.
“Polls right now in the current environment are extraordinarily erratic,” Davis said. “People are influenced by daily news way more than they would be in normal circumstances, so you’ll see big variances, and independents are more likely to be impacted by these wild swings.”
But Kelly is going to be difficult to defeat, and DeConcini said that Biden might even benefit from his coattails.
The OHPI poll that found Trump down 7 points to Biden found McSally down by 13 points to Kelly.
Republicans say that Sinema was a master of speaking to Arizona independents who were frustrated by both parties. They view McSally’s Senate runs as unmitigated disasters on that front and believe Kelly is following the Sinema playbook.
Independents are breaking by a 2-1 margin for Kelly over McSally. McSally trailed Kelly by 5 points in Maricopa County at this point last year but now trails him by 18 points. The winner of Maricopa County, centered around Phoenix, is likely to win the election.
Trump and McSally still have six months to turn their number around among independents.
But polls have shown Trump getting beat soundly by Biden among voters with negative opinions of both candidates. The OHPI survey found Biden with a 63-6 lead among that cohort, which broke for Trump in 2016 when he battled Clinton, who was deeply unpopular.
“I would not be totally surprised to see the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee give up on McSally at some point to move resources into Colorado, Maine and North Carolina,” said Mike O’Neil, a veteran pollster in Arizona.
“Trump’s prospects for cranking up his base may be greater. But that is just a total guess. Most of us who’ve been here a long time have anticipated an eventual emergence of a more purple state, but the polling figures for McSally and Trump are staggering. It seems like such a huge, quick shift that we question whether it is real.”