State Watch

Dems see Arizona desert blooming blue

PHOENIX — Coming off their best election season in more than a generation, Arizona Democrats see a path to the White House that runs through the Valley of the Sun, if their party’s presidential nominee makes a concerted effort to win the state’s electoral votes.

Democrats see an opportunity in Arizona’s rapid growth, which has doubled the state’s population to more than 7.1 million people since 1990. Cranes dot Phoenix’s skyline, and new developments are again under construction after a pause during the recession.

That growth was once driven by retirees seeking sun and dry weather and delivering Republican votes to Phoenix’s booming suburbs. But increasingly, new growth is coming from a younger generation in search of good jobs and low housing costs — and bringing more progressive values with them.

“There’s a lot of young people moving to the southeast valley,” said Athena Salman, a Democratic member of the Arizona state House. “We are, demographically, a state that’s changing, but demographics aren’t destiny.”

Between 2001 and 2014, Arizona added a net 537,000 people from other states, about half of whom came from California, according to a report from Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business.

{mosads}Between 2012 and 2017, more people moved to Maricopa County — 221,000 — than to any other county in the country.

Democrats have long counted on a surge of Hispanic voters who could change Arizona’s political hue, and there is some evidence to suggest those voters — especially among younger cohorts — are a growing political base.

Voters aged 18 to 29 made up just more than 10 percent of the electorate in 2018, a 4-point increase over 2014, the last midterm election year, according to the Democratic data firm TargetSmart.

“When we’re talking about expanding the electorate, it takes infrastructure,” said Raquel Teran, who ran the voter turnout group Mi Familia Vota before winning a seat in the state legislature. “We’re doing a really good job of creating the infrastructure.”

Together, those three groups in 2018 handed Democrats some of their most significant victories in nearly 30 years.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win a Senate seat since Dennis DeConcini in 1988. Democrats won the secretary of state’s race and the race for superintendent of public instruction for the first time since 1990.

The party came within one seat of winning a power-sharing tie in the state House, the closest Democrats have come since a tie in the state Senate in the 2000 elections.

Even Republicans agree that migrants from other states are changing the face of once-red Arizona.

“Many people who are fleeing California want smaller government, they want lower taxes, they want a safe and secure place to live,” said Kelli Ward, the chairwoman of the Arizona Republican Party. “What they need to realize is the reason we have those things in Arizona and they don’t have those things in California is because we have Republican leadership in our state.”

{mossecondads}Democrats even made inroads in places like Sun City and Leisure World, retiree havens that swung away from Republicans after Congress came within one vote of repealing the Affordable Care Act — a vote that failed when the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cast the deciding thumbs-down.

Both Democrats and Republicans have added new voters at about the same rate in recent decades. Republicans held a voter registration edge of about 111,000 people in 2000, when about 2.1 million people were registered to vote. Today, among Arizona’s 3.8 million voters, the GOP has a 140,000-voter advantage.

But the number of voters who do not align with a party has skyrocketed, from just 382,000 in 2000 to 1.2 million today. While independents once skewed toward Republicans, in 2018 those voters broke toward Sinema by 3 percentage points.

Democrats say those voters were energized by their opposition to President Trump, who won independent voters in 2016.

“Donald Trump moved our timeline way up, whether people want to admit that or not,” said Herschel Fink, the executive director of the state Democratic Party.

Democratic optimism is tempered by Arizona’s long history of voting Republican. Harry Truman was the last Democratic president to win a majority of Arizona votes. Bill Clinton won the state in 1996, but with only 46 percent of the vote; Ross Perot took 8 percent.

“It’s definitely a strong red state,” said Ward. “We are inspiring and empowering our already passionate community of Republican activists in our state.”

Three years after losing chunks of the Rust Belt and upper Midwest that they were long dominant in, like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Democrats in Arizona hope their party looks to emerging battlegrounds in the Sun Belt south to win back the White House.

“It’s increasingly hard to persuade Rust Belt voters that they have a home in the Democratic Party,” Salman said. “You only need Arizona and one other of those southern states to flip.”

The Democratic model, several strategists on both sides of the aisle said, comes from states like Virginia, Colorado and Nevada, where new migrants and increased Hispanic turnout have made purple states almost safely blue. Democrats see similarly emerging battlegrounds in states like Arizona, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.

“Our voters will be choosing the next president of the United States,” Salman said.

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