TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — With Democrats leading in Arizona’s Senate and presidential races, one might think the Grand Canyon State is about to dramatically flip from red to blue.
Arizona hasn’t had two Democratic senators since the early 1950s and no Democratic presidential candidate has won here since Bill Clinton in 1996, but there has always been a blue streak running through the state — and it has been widening for decades.
Several factors have combined to shift the state leftward, but none of it is new, said University of Arizona political science professor Tom Volgy.
“I think these trends were there all along,” Volgy said. “I think the Democratic Party could have exploited these trends four years ago or eight years ago, but it chose not to invest its resources in Arizona because of this common misperception that Arizona is such a red state.”
One hint that the blue shift isn’t a fluke can be seen in the state’s congressional delegation, where five out of nine are Democrats. That’s starkly different from the 1980s, when Morris K. Udall was the only Democrat, Volgy said.
“That’s a sign that this is not a weird one-shot phenomenon,” he said.
Most polls show former Vice-President Joe Biden leading President Donald Trump in Arizona, but that lead is consistently within the margin of error. On Friday, Biden had a lead of just 3.1%, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.
In the Senate race, retired astronaut and space shuttle commander Mark Kelly, a Democrat, is leading retired combat pilot and incumbent Arizona Senator Martha McSally in 10 polls reported this week.
Voting is already underway, via mail and at early in-person polls, and the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office is ready to handle the increase in early ballots, said spokeswoman Sophia Solis.
“Arizonans have been voting by mail for many years, and therefore we have been equipped to handle an increase in ballots-by-mail. This year, we mailed applications to voters who are not on the Permanent Early Voting List in order to give them an opportunity to join if they wished to,” Solis said.
Arizona will have a head start on some other states where counting is concerned. A new law allows ballots to be counted starting 14 days before the election. Unofficial results will be posted starting at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Democratic National Committee Tom Perez was in Tucson recently to pass out campaign signs and rally troops. He said Arizona is crucial in Democrats’ quest to take control of the upper chamber.
“We know that the road to the Senate majority goes through Arizona,” he said during the brief campaign swing through Phoenix and Tucson.
Concerns about health care, including the Covid-19 pandemic, top the list of reasons Arizona is a battleground this year, Perez said.
“We have a fusion coalition here of white voters, Latino voters, African-American, Native American,” Perez said. “We have people across faith traditions who are voting for Joe Biden, because health care is on the ballot.”
Sandra Cliche, 67, voted for the president Friday.
As a Canadian immigrant who came here in the mid-1980s, Cliche sometimes worked seven days a week to become a citizen, and she likes what Trump says about following the law. Cliche has friends who are doing what she did — come here legally, then work. She thinks the Black Lives Matter movement is encouraging the wrong things to advance race relations.
“I came with nothing,” she said. “I know African-Americans who came with nothing. They’re working minimum wage jobs and going to night school. Go talk to those people. They’re not out rioting and tearing things down.”
Cliche isn’t angry. She is tired of the name-calling from both sides of the political fence and attributes the president’s name-calling to fighting back. She wants people to come together and talk.
“I believe in solutions, and we can’t have solutions if we don’t talk,” she said.
Pat Madea, 69, is a semi-retired Tucson resident who voted for Biden and Kelly.
“I think Trump is a failed experiment,” Madea said after dropping off his ballot. “People were tired of the same old thing, so they chose him in 2016. Now we’re back to the same old thing.”
He likes the former vice-president’s plan to reverse Trump’s 2017 corporate tax cuts and raise taxes on people who make more than $400,000 per year. Giving corporations money doesn’t work, Madea said.
“This trickle-down theory that we’ve been saddled with since Reagan is bullshit,” he said, adding that we need wage increases to put money in regular peoples’ hands, so they can spend it.
“I think we need a bubble-up economy.”
Volgy said Arizona has always had a large population of independent voters — about a third of voters are registered independents — and that group is bigger than ever now.
In the days of gerrymandering — largely halted in the past 20 years by Arizona’s bipartisan redistricting commission — state Republicans always carved out at least one safe Democratic district while ensuring GOP dominance.
This has allowed some of the most liberal members of Congress, like Udall from the 1960s-90s and Raul Grijalva today, to always exist here.
Arizona has traditionally existed in three parts — left-leaning Pima County, where roughly 1 million people live, mostly in Tucson; Maricopa County, where 2.2 million voters leaned reliably right; and rural Arizona, which could be described as “libertarian.”
That division has been slowly changing. Migration patterns had an impact. Up until 20 years ago, liberals came to Tucson, and conservatives went to Phoenix, largely from the Midwest. But more recently there has been an influx of more liberal people — even among Republicans — from California.
Volgy attributed some of the state’s shift leftward to Latino activism spurred by the state government.
When the state Legislature passed a law known as SB 1070, which required all law enforcement officers to determine immigration status of anyone they “reasonably” suspected was in the country illegally and to notify federal authorities of undocumented residents, the Latino community was galvanized in activism, Volgy said.
The law was widely decried as racist, and the Supreme Court eventually struck down most of it. That law spurred a spike in Latino activism that continues today.
“That constituted an important and dramatic change. It had an impact in Tucson, but it may have had an even bigger impact in Maricopa County in changing what was a conservative Republican area to a much, much more moderate-to-progressive area,” he said.
Volgy declined to predict if the state’s steady march leftward is permanent.
“I don’t know what’s permanent in our country anymore,” he said. “What has become permanent is that Democrats know that they can win in Arizona, and once that happens, all kinds of things begin to change. Resources flow into Arizona, more and more viable candidates come to the party, people feel like their vote isn’t wasted.”
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