PHOENIX — What does it take to paint a red desert blue? For Democrats hoping to win their first federal races in Arizona in 16 years, the answer lies in getting the state’s electorate to more closely resemble the state’s population. But Democratic dreams of winning the Copper State this year may be more mirage than reality.
No Democratic presidential candidate has won Arizona since President Clinton took 46.5 percent of the vote in 1996, a win that only came because Ross Perot split part of the Republican base. No Democrat has secured a Senate seat since Dennis DeConcini won reelection in 1988. But the state’s electorate is changing rapidly, fueled by the Latino population, which is growing at an increasingly rapid pace: In the past decade, Latinos accounted for nearly half—47.5 percent—of the state’s population growth, while minorities overall accounted for two-thirds.
Such changes make Democrats optimistic. As Hispanic voters increasingly become a bedrock part of the Democratic base, the Mountain West’s political landscape has shifted. New Mexico, once the consummate swing state, is now considered to be in the Democratic column. Colorado and Nevada have moved toward the Democrats, too, although both states remain toss-ups.
But in Arizona, Latino population growth hasn’t helped Democrats much. Although minorities now constitute more than 42 percent of the state’s population, only one in five voted in 2010. Just 25 percent of all Arizona voters in the 2008 presidential contest were minorities.
The lack of Hispanic participation in the state’s congressional races is stark. Republican Rep. Ben Quayle, who won a heavily white district in north Phoenix and its suburbs, got 108,000 votes in 2010 to capture 52 percent of the vote. Democratic Rep. Ed Pastor won a much larger 67 percent that year, but turnout in his heavily-Latino central Phoenix district clocked in at just 13 percent; Pastor attracted only 61,000 votes total.
“The importance of minorities, particularly the Latino community, will slowly increase, but it will be many years before it is significant enough to make Arizona a swing state,” said Sean Noble, a Copper State Republican strategist. “That’s not to say Republicans can ignore the growing Latino vote. If the Republican Party wants to be sustainable for the next generation, they’ll need to reach out to them.”
To boost Hispanic turnout, Democrats are trying a novel, if long-shot, tactic by putting a prominent Hispanic near the top of the ticket. After a former state Democratic Party chairman dropped out of the Senate race on Wednesday, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona almost certainly will be the nominee to try to replace retiring Republican Jon Kyl. And Carmona, nominated by President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the Senate, is trying to drive a wedge between Latinos and Republicans.
“When it comes to understanding the culture of being Hispanic, when it comes to understanding the challenges of the border and wanting to control it for safety and security but yet not wanting it to be an impediment for Congress, I’ve lived that every day; I understand it,” Carmona said in a recent interview in his new campaign office in downtown Phoenix.
Democrats worked hard to get Carmona on the ballot. He fielded calls from President Obama, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, all urging him to jump in the race. And the party did so even though Don Bivens, the former party chairman who donated thousands of dollars to Democratic Party officials and organizations over the years, was already in the contest.
To win Arizona, Democrats likely will need some GOP assistance. And it seems a significant portion of the state Republican Party is willing to go along by alienating moderate voters, both white and Latino: Statehouse Republicans, led by immigration hard-liner Russell Pearce, passed one of the nation’s most aggressive and controversial immigration enforcement bills in 2010; more recently, GOP legislators pushed groundbreaking gun-rights measures, an ultrasound bill, and even a “birther” bill requiring presidential candidates to prove they are U.S. citizens.
The other half of the Arizona Republican Party takes a more moderate stand on immigration. Sen. John McCain and Kyl advocated for comprehensive immigration reform and have taken great pains to avoid alienating their Hispanic constituencies. Rep. Jeff Flake has a record that looks much more like McCain’s and Kyl’s than that of Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the harsh illegal-immigration bill.
Taking the extreme position is good for an Arizona Republican in the primary—after signing the bill, Brewer watched her difficult intra-party battle became a cakewalk. But it hurts in a general election. Brewer won a full term in a positive Republican year while attracting just 28 percent of the minority vote. Taking the moderate track pays off in the general; both McCain and Kyl won their reelection bids by attracting 40 percent of the minority vote (McCain even managed 40 percent among minority voters against Obama in 2008).
Until Democrats are able to bring the minority share of the electorate into closer accord with the state’s overall population, Arizona is unlikely to become a swing state like neighboring Nevada and Colorado, or a blue state like New Mexico. Republicans such as Flake have found the politic approach to immigration issues. Over the long run, their challenge will be to avoid being drowned out by the more extremist set that controls the state Legislature.
This article appears in the March 29, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.