If Arizona turns blue this election cycle against the long odds, Democrats just might have the state’s controversial immigration law to thank for it.
As the Supreme Court embarks on deliberating the constitutionality of the law on Wednesday, the reignited debate over the issue in the midst of a presidential election year has the potential to mobilize the much-sought-after Hispanic vote and have significant consequences for Arizona’s shifting political landscape.
SB 1070, considered by many to be the harshest immigration measure in generations, touched off a firestorm when it was signed into law two years ago by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. The bill made failure to carry documentation of legal status a misdemeanor and required police to determine the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being undocumented, although an injunction stopped the provisions from going into effect until the case is decided.
Critics say the measure opens the door for racial discrimination and a patchwork of immigration enforcement laws across states. Supporters counter that the federal government has failed to do its job in coming up with a solution to the nation’s millions of illegal immigrants and that Arizona was justified in taking matters into its own hands.
No matter what the outcome, the decision, to be handed down in June, is likely to inflame passions for those on both sides just a few months in advance of the November election.
An influx of Latinos in Arizona has only recently opened up the possibility of eroding Republicans’ firm hold on the state. In the past decade, 600,000 were added to the its population—bringing them to a whopping 30 percent of Arizona’s population, according to the latest Census figures. Because Latinos tend to overwhelmingly favor Democrats, similar demographic changes in states like Colorado and New Mexico have transformed Arizona’s neighbors into swing states, if not reliable Democratic pickups.
“The Obama people and the Democrats obviously think that Arizona is in play largely because of the Hispanic vote,” said Bruce Merrill, a pollster and a senior fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “The 1070 is an issue has really driven a wedge in the state and has certainly affected and made clear to Hispanics in Arizona that the Republican Party is not one that is sympathetic to them.”
Nonetheless, most election observers are more dubious about the Democrats’ prospects in Arizona, at least as far as 2012 is concerned.
A thread of libertarianism has always run through the state’s politics, a tea party hot spot, and blue collar whites, who are among the most skeptical of President Obama, are a significant part of the electorate. Lightning-rod figures like conservative Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his hard-line stances against illegal immigration, also loom large.
Moreover, the story of the Democratic Party and Hispanics in Arizona in the past has been one of investing time and resources into registering Latino voters to reap scant rewards. Turnout has been historically spotty.
There’s an outside chance that SB 1070 rising once again to the top of the national psyche might alter that dynamic.
“2012 is completely different,” said Arizona Democratic Party Executive Director Luis Heredia. “The consequences of elections is something being drilled down in the Latino household … and Latino voters are really engaged and talking about politics.”
The Obama campaign has sent out initial feelers. During a fundraiser in Phoenix last week, Vice President Joe Biden said, “We think we have a real shot at winning the presidential race here.” This month, Obama volunteers fanned out across college campuses and Hispanic neighborhoods as part of a three-month effort to register voters and see whether they will compete seriously in the fall.
An Arizona State University's Merrill/Morrison Institute poll released on Monday showed the presidential race in a statistical dead heat, with 42 percent of registered voters in Arizona behind Mitt Romney and 40 percent supporting Obama.
Winning Arizona would be a considerable coup for the Obama campaign, expanding the electoral map in a year when 2008 gains in old Republican strongholds, like Indiana and North Carolina, are gravely teetering.
Also benefitting Democrats is the candidacy of Richard Carmona, a Hispanic doctor, soldier, and former surgeon general under the George W. Bush administration who is running for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and has the potential to galvanize the Latino vote.
“The importance of the Carmona vote and with the debate over 1070, will Hispanics be more motivated to vote this time?” Merrill said. “I think they will be, but the question is by how much. Will it make a big difference or not?”
Merrill added he still believes the economy is the paramount issue for all voters. “I doubt that it’s a game-breaker,” he said of SB 1070.
Gary Segura, a political science professor at Stanford University and a principal at the polling firm Latino Decisions, said he doubts the conditions are right for Democrats to win Arizona. But he said SB 1070 could mobilize Hispanics in other neighboring states and nationwide.
“The Latino advocacy organizations see this as Armageddon,” Segura said. “Research suggests that Latino mobilization is greatest when they’re frightened and SB 1070 conceivably affects every Latino. If the United States loses the case, the effect for Obama is quite strong because ‘the big bad meanies are coming to get you.’ ”
But the temperature of Arizonans themselves—perhaps the most important indicator—is difficult to gauge when it comes to the law that has become most closely associated with their state. In the wake of its passage, Arizonans gave the GOP an iron-clad grip on the state legislature and elected Republicans to all six statewide offices up for grabs.
At the same time, in 2011, state Sen. Russell Pearce, chief architect of SB 1070, was thrown out of office in a recall election, spurred in part by the backlash against the legislation.
Tellingly, the Arizona Republican Party is focusing not on SB 1070 or any of the other social issues taken up by state legislatures that have ignited heated debates across the country. Rather, Arizona GOP spokesman Shane Wikfors said the party is adjusting its message and advising candidates to focus on the economy.
“It’s not an us-versus-them situation,” he said. “We are not as a party pushing strong anti-illegal-immigration messaging at this point because the fact of the matter is the Latino/Hispanic vote in Arizona is extremely concerned about what’s happening with the economy.”