What Arizona Can Tell Us About the Fault Lines in American Politics

The state has a way of predicting the schisms to come.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer listens to US President Barack Obama speak to the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House February 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The governors are in DC for their winter meeting. 
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
March 13, 2014, 5 p.m.

PHOENIX — Ari­zona hasn’t pro­duced many com­pet­it­ive elec­tions lately, but it re­tains a knack for crys­tal­liz­ing the most volat­ile fault lines in Amer­ic­an polit­ics.

In 2010, Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Jan Brew­er’s sign­ing of the strin­gent anti-im­mig­ra­tion meas­ure known as SB 1070 dram­at­ized the col­lid­ing world­views of a Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion centered on young­er minor­it­ies and a GOP co­ali­tion re­volving around older whites — what I’ve called the clash between the brown and the gray.

Now the firestorm over SB 1062, the le­gis­la­tion that would have made it easi­er to deny ser­vice to gays, has high­lighted the strain with­in the Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion between man­agers and pop­u­lists: eco­nom­ic­ally fo­cused busi­ness in­terests, and re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives and tea-party act­iv­ists most en­er­gized by so­cial is­sues and im­mig­ra­tion.

Since the GOP took uni­fied con­trol of the gov­ernor­ship and both le­gis­lat­ive cham­bers in 2009, the party’s pop­u­list wing has moved force­fully, if of­ten haphaz­ardly. Ari­zona’s so­cial con­ser­vat­ives have passed a law ban­ning abor­tion after 20 weeks (later blocked by the courts); the 2010 “show your pa­pers” law aimed at identi­fy­ing and de­tain­ing il­leg­al im­mig­rants (also mostly over­turned); strin­gent new vot­ing re­stric­tions (which the Le­gis­lature re­cently re­pealed amid pub­lic pres­sure); and the law Brew­er ve­toed last month that would have ex­pan­ded leg­al pro­tec­tion for busi­ness own­ers who denied ser­vices to gays or oth­ers on re­li­gious grounds. Days after Brew­er’s veto, state House Re­pub­lic­ans de­fi­antly voted to au­thor­ize sur­prise in­spec­tions at abor­tion clin­ics.

The Ari­zona busi­ness com­munity has chafed at some of this (es­pe­cially the im­mig­ra­tion law). But Re­pub­lic­ans have main­tained the man­agers’ loy­alty with an ag­gress­ive small-gov­ern­ment agenda of lower taxes, less reg­u­la­tion, and tort re­form.

With the “re­li­gious liberty” bill, this en­tente, at least tem­por­ar­ily, col­lapsed.

Re­flect­ing the in­flu­ence of so­cial con­ser­vat­ives, all but three Re­pub­lic­ans in the Le­gis­lature ini­tially backed it. But act­iv­ists like An­gela Hughey, cofounder of One Com­munity, a gay-rights group, have made enorm­ous in­roads in re­cent years at or­gan­iz­ing busi­ness lead­ers, par­tic­u­larly around Phoenix, be­hind their cause.

Ari­zona has no statewide law pro­hib­it­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion against gays, but since Feb­ru­ary 2013 more than 850 busi­nesses, em­ploy­ing some 400,000 people, have signed her group’s “Unity Pledge” prom­ising such pro­tec­tion in their own work­places. Busi­ness lead­ers then re­vol­ted against the re­li­gious-liberty bill, with the state’s grow­ing high-tech­no­logy sec­tor most ar­dently warn­ing it would un­der­mine re­cruit­ment. Now act­iv­ists are mulling a le­gis­lat­ive push for a statewide nondis­crim­in­a­tion bill in 2015 and a same-sex-mar­riage bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive in 2016 — each of which would di­vide the GOP’s ma­na­geri­al and pop­u­list wings. “This is­sue is not go­ing away,” Hughey in­sists.

Loc­al busi­ness lead­ers are also res­ist­ing pop­u­list con­ser­vat­ives try­ing to de­rail the Com­mon Core edu­ca­tion­al stand­ards. But Demo­crats are cor­rectly du­bi­ous that the busi­ness es­tab­lish­ment will ever fully aban­don a GOP co­ali­tion de­liv­er­ing the small-gov­ern­ment agenda it prefers.

Glenn Hamer, the Ari­zona Cham­ber of Com­merce pres­id­ent and CEO, cap­tures the cross-pres­sures when he says Re­pub­lic­ans “ab­so­lutely” risk los­ing the state through their views on im­mig­ra­tion and so­cial is­sues and that the move­ment to­ward equal pro­tec­tion for gays (in­clud­ing same-sex mar­riage) is “un­stop­pable.” But one breath later, he de­clares that the GOP ma­jor­ity has “done a fant­ast­ic job” on the cham­ber’s core eco­nom­ic con­cerns.

The more real­ist­ic ques­tion for Demo­crats is wheth­er so­cial is­sues will draw more white-col­lar “know­ledge” work­ers to can­did­ates like 2014 gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee Fred DuVal, who un­abashedly sup­ports gay mar­riage and a statewide nondis­crim­in­a­tion stat­ute. Such move­ment among so­cially lib­er­al col­lege-edu­cated whites (es­pe­cially wo­men) has helped tilt Col­or­ado, Vir­gin­ia, and oth­er pre­vi­ously red states to­ward Demo­crats since 2004. But in Ari­zona, those up­scale (and young­er) whites have re­mained solidly Re­pub­lic­an.

Cap­tur­ing more of those well-edu­cated whites was half of the Demo­crat­ic for­mula that flipped Col­or­ado and Vir­gin­ia; the oth­er was in­creased minor­ity turnout. Ari­zona provides Demo­crats an un­sur­passed op­por­tun­ity on that front. While whites make up about four-fifths of Ari­zona’s seni­ors and three-fourths of res­id­ents over 45, minor­it­ies rep­res­ent most of the un­der-45 pop­u­la­tion and nearly three-fifths of those be­low 18. Yet Demo­crats have con­sist­ently failed to mo­bil­ize that com­munity: One re­cent ana­lys­is found that only 40 per­cent of Ari­zona’s eli­gible Lati­nos voted in 2012.

After Ari­zona’s tax rev­en­ues plummeted with the hous­ing mar­ket col­lapse, Brew­er backed a tem­por­ary 1-cent sales-tax in­crease to lim­it spend­ing cuts. But even so, since 2008, the GOP ma­jor­ity’s com­mit­ment to squeez­ing gov­ern­ment has pro­duced the na­tion’s third-largest re­duc­tion in per-stu­dent K-12 spend­ing; the largest per­cent­age re­duc­tion in per-stu­dent sup­port for pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion; and the biggest pub­lic tu­ition hikes. No oth­er choices cap­ture as starkly the con­trast­ing pri­or­it­ies of a rul­ing GOP co­ali­tion that still re­ceives al­most all of its votes from whites (many older, rur­al, and ex­urb­an) and a minor­ity pop­u­la­tion that now rep­res­ents the clear ma­jor­ity of stu­dents in Ari­zona’s pub­lic schools.

The state’s near-term polit­ic­al bal­ance will be de­term­ined mostly by wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans can main­tain the al­le­gi­ance of both the man­agers and the pop­u­lists. But Ari­zona’s long-term eco­nom­ic and so­cial fu­ture will be set much more by wheth­er it can forge great­er com­mon cause between its brown and gray.

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