In Arizona, Another Democratic War Over Identity Politics

In the primary for governor, Steve Farley believes that Democrats can win by focusing on the issues. His front-running opponent is searching for national stardom.

Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley speaks on the Senate floor in Phoenix on April 15, 2014.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Aug. 12, 2018, 6 a.m.

NOGALES, Ariz.—Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley is an unlikely face of moderation within the Democratic Party. Running as an upstart underdog in the governor’s race, the graphic-designer-turned-legislator spends his time on the road listening to local public radio, brags about his tireless work bringing a streetcar to his hometown of Tucson, and frets about climate change worsening the severity of monsoon season in Arizona.

But while the liberal lawmaker portrays himself as a boring policy-oriented wonk in his campaign ads, he is attempting something daring in a Democratic primary: Rejecting the emerging progressive consensus on immigration and identity politics. Farley is running against David Garcia, a professor of education at Arizona State University who is trying to become the first Hispanic governor of this border state in more than 40 years. Garcia spent last weekend at Netroots Nation in New Orleans, where he echoed the Left’s anti-Immigration and Customs Enforcement rhetoric and asked the activists to “imagine no wall in southern Arizona.” His base-pleasing rhetoric has concerned some national Democratic strategists, who view the governor’s race as very winnable as long as Democrats strike a pragmatic tone on immigration.

That puts Farley in the unusual position of running to the middle on the issue—an atypical spot for a Democrat in a competitive primary campaign. Touring a Casa Alitas safe house that serves migrant families who just crossed the border for asylum, Farley slammed his primary opponent for sloganeering on immigration instead of working to fix a broken system. As the site’s director explained how the program coordinates closely with ICE agents at the border so they can bring asylum seekers to their home for food and shelter, Farley offered a subtle but pointed jab at Garcia’s anti-ICE posture.

“There are people making political statements to satisfy their base instead of solving problems. You can do human rights and border security at the same time,” Farley said. “There are good people working for ICE and many of them are being forced to do terrible things by the current administration.” Farley marveled that the home was working miracles on a mere $50,000 grant from Catholic Charities, while the government was forking over hundred-million-dollar contracts to private prison companies to house migrant children.

Later in the day, Farley traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border to dine with the sheriff and other local officials in Santa Cruz County, all of whom expressed concern that the Trump administration was cracking down on asylum cases at the expense of stopping dangerous narcotics smugglers. That posture, they argued, forced local prosecutors to pick up many of the drug cases, overwhelming the state’s judicial system.

Farley pledged to be a regular presence in the region after the attendees noted that they hadn’t heard much from the Garcia campaign in this solidly Democratic border county.

“I’ve always been able to speak about these issues in a language Republicans can understand. I know how to speak Republican,” Farley told National Journal after the dinner. “Democrats know pragmatically, you need someone who can win this thing.”

One of the primary’s surprising developments is Garcia’s struggle to raise money despite courting liberal national donors with his groundbreaking candidacy. He’s forging a similar path as Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, believing that the key to winning a diversifying, GOP-leaning state is by mobilizing the nonwhite (Hispanic) base over reassuring the suburban white voters that typically swing elections. Campaign manager Ian Danley said he believes that Garcia’s profile as an authentic, likable, unabashedly progressive voice outweighs any policy disagreements that tax-sensitive, security-conscious voters may have with him in a general election. “We see his campaign as being bigger than us,” said Danley.

In an interview, Garcia cast his campaign as something of a political-science experiment. He said his campaign is reliant on boosting turnout among voters who don’t traditionally participate in midterm elections. “We spent time trying to figure out why so many voters stay home, why they’re disconnected from the process. To do that, you have to step away from your traditional political bubble,” Garcia said. “So many people out there are running from something. I believe that if we have something for them to vote for, that’s what you need to increase turnout to win.”

But unlike Abrams, he’s received minimal national attention and is still largely unknown to a large swath of Arizona Democratic voters. Unlike their African-American counterparts, the turnout rate for Hispanic voters in border states has always been anemic. When Garcia attended Netroots Nation, his campaign’s goal was to put this race on the national map, but he ended up taking flak back home for missing campaign events in the closing weeks of the primary. In June, he barely raised any money at a San Francisco fundraiser with top progressive donor Tom Steyer.

Farley, the underdog throughout the race, has significantly outraised Garcia despite the latter’s progressive outreach. Farley ended June with more than twice the amount of campaign cash ($491,000) as Garcia ($246,000), and is outspending Garcia on the airwaves. In a cash crunch, Garcia cut back money from his original ad buy, even as early voting is taking place. (Doug Ducey, the Republican governor, banked $3.5 million and has the personal resources to self-finance a campaign.) Nearly half of Arizona Democrats are undecided, according to public polling, giving Farley plenty of room to play catch-up.

Garcia is “running as the left-wing candidate but has marginalized himself in preparation for a general election. I’m not sure if he’s electable anymore,” said one senior Democratic official with experience running Arizona campaigns.

If immigration is an issue dogging Democrats in Arizona, education has become a major vulnerability for Ducey. The debate over public-school financing looms large in a state where teachers went on strike and later pressured Ducey to agree to a 20 percent pay raise by 2020. The Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, endorsed Garcia over Farley in March, in part because of his professional background in education. Farley, a longtime champion of public education and leading critic of school vouchers, ended up voting for the governor’s education budget in May even though it’s opened him up to criticism from Garcia in the primary.

“Going around the state, I’m not hearing people say go to the left as far as you can. They want people solving problems. That appeals to Democrats and independents in the general election,” Farley said.

Farley is also reluctantly supporting a referendum on the November ballot that would raise taxes on affluent Arizonans to increase funding for public education. He told National Journal that he didn’t think it was the ideal solution—his campaign ad promotes policies for funding education without raising taxes—but he supported the goal of helping fund financially strained public schools. Garcia was an early supporter of the measure.

The clashes between Ducey and teachers are a major reason why the Democratic nomination is so valuable this year. Ducey, the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery who ran on his business credentials to win the governorship in 2014, is presiding over a booming economy in the state but has seen his job-approval rating sputter. Ducey advisers acknowledge that the governor’s standing took a noticeable political hit during the teacher strikes, but believe he’s stabilized his support since then. A Morning Consult tracking poll of governors’ approval ratings found Ducey with a slightly underwater approval rating, with just 41 percent of Arizonans supporting his job performance.

In a sign of Ducey’s vulnerability, the Republican Governors Association reserved $8.2 million of advertising time through the general election to use against the Democratic nominee. The RGA already aired an ad—a month before the primary—attacking Garcia’s immigration views threatening Arizona’s security. They’re anticipating Garcia as the nominee, even with Farley’s campaign optimistic that their financial edge is closing the deficit.

Ultimately, Farley’s campaign will be a test of whether a consensus-oriented legislator with a knack for getting things done is still a path to political success, or if Democratic voters are more concerned with a candidate’s cultural identity. The stakes are high in a GOP-leaning swing state that Democrats have been trying to turn blue in recent years—with little success.

“We’re in a celebrity moment, and Garcia’s trying to be a national celebrity. People in Arizona want someone who cares about people here in the state,” Farley said. “Democracy needs to be healed right now, and there’s an opportunity for us to do so in Arizona.”

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