Why Arizona Is Emerging as Top 2020 Battleground

If Democrats avoid the progressive temptation, they’ll have a chance to turn the GOP-friendly state blue in next year’s elections.

Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema with a student who said she voted for her, on Arizona State University's downtown Phoenix campus Nov. 5, 2018
AP Photo/Nicolas Riccardi
May 14, 2019, 8 p.m.

If there’s one development that threatens to disrupt the best laid plans of Republicans, it’s the transformation of Arizona from a rock-ribbed GOP stronghold into a bona fide battleground state. In recent years, Republicans have struggled to balance the energy of their activist base with the pragmatism necessary to win over the state’s critical mass of suburban independents.

At the same time, Democrats are eyeing Arizona as a critical political prize that could make or break their national ambitions. Win Arizona, and the party could withstand a Rust Belt stumble in Wisconsin. Pick off the state’s second Senate seat, and the prospect of an upper-chamber majority becomes more realistic. Hold their 5-4 advantage in the House delegation, and Democrats should feel confident about their ability to maintain control in the lower chamber.

There have been some troubling signs for Arizona Republicans in recent weeks. A statewide poll showed Joe Biden leading Trump by 5 points—with the president failing to hit 50 percent against any of the prospective Democratic challengers (including Bernie Sanders). The same poll found appointed Sen. Martha McSally leading presumptive Democratic nominee Mark Kelly by only 1 point, 45 to 44 percent.

All this is taking place with the state GOP infrastructure in shambles after controversial hard-liner Kelli Ward won the chairmanship in January. Since then, Arizona Republicans have struggled to raise money and maintain a unified front. Ward, as a Senate candidate, alienated the party’s moderate wing with deeply personal attacks against former Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake.

“Joe Biden would create a real race here in Arizona,” said Arizona-based GOP operative Barrett Marson. “There’s substantial dissatisfaction with the president among independents and Republican-leaners.”

McSally’s defeat in last year’s Senate race (before being appointed to fill McCain’s seat after his death) served as a wake-up call for Republicans. Despite running as a reliable ally of President Trump, she became the first Republican to lose a Senate race in the state since 1988. The geography of her defeat was particularly alarming. She lost vote-rich Maricopa County by 5 points, particularly struggling in its most affluent and best-educated precincts. McSally lost 12 percent of Republican voters to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, an awfully high defection rate in a polarized political environment.

In the aftermath of her loss, leading Republican operatives privately grumbled that McSally didn’t showcase enough independence from the president. But if anything, she’s stuck to the same strategy as an appointed senator. McSally backed the president’s emergency declaration at the border, even as 12 of her Republican colleagues voted to block it. She brought back her consulting team known for its hard-edged approach to running campaigns. She didn’t publicly criticize Trump when he (again) attacked McCain, but said she privately spoke to him about it.

The upcoming elections in Arizona will also be a test of the salience of two key issues driving Arizona politics: immigration and gun control. Both issues have traditionally played to the GOP’s advantage.

Arizona voters demand candidates hold a certain credibility on border security. Trump’s hard-line position on immigration is polarizing, but it has a broad constituency in this border state. Democrats lost the governor race last year in part because their nominee joined the progressive chorus against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Many of the Democrats’ top presidential candidates are offering similar rhetoric.

The Democratic Party’s bet on growing support for gun control will also be tested in Arizona—especially in the high-profile Senate race. Kelly is well known for his gun-control activism, helping elect like-minded members of Congress to fight the National Rifle Association. But Democrats typically avoid the issue in a state that boasts some of the most permissive gun laws in the country.

Drawing a sharp contrast on gun policy would be a surefire way for McSally to generate enthusiasm for her campaign. But given that she needs to improve on her performance in the Phoenix suburbs, it’s hard to see how that alone will change her political trajectory.

Arizona is developing a reputation for its unapologetic centrism. It elected two Republican senators in McCain and Flake who emerged as vociferous Trump critics. Sinema has become one of the Democrats’ most moderate voices in the Senate, breaking with her party to confirm Attorney General William Barr and casting a lonely Democratic vote against the Green New Deal. One of the state’s Democratic representatives, Tom O’Halleran, was a former Republican state legislator.

The key to success in Arizona is simple: Avoid the extremes. Democrats have an opening to turn the state blue if they focus on persuading the moderate voters that decide close races. But if they nominate a presidential candidate from the party’s progressive wing, it’s easy to see how their Sun Belt strategy falls apart.

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