IN a typical election year, Arizona is a remote destination on the political map. Our presidential primary comes late and is rarely the center of attention. And in the general election, Arizona’s rock-ribbed Republicanism – which ranges from rosy to fiery red – means the GOP candidate doesn’t have to campaign here, and the Democrats don’t bother.
As you might have heard, however, 2016 is not your typical election year.
The Arizona presidential preference election in March turned out to be grimly fought in both the Democratic and Republican races. In the days before the vote, big-time politicos – Bernie! Ted! Trump! Hill! Bill! – swarmed the state.
And now, with a fall matchup between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton likely at hand, the good news for political junkies is this: An uncommon year is about to get even uncommoner.
The pressure points
Sen. John McCain is angling for a sixth six-year term. After channeling his inner conservative to get through the GOP primary on August 30, he then has to make a political pivot back to his old maverick persona to deal with popular Democratic challenger Ann Kirkpatrick in November. Early polls show she will not be an insignificant threat.
U.S. Representative Martha McSally will be defending the south-state congressional seat she won in 2012 by a whisper – just 167 votes. And the open-seat race to fill Kirkpatrick’s seat in the north will feature a GOP-side primary slugfest, with the winner there facing off with likely Democratic contender Tom O’Halleran in November.
And finally, the Big Kahuna: Arizona’s 11 electoral votes. With Donald Trump and his historically low favorability ratings in the race, early polls show they may be within snatching distance for the Democrats, after being almost uniformly Republican in the modern era.
Trump’s divisive campaign invites a nightmare scenario for the Arizona GOP. If the real estate mogul energizes anti-Trump voters the way some polls forecast, there could be a ripple effect down the ballot, as newly-activated Democratic voters reflexively cast votes for Democratic candidates. And for one election cycle, at least, Arizona could swing blue.
There are a lot of moving parts in Arizona voting patterns this year. They will all come to bear on the fortunes of the state’s highest-profile politician, former GOP presidential nominee John McCain.
“That’s an interesting race,” deadpans Francisco Heredia, the national field director of Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan group working to expand Hispanic political power.
McCain, while obviously a state icon, has checkered relationships with some powerful constituencies in Arizona. Hispanics are one of them. In maverick mode, McCain has worked for comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. But six years ago, faced with a challenge from a Tea Party favorite, former Representative J.D. Hayworth, he tacked hard to the right. One infamous artifact from that campaign was a caustic TV ad featuring Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
“Latinos definitely remember the ‘Build the dang fence!’ ad,” says Democratic operative DJ Quinlan.
Hispanic voting power in Arizona is growing, and what they think and remember is important. Heredia says Hispanics made up 16 percent of the statewide vote in 2008. In 2012, the number rose to 18 percent. It seems likely the percentage will be higher in this election cycle, potentially as much as 25 percent, which is the proportion of Hispanics in the overall eligible voting pool.
The shift will almost certainly favor Democratic candidates, whom Hispanics prefer by a 2- or 3-to-1 margin over their Republican rivals. The GOP establishment has attempted to curtail this advantage in recent years. After Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election, party leaders advocated for more inclusive language and attitudes toward Hispanics, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign this year was viewed as a potentially transformative moment for Latino voting power in the GOP.
In this context, Trump’s inflammatory posturing – calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and promising to make Mexico pay for a wall to keep them out – have some in the party worried about an electoral nightmare they won’t be able to wake up from. A recent story in Politico cited a tape of McCain speaking off the cuff at a private meeting: “If Trump is at the top of the ticket, this could be the race of my life.” It’s possible too much was made of that remark: Politicians routinely cry wolf to raise money.
Still, the reasoning is sound, and it has precedent. In 2004, GOP leadership, led by presidential operative Karl Rove, orchestrated an effort to put anti-gay-marriage initiatives on the November ballot in several key states. Enormously unpopular with social conservatives, gay marriage was a flashpoint issue that mobilized many dormant Republicans to vote in an election they may otherwise have sat out. By an overwhelming margin, they reflexively voted for George W. Bush as well, helping him win a second term over Democratic challenger John Kerry.
Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is also a flashpoint issue, and has the potential to mobilize dormant Democrats the way gay marriage mobilized conservatives – which could spell doom for McCain and company. “I think it’s going to be a pretty big loss for Donald Trump in November, and down-ballot devastation for Republicans,” conservative blogger Erick Erickson told Yahoo news.
That’s the Trump Effect.
McCain is well aware of the importance of the Hispanic vote in Arizona, but at this point in the campaign he’s more concerned about his conservative flank. The far right in Arizona doesn’t like McCain, and the feeling is mutual. Trump, McCain has said, is “firing up the crazies.”
In 2014, the Maricopa County Republican Party officially censured the senator, saying he had a “long and terrible record” of voting against party principles – and that they would no longer support his campaigns. “It was a slap in the face,” says longtime Arizona pollster Michael O’Neil. A May poll found McCain with an extraordinary 50 percent disapproval rate among GOP primary voters.
Cold figures like that are probably a good explanation of why McCain has endorsed the New York billionaire, despite Trump’s caustic remarks about McCain’s war service, which included years in a Vietnamese prison and disfiguring injuries. “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said at the Family Leadership Summit last July in Iowa.
For McCain, the hurdles don’t end there. Assuming he gets through the primary with Tea Party favorite Kelli Ward on August 30 (see sidebar), he’ll then have only eight or nine weeks to get into general election mode and deal with Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.
McCain will undoubtedly work to unwind himself from the man at the top of the GOP ticket, but this will in turn provoke jeers from those who’ll say he should have done it sooner, and deflate his support on the right. “It’s no secret he’s somewhat disliked by the most conservative wing of the party,” says GOP analyst Garrett Archer. “One of the variables we don’t know yet is what the Trump factor is going to do to a particular portion of the party; we just don’t.”
An April poll by the Behavior Research Center had McCain and Kirkpatrick tied; a May survey by Public Policy Polling gave McCain a five-point lead, but still within the margin of error. These are troubling indicators for an incumbent.
For this race, keep an eye on those polls, and on fundraising reports. McCain has $5 million on hand right now, including $1.2 million he pulled together in the first quarter of the year, according to publicly released figures from the campaign. Kirkpatrick raised $1 million herself in that period, and has $1.3 million on hand. With the Senate currently in GOP control by a 54-to-46 majority, McCain’s seat is but one piece of a national puzzle the Democrats are working on. They want to capture at least four seats and wrest back the Senate. Arizona is not a top priority of the Democrats currently – thus far, few if any national political analysts have put McCain on the top tier of endangered incumbents. He’s officially in limbo – a marginally advantageous position that could easily break bad. If the party senses McCain’s blood in the water, Kirkpatrick will increasingly be helped with national party funds.
Arizona’s congressional districts are fairly efficiently gerrymandered, leaving only three of them contestable in any given election year. With no declared GOP challenger as of this writing, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema seems safe for now in the 9th District, which includes much of Central Phoenix. “It looks like she’s ensconced herself very well,” O’Neil says. Two other districts, however, have races to watch.
The volatile 2nd District encompasses most of Tucson and all points east and south. This was Gabrielle Giffords’ seat. Giffords’ successor, Ron Barber, won by a whisker in 2012, only to lose by those 167 votes to Martha McSally in 2014. A former Air Force pilot with a decorated service record, McSally is generally moderate politically but has espoused conservative positions to restrict abortions and is against gay marriage. At press time, she has refused to say if she will endorse Donald Trump.
The Democratic primary features Matt Heinz, a Tucson physician and former state senator who spent some time working in Washington, D.C., as a liaison to doctors during the Obamacare rollout, running against State Representative Victoria Steele, who had a previous career on Tucson TV.
Despite her popularity – and the relative obscurity of her opponents – McSally could be vulnerable. Her 2014 win came in a midterm election, where turnout is lower and generally more conservative than it is in a presidential election year like 2016. (Mitt Romney won the district in 2012 – but only by a percentage point.) Moreover, Hispanic registration in the district is 27 percent. If those voters are mobilized to vote against Trump, McSally could suffer in the crossfire – particularly if the race is as close as it was two years ago.
The other competitive race is the 1st District, the one Kirkpatrick is vacating to run against McCain. The 1st District spans nearly half the state’s land mass, covering vast rural stretches of northern and eastern Arizona, and includes Flagstaff and the Navajo Nation. Half the population is either Hispanic or Native American, a demographic layout that favors Democrats and could be catalyzed by Trump’s candidacy.
The GOP primary here will be bruising. Pinal County Sheriff Babeu and Arizona Speaker of the House David Gowan are two of the big political names in the race. Both, however, have slightly tarnished reputations: Babeu weathered a scandal involving an illegal immigrant who said he was Babeu’s lover, while Gowan was the subject of an Arizona Capitol Times investigation that revealed he used a state vehicle, and a state driver, for a road trip of some 5,000 miles. Gowan denied he was using the car for campaign purposes; the state attorney general’s office is investigating the charges.
The race is complicated by another prominent politician in the mix, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, and Tea Party favorite Gary Kiehne, who some consider the dark horse in the race. A rancher who lent his own campaign nearly $1 million, Kiehne fits the Trump narrative of a self-made political outsider who plays by his own rules. In the end, he and Babeu, the presumptive favorite in the race, may find themselves facing off for the GOP ticket.
On the Democratic side, the most compelling candidate is Tom O’Halleran, a former Chicago cop who had a second career at the Chicago Board of Trade. Transplanted to Arizona, he was a Republican state legislator until he clashed with the party leadership over the state’s dysfunctional Child Protective Services department and education funding. He became an independent and is now running as a Democrat.
Says Archer, who is working with Babeu in the race: “It’s definitely going to be a fight.”
The fights in these two districts have another dimension as well; if the Democrats win both, they will control five of the state’s nine Congressional Districts, a potent symbol of the state’s changing politics.
It seems to beggar belief!
Could Barry Goldwater and John McCain’s Arizona really find itself in the Democratic column come November?
“This gets talked about a lot, but it never seems to happen,” O’Neil says, and indeed, tradition is firmly against the Democrats. With one exception, the state has voted Republican in every presidential election since the Eisenhower Era – and the exception was 1996, when Ross Perot entered the race as a third-party candidate, siphoning tens of thousands of Republican votes away from Bob Dole and paving the way for Bill Clinton’s re-election.
Such a scenario is not beyond the realm of possibility in 2016. Erstwhile GOP nominee Mitt Romney is one name commonly bandied by pundits as a third-party candidate, though Romney has disavowed those rumors. If a popular third-party candidate like Romney were to enter the race, it would be bad for Trump, but a boon for down-ballot candidates like McCain and McSally, who would likely enjoy the benefits of increased GOP turnout.
After decades of ignoring Arizona, Democrats seem to be paying the state more mind of late. As a presidential candidate, McCain garnered only 53 percent of the Arizona vote in 2008, pretty low for a favorite son in a red state. President Barack Obama later made a series of visits to Arizona, perhaps prodded by party leaders who saw a state that seemed to be turning purple. But then came the rise of SB 1070, the super-majority GOP victories in the state legislature in 2010, and the reinvigorated national perception of Arizona as a GOP bastion.
“The conventional wisdom is that it’s a dark red state that Democrats always pretend that they can win in,” Quinlan says. “That’s how a lot of people, particularly on the East Coast, look at it. But really, Arizona is changing in a lot of ways.”
The rising Hispanic vote has some complexities. It is a young voting pool – much younger than the rest of the state. The younger Hispanics coming of age, unlike their parents, are almost all U.S. citizens. As they get older, they will become more socially engaged – and, activists like Heredia hope, will vote more. “That’s a huge potential for the future,” he says.
And then there’s the Trump Effect in all its permutations. Despite Trump’s recent détente with GOP critics like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Lindsey Graham, he remains the bull in the GOP china shop. It is unprecedented in modern politics for such an array of party elders to denounce their candidate. Both former presidents Bush have declined to endorse him, as did Mitt Romney. Many party leaders have declared him unfit to be president. Arizona, for all its Tea Party activism, has a significant corps of the genteel, so-called “country club set” politicians like the Bushes and Romney embody – fiscally conservative, socially moderate pragmatists.
“Nationally, most partisans come home,” O’Neil says. As for the country club set? “It’s not a big number, but if they bolt it could be fatal.”
Initial polls on the Trump-Clinton race in the state show the two candidates unexpectedly competitive here. A Behavior Research Center tally in April gave Clinton a seven-point advantage; a PPP poll in May put Trump ahead by four. These are very early snapshots. Still, in the last four elections, the GOP candidate has won easily, generally by eight to 10 points. In a state with Arizona’s voting history, those numbers raise eyebrows.
“Watch how close Hillary Clinton is to Donald Trump in the polls,” says the GOP’s Archer. “If it’s a 10-point race, behavior will be normalized. If Hillary and Trump are close, it could spell trouble for the Republicans [in other Arizona races].”
As for the presidential race, Arizona’s role is as yet unclear. The GOP game plan involves holding the states Romney won in 2012, and then reaching 270 electoral votes by bringing blue Midwestern states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan over to Trump’s side. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have to do much to win – just maintain the Democratic hold in those states and keep together the map that put Barack Obama in office twice. The fun will come as the Democrats put pressure on Trump in states where polls have shown he’s vulnerable – enter Arizona, Georgia and Missouri.
“I don’t see a situation in which Hillary wins Arizona,” Archer says. “That would be something the likes of which we haven’t seen. If she turns Arizona purple, it will be a rout of epic proportions.”
And Trump will likely not be the only casualty.