Arizona: Turning Blue for Kerry?

Arizona: Turning Blue for Kerry?

Democrats hope demographic changes will translate into a win in November.


There aren’t just “swing states” in this election, but “swing constituencies,” too. This is the first in a series that looks at examples of both that have implications for progressive politics.   –The Editors

Flagstaff, Arizona

Except for an occasional candidate’s gaffe, it’s usually difficult to find anything memorable about the tightly scripted, closely choreographed, staged-for-television presidential campaign trail events. But as John Kerry’s train nears the local station in this picturesque mountain town on a late Sunday night in August ten days after the Democratic convention, just about everyone around me seems to agree that something remarkable is happening. Five hours ago, long before we heard the train’s steam whistle signaling the candidate’s arrival in the same car Harry Truman used in 1948, thousands of people had already filled the town plaza. (Police eventually estimate the crowd at a minimum of 10,000–a startling number for a city of only 61,000.)

When Kerry finally arrives, well past 10 pm, almost two hours late, dressed in signature khakis, open blue shirt and a black blazer, he apologizes to the crowd for the delay. He says he had to make an unscheduled stop in the tiny town of Winslow because an impromptu crowd of 1,000 or more had assembled at the station. “I saw this sign,” he explains. “It said Give Us Ten Minutes and We’ll Give You Eight Years. I took it. They deserve to have a stop!”

The crowd roars its approval. Then, until nearly midnight, it weathers the cold mountain night to hear out not only Kerry but a plethora of other Democratic elected officials, including Governor Janet Napolitano, who elicits another roar of approval when she vows, “We’re gonna turn Arizona blue!”

The crowd is thick with Kerry for President T-shirts and banners. That may be a reflection in part of the fact that local Northern Arizona University is a magnet for Democrats. There’s also a strong contingent of Navajos, who have come in from their nearby reservation. Even a smattering of union T-shirts are visible. “I drove five hours to come here tonight,” says 42-year-old Luis Peralta, wearing a Miners for Kerry shirt. “His coming to Arizona is so important to us. I’m going to take the next month off to volunteer. We can put him over the line.”

All the excitement derives from much more than Kerry’s tortuously dry oratory–no better in person than on the screen. Rather, Arizonans of both parties, but especially Democrats, know that for the first time they can remember, their state has become a key player in a presidential election. Maybe the decisive player. Not a single presidential candidate campaigned in Flagstaff in 2000, but both the Kerry and Bush campaigns have been divebombing in and out of this state of 5.6 million for the past few months. Kerry’s visit to this northern Arizona town is the first ever by a Democratic presidential nominee.

Indeed, for all the talk about Rust Belt battleground states like Ohio, the collective electoral clout of New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Arizona could easily overshadow any larger heartland state. Nevada, a red state last time around, is now an even match, as is New Mexico, where Al Gore won by 366 votes in 2000. Democrats are also confident they can compete in Colorado, where Bush beat Gore by eight points.

But it’s in Arizona, the second-fastest-growing state (after Nevada), brimming with Latinos and Independents–it now has ten electoral votes–where the bloodiest fight is likely to take place. Democrats, who lost the state by six points in 2000, have been pouring in resources–dwarfing the meager commitment made in 2000. Political spots saturate the airwaves–in both English and Spanish (Latinos are a fourth of the population). The AFL-CIO has deemed Arizona crucial enough to be one of the states to which it will send election monitors to guarantee minority voting rights. Left-of-center nonprofits and 527s–from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s Moving America Forward, to the labor- and church-supported New American Freedom Summer–have also set up shop. Volunteers man phone banks every night–and day.

“I had no idea what it meant until now to be a target state,” says Debbie Lopez, a recent executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, with a laugh. From cramped quarters inside the Phoenix offices of ACORN, buried in whiteboards, stacked-up file folders and Excel spreadsheets, Lopez now runs the $3 million Latino Vote Project, which has registered 65,000 people since January. “What a difference money and attention bring,” she says. “Four years ago the Democratic coordinated campaign budget in Arizona was $800,000. In 2002 it was $9 million. This year will be $10 million. Plus another $11 million or $12 million from 527s. All together, that’s twenty times bigger than four years ago.”

And Democrats have the highest expectations regarding a return on their investment. “This is not your grandfather’s Old West,” says Kerry campaign state director Doug Wilson. “What was once a knee-jerk Republican state is going through enormous changes. Goldwater has been replaced by McCain. Ideology has been replaced by Independents. And on election night you’re going to see we’re going to win this state and elsewhere in the West. Not a big victory. But enough of a wind from the West to sweep the nation.”

Until very recently, anyone making that sort of grandiose prediction would have been immediately diagnosed as a sunstroke victim. As Wilson notes, these hardscrabble desert climes incubated Barry Goldwater and, in turn, the modern conservative movement. At one point, Arizona turned so far to the right that local Republicans suggested taking Goldwater’s name off the party headquarters because, in his waning years, he was too soft on gay and abortion rights. In the late 1980s Governor Evan Mecham (who was eventually impeached and removed from office for corruption) issued an order repealing MLK’s birthday as a state holiday. Arizona Democrats lost eleven straight presidential elections from 1952 through 1992, never topping 40 percent of the statewide vote. And while Doug Wilson engineered a Clinton victory in ’96, it was only to see Bush win in 2000.

But with torrential population growth through the 1980s and ’90s, more than doubling the state’s size, Arizona voters have become more urban, more moderate and mostly more Independent, the latter now making up 23 percent of the electorate. Republicans still outnumber Democrats in registration, but in 1996 Arizona voters approved the use of medical marijuana. Two years later Arizona became one of only four states to approve comprehensive “clean money” campaign finance reform. In 2002 a Democratic push fueled by the state’s twenty-one Native American tribes and supported by a growing Latino vote elected Janet Napolitano to the Statehouse. Both the state attorney general’s office and the mayoralty of Phoenix–the seat of Republican stronghold Maricopa County–have recently been taken by Democrats. Cooperation from moderate Republicans also allowed legislative approval this year of Governor Napolitano’s reform budget. And now, by anybody’s account, Arizona is up for grabs.

You could learn all you need to know about Arizona’s shifting demographics and its resulting political alignment from glancing at the story lineup on one recent front page of the Arizona Republic. “End of the Trail” read an above-the-fold feature headline. The Old West theme park Rawhide, on the northern edge of Phoenix, was closing after thirty-three years, a victim of “the dusty fallout of suburban development and soaring land prices.” Next to that article was one showing Bush leading Kerry by a slim three points, a statistical dead heat. “It’s changed demographics that will let us win, a new coalition,” says Wilson. “This year the Latino vote is going to be very important, but it’s only one factor among four or five. Native Americans are another. An increase in turnout of our base is another, and our base is more left, more progressive. Independents are another factor, and they are increasingly difficult to classify. And then there are disaffected Republicans, especially moderate women.”

In a nondescript, one-room office in gritty south-central Phoenix, Kerry staff organizer Arnulfo De La Cruz is just setting up his war room and covering the walls with annotated precinct maps of the three legislative districts that are his territory. There are 67,000 registered voters in his purview. They are predominantly Latino, but turnout in these working-class districts runs 15-20 percent below the state average of 70 percent.

Back in the run-up to the February primary, the Kerry campaign was already fervently working this ground. I accompanied former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Phoenix Congressman Ed Pastor one morning as they canvassed door to door for Kerry in the immediate aftermath of his Iowa upset victory. Now De La Cruz is going to pull on those same sleeves with a decidedly pro-Latino pitch. “When I talk to my neighborhood leaders I stress how under a Bush Administration Latino unemployment is at more than 7 percent, how the gap between Latino and Anglo home ownership has widened, how one out of two Latinos won’t graduate from high school and the Bush Administration has cut support programs, and how 38 percent of Latinos have no healthcare,” he says. “That’s the message that resonates here.”

But that’s enough to win, says Lopez of the Latino Vote Project. “Believe it or not, this is really the first time any serious attention is being paid to registering Latinos,” she says. Of the some 700,000 eligible Latino voters in the state, only half are registered. “And half of them won’t vote,” Lopez predicts. That’s why, she says, moving 10,000-15,000 voters here or there into balloting could make a huge difference. “Democratic turnout is usually about 10 percent less than Republican,” she says, “so you have to peel off some of that Republican vote. And the Democrats have to get 65 percent of the Independent vote, just no way around that.”

That evening, during a visit to one of the Kerry campaign phone banks in Phoenix, the feverish focus on that all-important Independent vote is immediately palpable. A retired immigration judge from Utah who has relocated here to work as a volunteer has got the script down perfect–as do the other half-dozen or so volunteers. “I’m calling from a presidential poll,” he says to each person he calls off a voter list made up of only registered Independents. “If the election were today, who would you vote for: George W. Bush or John Kerry?” If the respondent answers “Bush,” he thanks the person and hangs up. If the answer is “Kerry” or leaning toward Kerry, he says, “Great. So am I. I’m volunteering for the Kerry campaign and want to know if you could also help us out.” Every time there’s an affirmative answer, the volunteers ring a bell to spur one another on.

In Arizona, as elsewhere, the Kerry campaign charges up dead center, focusing on themes of “security”–national security and economic security–and de-emphasizing the more thorny issues of war and peace. But two hours south of the state capital in Tucson, decidedly more Democratic territory than Phoenix, fiery US Congressman Raul Grijalva, who originally supported Howard Dean, warns that “we cannot sanitize the message too much at the risk of losing our core people. Persuading the Independents and so on, well, that’s the job of Kerry’s general campaign. Our job down here is to turn out the base–a very progressive base.”

The Republicans, meanwhile, are not about to quietly cede the state to the Democrats. Campaign appearances by both Bush and Cheney have brought out big and enthusiastic crowds, if not quite as large as Kerry’s, and the Republicans also benefit from a more mature and better-oiled statewide organization. Republicans not only retain the upper hand in rural and ranching areas but also draw support from some of the newly arrived suburban high-tech transplants. Among the state’s large veteran and retired population they can also fight the Democrats mano a mano.

Nor is the GOP ceding the Latino vote. Republicans claim 23,000 volunteers in Arizona. “Fifteen percent of those are Latinos,” says GOP campaign consultant Rubén Alvarez. Stressing, as Democrats agree, that Latinos are not a homogeneous voting bloc, Alvarez says he’s “confident” that Bush can take the plus-35 percent of the Latino vote he needs to win “because here in Arizona we have a big increase in Latino small businessmen who agree not only with the President’s economic policies but also with his stand for traditional family values.” Bush will also attract the Latino vote, Alvarez says, because “after eight years of no discussion at all, the President has elevated the debate on immigration.”

But if there’s one unpredictable wild card in the coming Arizona electoral shootout, it is, precisely, the issue of illegal immigration, as manifested in a Prop 187-like anti-immigrant measure on the November ballot. Ever since 1994, when the Clinton Administration began clamping down on the western and eastern extremes of the southern border, prompting desperate crossings through the brutal Arizona desert, this state has become the epicenter of the illegal immigration crisis. Thousands of undocumented migrants stream into Arizona on a daily basis. While thousands are apprehended, and some die in the crossing, equal numbers get through, swamping health and other state services.

Reaction to the crisis has been mixed. Republican Senator John McCain has joined with Democrats to propose a legalization process–a measure spurned by the GOP Congressional leadership. On the ground level, numerous citizen and church groups run active relief programs, while xenophobic, rancher-based “militias” attempt to stop illegal crossings. The ballot measure, sponsored by a group called Protect Arizona Now (PAN), would require Arizonans to show proof of residence or citizenship when using public agencies. The Arizona Republican Party, fully cognizant that a Latino backlash against California’s Prop 187 nearly wiped out that state’s GOP, opposes the measure. But the Democrats, aware that some 40 percent of Latinos support it, won’t take an official position against it. While he was in Arizona, Kerry punted on the issue, saying it’s the sort of decision he would leave to the states. Says one Democratic consultant, “Lots of Mexican-Americans were either born here or say, ‘Hey, I earned my stay here. So the next guy who comes along also has to. No free rides.'” No one is willing to guess which segment of the electorate will be most energized by the PAN initiative.

One possible silver lining for Democrats, however, could emerge from the immigration storm: a “spoiler” problem for Bush. Numerous Arizona conservatives were outraged when the President announced earlier this year that he would push for a guest-worker legalization program. Though the White House has, at least for now, scuttled the initiative, nativist resentment still simmers against Bush along the southern border. Some anti-immigration activists have started an Internet campaign, gathering pledges from angry conservatives that instead of voting for Bush in November they will write in the name of Colorado Representative Tommy Tancredo, a border crackdown advocate. As of August, a leading anti-immigration group claimed to have more than 30,000 pledges–most of them from Arizona.

The final uncertain twist in Arizona is the mail-in ballot. With voting allowed as early as September 30, young Democratic canvassers are relentlessly working their precinct lists, trying to sew up pledges to vote for Kerry. Their preferred tool is the voting-by-mail program. “And after what happened in Florida in 2000, people here are really going to use that mail-in ballot,” says Mario Diaz, a Kerry consultant who ran the nominee’s victorious Arizona primary campaign. The final Bush-Kerry debate is scheduled to take place on October 13 at Arizona State University, in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. “The debate will coincide with a peak in voting by mail,” Diaz says. “And the entire state will be watching every word.”

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