Arizona has officially become America’s newest battleground state. With Democrats winning the statewide contests for governor, senator, and secretary of state this year, a state that was once solidly red is now decidedly purple, if not trending blue. How did it happen? What lessons can we learn, and how do we hasten the journey toward the promised land of progressive politics?
This moment has been over a decade in the making. In 2012, The New York Times chronicled the efforts of the Obama campaign to put Arizona—which it termed an “unlikely state”—into play. Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, correctly assessed the situation: “It is going to be a swing state. The question is whether we can get enough people registered to put it in play this year.” Obama fell short in 2012 by seven percentage points, with Mitt Romney prevailing by just over 200,000 votes.
In 2016, I was at a fundraising dinner with Hillary Clinton, and I asked her if she planned to contest Arizona. After a long and thoughtful pause, she said that it was under consideration (I also asked about Georgia and got the same answer). Her campaign made a late push with $2 million in television ads and a visit from Clinton days before the election, and, despite the lateness of that effort, she cut Obama’s margin of defeat in half, coming within three and a half percentage points of winning (a deficit of just 91,000 votes).
And, then over the past four years, the tide shifted fundamentally. In 2018, Democrats Katie Hobbs and Kyrsten Sinema won election as, respectively, secretary of state and senator, both of them narrowly attaining 50 percent of the vote to secure their seats. In 2020, Joe Biden bested and shocked Donald Trump, and Mark Kelly won a special election for a US Senate seat, helping to flip control of that chamber.
This month, the exclamation point was put on the sentence of political change, with Hobbs winning the governor’s office and Kelly beating back the billionaire-funded challenge to his Senate seat.
These results in Arizona are not outliers—they represent a trend, and progressives need to analyze its origins, learn its lessons, and make smart and strategic decisions going forward in order to solidify the state’s place as a cornerstone of a new national progressive political order.
So, how did it happen? There have been three major developments over the past few decades, and they need to be understood in their proper order and sequence.
The first reality is that the demographic revolution is transforming the racial composition of the electorate. The land that we now call Arizona was part of Mexico prior to the bloody 1848 Annexation of the Southwest, and the current border abuts Mexico, so it should be no surprise that lots of Mexican Americans have settled in Arizona. Since 1990, the Latino population in Arizona has steadily increased, growing nearly threefold from 688,338 people in 1990 to 1.3 million in 2000 and 1.9 million in 2010, at which point Latinos comprised fully 30 percent of the entire state population. The 2020 Census counted nearly 2.4 million Latinos in Arizona, 32 percent of the total population. The proportion of people of color (encompassing Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans) has risen from 28 percent of the state in 1990 to fully 47 percent today. As the non-white numbers were zooming up, the white numbers were tumbling down—from 78 percent of all Arizonans in 1990 to just 53 percent today.
The population revolution has begun to spill over into the composition of the electorate. In 2008, Latinos accounted for 12 percent of the people who cast ballots. By 2020, that vote share had nearly doubled, to 22 percent. Despite widespread and inaccurate claims that Latino voters are trending toward Republicans, the majority of Latinos have backed Democrats in nearly every exit poll taken since exit polls started tracking Latino preferences (earlier this year, I wrote about the inaccuracy of the interpretations of the Latino voting trend). The Democratic tilt of voters of color and young people has similarly been affirmed in election after election. Republicans see the writing on the metaphorical wall, and that is why they continue to clamor for a brick-and-mortar wall to try to hold back the tide of demographic change.
But demographics alone do not a political movement make. The second reality propelling change in Arizona is the creation and persistence of a cohesive core of leaders and organizations steadily working together to transform population shifts into political power. I devote an entire chapter of my book How We Win the Civil War to the Arizona story, and I describe how the 2010 anti-immigrant, right-wing “Show Me Your Papers” bill (SB 1070) “catalyzed an entire generation of organizers, leaders and public servants.” The activists who came of age as high school and college students protesting that policy created an array of civic engagement organizations that work together in the coalitions One Arizona and Arizona Wins. “One Arizona began as an alliance of four organizations who came together in 2010 and set a goal of trying to register 12,000 people to vote,” I wrote. “By 2018, the coalition had grown to two dozen groups who registered nearly 200,000 people to vote.” In 2022, the Arizona Wins coalition knocked on 2.5 million doors and talked to 1.1 million voters. Hobbs won her race by 17,428 votes.
The third reality is that a meaningful number of white voters apparently did indeed recoil from the extremism of Trump and his political progeny running as the Republican senate and gubernatorial nominees. According to the 2022 exit polls, both Kelly and Hobbs attracted 49 percent of the white vote, significantly higher than the 40 percent share that backed Hillary Clinton and Obama before her. It is possible that this relatively high share of the white vote is attributable to home-state fondness for John McCain that resulted in a backlash against those who attacked the late senator, as Trump and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake did, but it’s equally plausible that a relevant chunk of Arizona Republicans were, as a matter of principle, turned off by the rhetoric and election-denying antics of the party’s standard-bearers.
While the bump in white support is a welcome development in the short term, it is not a solid or dependable foundation on which to build lasting progressive power. If and when a more palatable and less offensive right-wing leader emerges, the support of moderate Republicans can quickly dissolve like quicksand. Chasing these voters with moderate candidates and policies is not likely to build durable political success. We know from almost all available data that Arizona’s future is both racially diverse and progressive. Sixty-two percent of Arizonans under the age of 18 are people of color. Kelly and Hobbs both dominated among younger voters, winning respectively 76 percent and 71 percent of their votes. These are the voters whose support Democrats need to consolidate. It would actually be counterproductive to bend over too far backward to appease moderate Republicans, since failure to develop and deepen enthusiasm among younger voters of color could lead to the bottom falling out of the coalition that is steadily transforming the balance of power in the state..
Arizona is in the midst of a political realignment that has revolutionary implications for the national political balance of power. If progressives are smart, recognize the factors fueling this transformation, and strategically invest in the leaders and groups driving social and political change, Arizona can become a solid pillar of national progressive politics for years to come.