In a dark karaoke bar, the interior dulled by deep-red neon lighting, the walls covered with tacky posters featuring busty women advertising cars and beer, the GOP precinct captains for Arizona’s Cochise County met to discuss politics. The primaries had taken place a couple of weeks earlier, and now, in mid-September, they were strategizing their dash to the election finish line in November—in this case, the fight for the Second Congressional District, a key toss-up race in the struggle to determine which party will control Congress. This year, moderate Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick faces off against Republican Lea Marquez Peterson for the seat vacated by Martha McSally, who is now the GOP candidate in the race to replace retiring Senator Jeff Flake.
The bar was a last-minute substitute for the party headquarters just next door, in a run-down strip mall in the conservative military town of Sierra Vista, a scrubby desert community loaded with gun stores and military-surplus marts. The GOP headquarters, in what could be considered a metaphor for the party as a whole during a season of nonstop Trump scandals, had recently suffered storm damage and was temporarily out of commission.
Most of the precinct captains were old, and all of them were white. One or two were wearing MAGA caps. They looked like small-town grandparents—in Hawaiian shirts and visors, with some using walkers and at least one with a mobile oxygen tank. The captains came to talk about pushing back against what they saw as Democratic tax-and-spend measures (especially the efforts by Red for Ed, a pro-teachers campaign to channel more money into the state’s crumbling public-school system); to tout the country’s economic achievements under Trump; to urge tougher immigration enforcement (the local sheriff, Mark Dannels, told them how his officers were going after drug smugglers in the region and how he’d visited Washington to meet with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to tout tougher policing in the borderlands); and, above all, to push for funding a border wall to stop what they saw as a wave of violent crime surging north from Mexico.
“We won’t be getting an influx of jobs until we get a wall,” said GOP county chair Sue Mitchell, a bespectacled, genial-looking elderly lady. “A bigger wall than we have—because people from the rest of the country won’t want to come here, because they hear these awful things. Ranch families find illegals in their homes; they get murdered by these people,” Mitchell warned darkly. “Illegal aliens are doing awful things to our citizens.”
The atmosphere was a stark contrast with the Democratic Party gathering, one congressional district to the west, hosted the previous evening by progressive Congressman Raúl Grijalva in a large social club in south Tucson. That event was a solidly multiracial affair, filled with hundreds of people from all age groups and dominated by speakers—such as gubernatorial candidate David Garcia—talking about a new dawn, a new set of moral and political priorities, for Arizona. There was a mariachi band playing under white bunting and tables filled with materials on Red for Ed, information on local environmental initiatives, and placards urging the defense of Medicare.
One of those present, a teacher named Margaret Chaney who assists educators in developing resources for African-American and Mexican-American students, spoke with me about cuts to the state’s school budget. “It’s been 10, 12 years of withholding funds, and people are getting really sick of it,” she said. Like many of her colleagues, Chaney has taken to the streets in protest and has begun knocking on doors, speaking to fellow Arizonans about the need to invest adequately in education. As with recent campaigns by educators in West Virginia, Kentucky, and other anti-union states, the teachers’ movement in Arizona has acquired legs. Political observers believe it could make a big difference this November. “We’re hoping to keep the momentum going,” Chaney explained, “so the people who are not for public education are no longer making decisions for public education.”
Grijalva has a towering reputation among liberals. For many years, he has co-chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus, turning it into one of the most influential of Democratic caucuses. It is the CPC that, for the better part of a decade, has authored the “People’s Budget,” an annual reimagining of federal spending priorities that has provided grist for those supporting things like Medicare for All, more investment in affordable housing, and more money to tackle climate change.
Grijalva says that many of the most extreme policies now being carried out by Trump were developed by Arizona state legislators. “Arizona has been the petri dish for a decade and a half,” he tells me, sitting on a metal folding chair outside the social club, seemingly impervious to the fierce late-afternoon heat. He names SB 1070 (the draconian 2010 anti-immigrant state law that was partially struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012), as well as tax cuts, for-profit schools, and policies affecting the environment. “The public has a better grasp of what’s at stake,” he continues. “They’ve been experimented upon. The Koch brothers’ influence here is huge. Our state’s been through all of it. So voters are more engaged now. Trump was the added fuel. There are newer voters, younger voters—voters of color have come to the forefront.”
Democrats are hoping that Grijalva’s political clout, combined with voter fury at the chaos and cruelty of the Trump administration, can be brought to bear in the race for CD 2, an area that includes the liberal precincts of Tucson as well as a huge and conservative rural hinterland that snakes east along the US-Mexican border for nearly 100 miles.
Of all the competitive congressional districts in the country, few have produced the sort of knife-edge results seen in the Second Congressional District over the past two election cycles. According to The New York Times, it is one of 10 open seats previously held by a Republican that Democrats believe they have a particularly strong chance of taking.
The district is nearly 8,000 square miles—much larger than the entire state of Connecticut. Much of it is red-rock desert and psychedelically patterned cactus forest; near the border, under limestone mountains 300 million years old, are extraordinary cave complexes. Within CD 2’s borders are deeply conservative ranching, military, and retiree communities such as Benson and Willcox—the backbone of Arizona’s Joe Arpaio–loving Tea Party base—as well as the reliably liberal Tucson neighborhoods and the historic mining-town-cum-art-colony of Bisbee.
At one point early in the 20th century, at the height of its copper-mining wealth, Bisbee claimed to be the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. These days it’s down to 5,500, and its residents include artists, jewelry makers, and an assortment of alternative-lifestylers. Sitting in one of Bisbee’s several first-rate coffee shops, Mayor Dave Smith, a Marine veteran, onetime police officer, and recovering Republican—he didn’t leave the party, he says wryly; the party left him—talks about the annual gay-pride parade, the town’s early adoption of a gay-marriage/civil-union ordinance, and its strong environmental ethos. It is, he acknowledges, an island of blue in a sea of red.
A half-hour’s drive north, the Wild West’s most legendary town, Tombstone, hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually who come to see re-creations of the shoot-out at the OK Corral, drink in historic saloons like Big Nose Kate’s, and gawk at the homes of legends like Wyatt Earp.
Nowadays Tombstone, which shot to fame for its silver lode in the late 1870s, is a quiet place, the Wild West bluster doled out in small, manicured quantities, its streets and old-time saloons empty by 9 pm. A lot of retirees live here, explains city historian Don Taylor, a beefy man in jeans, pointed cowboy boots, and a salmon-colored shirt. “They’re primarily conservative. They’re on board with the Republicans.”
The Minutemen, a militia that patrolled the borderlands for years, started in Tombstone. Generally, Taylor says, residents support the idea of a border wall, without necessarily thinking through the implications of what it will do to the local economy. As for the policy of separating undocumented families, Taylor believes that many residents are uncomfortable enough about it that they don’t want to discuss it, but not so uncomfortable that it threatens their allegiance to the GOP. “It’s almost like, ‘If we don’t talk about it, it’ll go away,’” he says. Democrats see an opening here, pushing a moral message in the hope that it will ultimately peel off a number of these more sensitive Republican voters.
“My biggest question for the Republican candidate,” says Tucson City Councilor Regina Romero, a Democrat, “is will she, or does she, agree with the Trump policy of separating families and putting kids in detention? If she’s standing in the party of Trump, is that what she believes in? This election is different. People really want to put a check on Trump and the Republican Party.”
In rock-solid Republican towns like Benson, the main street these days is lined with posters for “conservative Republican” candidates for the State Senate and House. What one doesn’t see anymore, however, are the once-ubiquitous Trump and MAGA signs.
“This is a strongly Republican town. But I know there are a lot of people willing to cross party lines,” says Najayyah Many Horses, office manager for Benson’s Chamber of Commerce and president of the local food pantry—which these days, even with low unemployment, serves 800 people a week, she estimates. There is, Many Horse adds, a weariness in the air about the chaos surrounding the Trump administration. “People are saying, ‘What is the best for us? What is the best way to go?’ Of late, I’ve heard that sentiment more often than not, including from some businesspeople. At some point, as my grandma used to say, every pot has to stand on its own bottom.”
Cd 2’s predecessor, the eighth congressional District, was once a solid Democratic seat, the party’s support shored up by thousands of unionized copper miners who worked the huge Phelps Dodge mine near Bisbee into the mid-1970s. Since the mining jobs disappeared, most employment has come from prisons and sprawling Fort Huachuca, and the district has swung to the right. Former Democratic representative Mo Udall’s strong environmentalism was followed by a stampede toward deregulation and a willingness to sell off public lands. Politicians pushed statewide efforts to lower taxes and slash public services. Over the past few election cycles, the Second Congressional District has gone back and forth between the parties (as CD 8, it was Democrat Gabby Giffords’s seat until she resigned in 2012 to recover from the grave injuries she’d suffered in the assassination attempt against her the previous year).
The perennial power struggle between Tucson and the smaller communities to its east in many ways mirrors the urban/rural divide at the core of modern American politics. Martha McSally, a conservative Republican with a shallow legislative record, won the seat in 2014, but her margin of victory was a nail-biting 167 votes. In 2016, with the tailwinds of incumbency behind her, she coasted to re-election—but at the same time, her district produced a five-point margin for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
Now McSally’s seat is open again, because—to the relief of establishment figures like Republican Governor Doug Ducey—she beat out former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and another far-right candidate in the GOP primary race to replace Senator Flake. Running in her place in CD 2, Lea Marquez Peterson is a political novice whose main qualifications are her years as a businesswoman who heads Tucson’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the fact that she isn’t Brandon Martin—her firebrand “constitutional conservative” primary challenger, who argued, among other things, that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations. Marquez Peterson, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is also a local—and the attack ads have branded her opponent, Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democratic moderate who once represented a district in north Arizona, as a carpetbagger. (In fact, Kirkpatrick, who was born and raised on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, where her mom was an elementary-school teacher, has spent much of her adult life in the Tucson area.)
For Republican state senator and majority whip Gail Griffin, who is based in Cochise County, Marquez Peterson’s qualifications, along with what she insists is solid support among the party’s base for Trump, ought to do the trick. “Lea has a business background; she knows the people, wants to make the district productive,” Griffin argues. Plus, she adds, “Trump is an asset. He’s getting things done; the economy is picking up. The promises he’s made, he’s accomplishing. The border wall is a biggie. They’ve cut down illegal immigration. Trump may use stronger words than many of us like, but he’s proven he loves the country and cares about the people.”
Not surprisingly, Democrats disagree with Griffin’s assessment. They believe that, while Marquez Peterson is more palatable to independents than Martin would have been, this will be outweighed by the distaste for Trump among independent and swing voters and the desire for a Congress that will rein in an out-of-control president.
“The swing voters tend to be Republican women,” Kirkpatrick says. “And that’s a natural constituency for me—my mom was a Republican, my dad a Democrat.”
Kirkpatrick acknowledges that many rural voters instinctively like Trump. “I know the Trump voter; I went to high school with them,” she says. “They’re good people. They were promised a good life, and life’s been a struggle. They saw Trump as an agent of change.”
But they don’t like the tax cuts he signed into law. Elder Arizona voters, she says, fear that those cuts will be paid for by raiding their Social Security and Medicare benefits. Arizonans also worry that their education system is in crisis. “Our teachers went on strike for the first time. They marched. We were part of that—I was a teacher in Tucson. My mom was a teacher. This is personal to us.”
With just weeks to go until the election, Democratic political operatives are enthused by what they’re seeing in the district: a surge of engagement; high voter-registration numbers, especially among students in town; record Democratic Party primary turnouts in the Tucson precincts this August; enthusiasm for change fueled by the teachers’ walkout earlier this year; and the staying power of the Red for Ed campaign in the state and the district in the months since the walkout. The latest polling backs this up, with one by The New York Times showing Kirkpatrick ahead by as much as 11 points.
On the edge of the OK Corral in Tombstone is a small trailer park. At its entrance, next to a US flag, the owners have posted a sign: “There is no Poop Fairy! Clean up after your dogs.” It could all too easily be a message for Arizona voters in the Trump era. You want to clean up the Trump mess? Then don’t vote for more Republicans to represent you in Congress. And if you do, don’t expect the Poop Fairy to help you out.
Democrats are optimistic, but they’re not taking any chances. “Knock on wood—and knock on doors,” Regina Romero says, laughing. “The strategy has to be: Knock on every single door seven times. It’s all about the turnout. Are young people, urban dwellers, going to turn out?”