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.