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Rogue columnist

Arizona in play? Dem hopes spring eternal

Hope springs eternal. Every election cycle since Bill Clinton carried Arizona in 1996, the narrative has gone like this: The state will change politically as newcomers bring their (more liberal) values. And thanks to Hispanics Arizona is on the cusp (always!) of becoming a purple or even deep blue electorate. The 2016 map shows how that worked out in the most recent presidential race.

Might it finally happen this year?

Before getting there, a little history: Arizona was a solidly Democratic state until Harry Rosenzweig persuaded Barry Goldwater to run against incumbent Sen. Ernest McFarland in 1952. Political fixer Steve Shadegg switched parties to run Goldwater's campaign — and Barry stunned Mac, the Senate majority leader and father of the GI Bill, in a close race.

Shadegg was a talented campaign manager and had a good product: Handsome, authentic, charismatic, sexy, ran with a fast crowd (the real Barry was nothing like he was depicted by the national press). But Mac was dragged down by more than this, more even than changing demographics. The Korean War was still dragging on as a stalemate. Americans who had won World War II were angry over a "police action" that didn't yield victory. Whatever glow Harry Truman attained in recent decades, he was deeply unpopular in 1952 and this hurt Democrats.

Still, it wasn't a sea change. Mac came back to Arizona and became highly successful as governor. And for the next three-plus decades Arizona was a competitive state for both parties. Our longest-serving senator was a Democrat: Carl Hayden.

These were different parties compared with today, to be sure. Both were mass parties, with liberal, centrist, and conservative factions. Arizona Democrats tended to be conservative ("pintos"), although Mo Udall in Southern Arizona was more liberal, as was his brother Stewart Udall, who left Congress to become JFK's Interior Secretary.

Goldwater launched the beginning of the GOP's right-wing takeover when he won the presidential nomination in 1964. But both he and Rep. John Rhodes helped push Nixon out of the White House in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal. Both Arizona Republicans would be aghast at the Trump Republican Party.

Continued migration from the Midwest turned Arizona deep red. This is the Big Sort phenomenon, where people move to places that have their political and social values. The enormous retiree population, which votes in every election and votes red (same with the LDS), makes the situation more difficult for Democrats.

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Thus, with the exception of St. Janet's two terms and Terry Goddard as AG, Republicans have controlled most important political branches for decades. They've never paid a price for Arizona's low standing in almost every area of well-being. They want sunshine, championship golf, endless driving, low taxes, and everything else can be blamed on "the Mexicans."

Hispanic turnout has been abysmal. California 1994 Proposition 187 was the rough equivalent of Arizona's SB 1070. Two differences: The former was passed by voters. And it turned out to be so unpopular that it was one of the major factors that destroyed the GOP's statewide chances pretty much forever in the Golden State. But SB 1070 was a political boon for the right in Arizona.

And Clinton's win in 1996? It was less than it seemed. Running against a lackluster Republican who spoke of himself in the third person, the president carried 46.5% vs. Bob Dole's 44.3%. (H. Ross Perot was once again on the ballot). Tellingly, Clinton lost Maricopa County.

Today's state of play is less favorable to Republicans. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the Senate race in 2018. Although her modern pinto voting record irritates progressives, it made the difference in beating Martha McSally. In a quarterback sneak, Gov. Doug Ducey named McSally to serve out John McCain's term and give her an advantage this year. It hasn't worked out that way, as Mark Kelly, popular astronaut and husband of Gabby Giffords, is doing well as the Democratic candidate.

Another shift: Five of Arizona's nine congressional seats are held by Democrats. Arizona's Republican representatives tend to be comically extreme or corrupt, lacking wide appeal outside their districts.

This year, the drumbeat of Arizona-turns-purple stories ( see here, here, and here) have more credibility.

I'll believe it when I see it. Much will depend on a combination of revulsion against Trump and high Democratic turnout. As always, a large Hispanic vote would be a game changer.

For the state, the most significant and constructive change would be Democrats taking control of the Legislature, the strongest branch of government. Then the Kookocracy would be swept out, at least for awhile, and good things could come.

This analysis was first published on Rogue Columnist


Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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