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Pima County gave Biden his Az win; Tucson the hidden key to state's political future

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What the Devil won't tell you

Pima County gave Biden his Az win; Tucson the hidden key to state's political future

  • Confederate flags and Donald Trump aren't selling in Pima County. The way back for Arizona Republicans will your more basic serving of red, white and blue. (Photo: Trump supporters protest at the Arizona State Capitol on Nov. 8, 2020. Many of the protesters were motivated by baseless allegations that Joe Biden cheated to defeat Donald Trump.)
    Jeremy Duda/Arizona MirrorConfederate flags and Donald Trump aren't selling in Pima County. The way back for Arizona Republicans will your more basic serving of red, white and blue. (Photo: Trump supporters protest at the Arizona State Capitol on Nov. 8, 2020. Many of the protesters were motivated by baseless allegations that Joe Biden cheated to defeat Donald Trump.)

Arizona isn’t a Blue State, yet … but the Republican Red paint job is fading fast.

The outside political world is looking at what are perceived as rapid changes in Maricopa County for the answer as to why President-Elect Joe Biden won our state by about 10,000 votes.

Well, it would take a somewhat mathematically literate Republican operative only about four minutes to realize Pima County is just as big a problem for the GOP. President Donald Trump wasn't going to win here — the voter registration advantage for Democrats is substantial — but if he'd only lost by just a bit less, he could've carried the state.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won Maricopa County by 10.5 points in 2012. Biden won that county by 2 points. That’s a change of  12.5 points.

Pima County shifted to the Blue column by … 12.5 points since 2012. Romney only lost down here by 6 points. Trump is losing by more than 18.

What does this mean? It means even with the state’s most-populated county voting Democratic, the rural vote still could have delivered the state to Trump by nearly 80,000 votes — except for Pima County.

But when we dump this county’s 98,000-vote Democratic lead on the totals, Biden walks away with 11 electoral votes in his pocket.

Romney lost by 24,000 votes in Pima County. Had Trump lost here by a mere 75,000, he would have won Arizona.

In Wisconsin, there are enough voters outside of Milwaukee and Madison to make up 370,000 votes of a 400,000-vote margin out of those two Democratic bastions. Outside of Phoenix and Tucson, Republicans have to bust their backsides to claw back 90,000.

For years, I’ve been telling local Republicans not to go out of business in Pima County. They wouldn’t listen to me, or people I know in their own party (who've mostly been silenced and shouted down) about the Pima GOP allowing for some moderation in candidates.

That insistence on right-wing ideological purity is costing them the state of Goldwater.

Hell, with very little money and organization, Pima County Republicans are watching Democrats eat into their safe spaces. In Pima County's first supervisorial district, Democrat Rex Scott's 1,000-vote lead over Republican Steve Spain is mind-bogglingly close for what's been a reliably GOP area. Man, have the Republicans irritated the Catalina Foothills. And Steve Christy winning by single digits in District 4 — where Democrats haven't even run a candidate for a quarter-century — tells me Tucson's East Side and maybe even Green Valley are turned off, too.

Sheriff Mark Napier lost a tight race in a really bad election to be a Republican, if Republican is defined — as it has been by the members of the GOP themselves — by Trump's rage, grievance, racism and revenge.

Arizona will for the next two years be represented by two Democratic senators, five Democratic congressional representatives to three Republicans and the state's 11 electoral votes are a present to Joe Biden. In this election, voters legalized recreational pot and raised taxes on the well-off to pay for schools.

If I were offer advice to Republicans, it would be to immediately start the engines for the 2021 Tucson City Council races because there might be opportunity. There’s absolutely necessity for the party because the ship of state is tacking Left and Tucson conservatives can’t rely on Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs to do the heavy lifting anymore.

Maricopa, which has long ruled our patch of desert with a clenched right fist, is now outstretching its left hand and asking us to “pass the bong.”


Sure, we can talk about how Republicans are holding onto power in state offices. The Legislature held. Great. The Alabama and Mississippi legislatures stayed Democratic until 2010 – long after they took on a Republican identity at the national level.

Maricopa County is still run by Republicans. They got four of five county supervisors, the county assessor, attorney, school superintendent and recorder. Those downticket races define the true baseline for party preference.

But consider this: In 2012, Democrats didn’t come within 100,000 votes of a majority on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. In 2020, they clung to control by about 5,000 votes in two races. There but for two points, Democrats have control.

Democrats in 2012 failed to field candidates for most countywide races in Maricopa County. Now they are within two points of sweeping most of them.

And the Trumpiest of candidates – Joe Arpaio toadie Jerry Sheridan — lost the county sheriff race by 10 points.

The outgoing president is leaving office with the knowledge that he can turn out the vote like no other Republican in history and is posturing at planning a run in 2024. The catalyst for the state's shift isn't going anywhere and he also provokes a bigger vote against him every single time. 

Smart beats crazy

Pima County Republicans are going to have to become the change they want to see and that means, in the words of Barack Obama, making things better in lieu of the perfect.

The party's going to have find its versions of Connor Lamb and Joe Manchin. Supervisor-elect Matt Heinz can win in South Tucson but he wouldn't go anywhere in Oro Valley. Gabriela Cázares-Kelly is the new Pima County recorder. She would not win a seat in the Legislature representing the Northwest Side.

Candidates should match their voters, at least sorta.

Republicans used to know this, embracing moderates like Pete Hershberger and Toni Hellon. They would run fiscally conservative, pro-law-enforcement and business-friendly candidates for the City Council, and win. Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar weren’t wild right-wingers. Neither was one-time Republican Steve Kozachik for that matter, but he got run out of the party over a voluntary gun buyback program.

You even elected a liberatarian-esque party chair who dared criticize the Pima County Sheriff's Department for a SWAT team raid that left a man dead.  For that he was booted from his job. 

The worst was when Gary Watson ran in 2017 and was informed he wasn’t a “True Republican” if the firefighter supported a half-cent sales tax for road improvement and public safety. He was told the party would not support his candidacy.

He was a strong candidate but had to subsist on a few thousand bucks and some pocket lint without the GOP's institutional support.

Democrats are winning in Trump territory but they aren’t doing it by running as disciples of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Why do Republicans insist their candidates run for City Council parroting talk radio and social media conspiracies?

Victory requires work. It also takes money, too. The Democratic Party outraised the Republican Party by three to one this election cycle.

That’s a hell of a lot bigger than the vote split against them.

Also stop with this craziness about mail-in ballots being fraudulent. There were 3.3 million votes cast in Arizona and about 90 percent were by mail. What are the odds that 15,000 Republicans meant to vote on Election Day but didn’t? I’m willing to bet that Republicans lost 1 percent that way.

Tucson is a low-wage town with high crime rates and shitty roads. I don't know, try running on that. Don't be crazy. Don't be stupid. Talk to people about issues that matter to them and respond accordingly. 

It's a message that might even resonate with Latinos, who are motivated more than by just immigration.

Do it like a donkey

Trump spurred massive Democratic margins in Pima County but they didn’t just show up. They are the dividend of a lot of work that’s been 10 years in the making. Democrats organized at the precinct level. They went in big on the Northwest Side back in 2010 and have stayed there.

They’ve been run by driven chairmen and chairwomen, lead by a professional staff that organized the work.

Local Democrats have been working for 10 years to get voters — Latinos especially — registered and on the Permanent Early Voting List. That work has paid off.

Get 'em next time

Republicans do have immediate opportunities. I wrote in 2017 that then-U.S. Rep. Martha McSally had a Trump problem heading into 2018. I wasn’t reading tarot. I understood history. Midterms suck for the party that holds the White House. The opposition is angry. The party in charge is content but unsatisfied that so many campaign promises failed to pan out.

Without a Democratic Congress, Biden is certain to disappoint the activists who don’t understand the separation of powers.

Locally, Tucson Democrats went to sleep the year after Barack Obama won the White House. Republicans were eager for a Democrat to vote against and damned near swept into power on the City Council.

The 2021 city race would set the party up nicely for the midterm when U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly must run again and redistricting could give Republicans a better set of maps.

Pancakes with a side of Lester Holt

Arizona's movement matches a regional trend.

Between 1952 and 1988, Democrats won four western states in nine of the 10 elections (dismissing Barry Goldwater’s 1964 implosion as an outlier). That’s not that they won four states in each of those elections. They only won a state in the Western or Mountain time zone four times. I’m talking Nevada in 1960, Washington in 1968, Oregon and Washington in 1988. In 1992, they won seven.

In five of the last seven elections, Democrats have won six states in those time zones with nearly 100 electoral votes shifting toward them and away from the Republicans. Arizona has been a regional outlier.

The whole 2020 presidential election hinged on a question that was rarely articulated well: Is the Sun Belt shifting Blue faster than the Rust Belt is moving Red? Yep. And Tucson is a big part of that answer.

Arizona and Georgia add up to 1 more electoral vote than Michigan and Wisconsin, and those two Midwestern states were all anyone talked about for the last three years.

So if you plan on eating at a Tucson diner anytime during the next four years, you might want to plan on it taking a few extra minutes. Lester Holt might want a word with the new trending swing voters.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.

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