Arizona has long been a testing ground for anti-immigrant laws and talk, but the state has seen a political shift. Analysts suggests that demographic changes, including a growing number of transplants from more liberal states and Latino voters, are responsible for the shift. This is partially true, but the origins of Arizona’s evolution into a pivotal battleground state can be attributed to a longer history and a broader cast of characters.
The extremism of the state’s Republican leaders has alienated voters, and given rise to coalitions of Democrats, Independents and even Republicans, who have come together to work toward a lasting political transformation of the desert Southwest. Their efforts have come to bear. In 2011 voters recalled the architect of the nation’s toughest immigration laws, in 2016 they ousted a controversial sheriff, and in 2018, they sent a Democrat to the Senate for the first time in 30 years. Joe Biden is currently polling ahead of Donald Trump.
Arizona’s anti-immigrant surge predates Joe Arpaio, but his election as the sheriff of Maricopa County in 1993 was a galvanizing moment for the activism that is now helping turn the state. In the 1990s, Mr. Arpaio built Tent City, an outdoor Arizona jail that he once described as a “concentration camp.” Under his watch, Maricopa County entered into an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allowed the local police to enforce federal immigration laws.
Immigrant rights activists led the charge against Russell Pearce, the state senator who sponsored Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, and Jan Brewer, then governor, who signed the bill into law in 2010. Known as the “show me your papers” law, it required the police to verify the immigration status of any detained or arrested person they suspected of being in the state illegally. Its passage was a flash point in the battle over immigration, giving birth to a new generation of young immigrants that organized protests, boycotts, and mounted legal challenges.
That same year, Ms. Brewer also signed a “constitutional carry” firearm law, which grants anyone over the age of 21 the right to carry a hidden, loaded firearm without a license. The shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords just months after the law was signed politicized the issue of gun violence in the state. The debate over guns is especially important in Arizona because shootings by police officers have risen steadily, and the Phoenix Police Department has been called “the deadliest force in the country.”
Like activists elsewhere, Arizonans have protested killings by the police in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. They’ve decried the killings of Dion Johnson in Phoenix, or Carlos Ingram Lopez in Tucson. But residents of Phoenix and Tucson — the seats of Maricopa and Pima Counties, home to three-quarters of the state’s population — have long protested and organized against police violence.
The pandemic and renewed civil unrest have accelerated the sense of urgency, but Democrats have been organizing not just for the moment, but also for the future.
The turning point when Arizona could become blue has been looming over the horizon for some time. President Trump won by only 3.5 percent of the vote in 2016. The 2018 midterm Senate election — when the Democratic candidate, Kyrsten Sinema, defeated the Republican incumbent, Martha McSally — was an important moment in Arizona’s evolution. In the House, Democrats picked up four seats, and today Republicans have only a one-seat advantage.
But even if Arizona has trended toward the Democrats for a while, 2020 “is our time,” said Alex Steele, an organizer with Arizona Ready, a movement working to defeat Mr. Trump in November. Indeed, what’s remarkable is how organizations have formed over the past decade to advocate for the rights of immigrants, workers, teachers, people of color facing police violence and Native Americans.
During a virtual conference hosted by Arizona Ready, earlier this summer, the focus was on the effort to defeat Republicans at the state and national levels. The fact that Mr. Biden and the Senate candidate Mark Kelly part company with progressive organizations on important issues won’t prevent progressives from supporting them. There are just too many “overlapping crises” that will “activate people on the left,” according to Emily Kirkland, the executive director of Progress Arizona.
Without a doubt, Republicans will be mobilized, too. Polls have found that Mr. Trump’s supporters in Arizona are more enthusiastic. Mr. Biden’s support among Latinos, especially Latino youth, has decreased over the past few months. The Covid-19 outbreak has led to a precipitous decline in voter registration in Arizona, and Republican leaders are fighting to make absentee voting more difficult. In a larger sense, it won’t be easy to flip a state that has been reliably conservative for so long.
If Arizona does flip, Democrats would break the hold that Republicans have had on the state since the mid-20th century. A Democratic victory in Arizona may not signal the rise of progressivism that many on the left hope for — and which these times of manifest injustice and inequality seem to demand — but wins there would signal the beginning of an end to the ugliness of the past decade and more. It would be a dramatic reversal of fortunes for a party and a president who’ve long viewed Arizona as a stronghold. In 2016, Arizona’s Republican leaders made Trump the embodiment of all they’d worked for, and it may spell their demise.
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