In a shock to those of us who witnessed an extremely unpopular George W. Bush defeat John Kerry by 10%, followed by Barack Obama never getting within 8% of his Republican opponents, Arizona is now blue.
Some might argue that point by saying this presidential race was just a fluke due to Donald Trump’s off-putting behavior, but it’s true. Just put aside the presidential race — Arizona now has two Democratic senators, a Democratic majority in its U.S. House delegation, is close to catching Republicans in the Legislature and has approved a wealth tax that would rival anything in the most liberal states.
The sudden shift can be attributed to a bunch of reasons, and in all likelihood it took a lot of them to add up to the changes we’ve seen in Arizona from the beginning of this century through today. I’m just offering my theory based on lived experience.
I trace it back just over 10 years ago to when Arizona Republicans made the fatal mistake of passing Senate Bill 1070, which has become known by opponents as the “show me your papers” law. For those who don’t know, the law gave police the authority to make warrantless arrests of people suspected of being in the United States without proper documentation. In other words, it made having brown skin a probable cause.
It was a sign of disconnect between the mostly white Legislature and a state with a rising share of Latino residents. For too long, Republicans dismissed Latinos as low-propensity voters. But these families, as those of us in Pinal County know full well, have deep, deep roots in this state. At this point, there are many generations in these families who have become leaders in their community and are irreplaceable. And no matter how that family originally made its way to Arizona, they can now all vote.
SB 1070 immediately caused a national stir and stained Arizona’s reputation. There were calls to boycott the state by many entertainers and some questioned whether those of us with brown skin should get out of Dodge. But again, those roots grow deep. There was no way the Legislature was going to get rid of people that easy.
I remember, during the middle of the 1070 firestorm, going to a Gaslight Anthem concert in Tempe. The band’s lead singer, Brian Fallon, addressed the elephant in the room, saying he knew many of his peers said not to come to Arizona, as if their absence would have any effect besides punishing their fans. He said he wasn’t about to abandon the good people of the state who are going to be working to change the very foundation of Arizona politics. He was going to stand with everyone who wanted to make a difference. The roar of the crowd matched the volume of any song played that night.
And indeed, that roar could be heard on the streets of downtown Phoenix, of South Tucson and Flagstaff and everywhere in between. The people were angry, and more importantly, these were the people who had been previously dismissed electorally. These were young people, those who feared for the fate of themselves and their friends. And there was the Latino community, showing they count just like everyone else, and that they weren’t going to let anyone forget it.
Change still took time, it always does. There is a reason why they call these movements grassroots. They take time to grow. But the changes came. Russell Pearce, the Senate president and legislative face of SB 1070, was recalled the next year, kicked out of office by the voters. Gov. Jan Brewer, who staked her reputation on the bill, initially was rewarded with an election win that year but quickly fell out of favor with voters. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for his anti-immigrant policies, dropped from 55% support in 2008 to 51% in 2012 before being thoroughly rejected in 2016.
The law itself, meanwhile, was taken to court, where most of its provisions were tossed out in 2012, basically making it toothless against anyone except law enforcement officials. With these judicial defeats, SB 1070 became something that immensely harmed state Republicans while doing basically nothing to further the goals of its supporters. It truly was the best thing that could happen to Arizona Democrats.
With a much more engaged base, Democrats turned the state more purple over the past decade. Republicans weren’t ready for this, as their candidate bench was full of the rabble-rousing conservatives that got SB 1070 passed in the first place. Democrats, meanwhile, were perfectly ready for the moment, since they in big races have for many years been nominating people who would be moderate Republicans in other states.
Thus were the conditions that led the Republicans to rely on Martha McSally to save their party from the blue wave. If it wasn’t for SB 1070, that would have easily been the most self-destructive move the state party has made. Through two inept campaigns that only had the ideas to label Kyrsten Sinema a traitor and Mark Kelly Chinese, McSally’s legacy will go down as the person who destroyed the once-prestigious national influence of Arizona’s Republican senators.
Of course, plenty of blame for that goes to Doug Ducey, who saw McSally’s first disastrous campaign and immediately ordered seconds. Now, after trying to play it both ways in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and instead alienating all sides, his approval rating has plummeted. That leads to the question: Is the governor’s office about to go blue, too?
Joey Chenoweth can be reached at email@example.com.