How GOP Overreach Put Arizona Back in Play

Republican extremism and scandal have taken their toll, and Democrats think they have a shot.

Arizona
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The Republican presidential carnival descends on Arizona tonight, with the four remaining contenders for the GOP nod squaring off in Mesa for a high-stakes debate days ahead of the state’s Feb. 28 primary vote. The latest polling has Rick Santorum closing in on Mitt Romney, whose chances weren’t helped over the weekend when his campaign’s Arizona co-chair, the Tea Party-leaning immigration hardliner Sheriff of uber-conservative Pinal County, Paul Babeu, was outed by a Mexican immigrant gay lover he called "Papi."

The debate promises to be good – if at times disturbing – theater, especially in light of what social media wags swiftly dubbed "Papigate." Expect Romney and Santorum to pander to their party’s powerful right-wing fringe via thinly veiled immigrant bashing. Arizona, after all, under Tea Party Republican leadership, set the standard for mean-spirited anti-immigrant laws with the notorious SB 1070, which made it a crime for an unauthorized migrant to step on state soil. Arizona is also home to "America’s Toughest Sheriff," Maricopa County’s ever-popular Joe Arpaio, who brought back voluntary chain gangs, made racial profiling a key law-enforcement tool, and forced inmates to wear pink underwear. (Tellingly, it didn't hurt him with state Republicans last year when the Justice Department concluded he had fostered in his department "a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.")

But don’t be misled by Wednesday night’s hysterics. Arizona just looks like a hyper-conservative stronghold. Beneath the surface, Democrats believe, the state’s political tectonics are shifting in favor of moderates. And though Barack Obama faces a steep climb here this fall, Democrats are energized as never before and think they have a real shot at turning Arizona blue.

Progressives are buoyed by a cascade of recent political events. Redrawn congressional and state district maps give Arizona Democrats a fighting chance to win five out of nine congressional seats, a U.S. Senate seat, and perhaps five more seats in the GOP-dominated Arizona Senate.  The Latino electorate, deeply angered by the state’s draconian immigration laws, is galvanized. And the most powerful Republican in Arizona just lost a recall election.

Encouraged, the Democratic Party has poured money and research into Arizona in recent months and set in motion a strategy of expanding the electorate by signing up thousands of Hispanics and young voters in registration drives, and courting Independents with moderate Democrat candidates.  And at the top of the Arizona Democratic ticket, running for U.S. Senate (assuming he wins the primary), is Richard Carmona, a former U.S. Surgeon General under George H.W. Bush and a moderate Hispanic.

Carmona will likely battle U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, a Mormon conservative, who currently leads in the polls. But Arizona is unpredictable. The state went blue for Bill Clinton. Barack Obama didn’t spend much money in Arizona in 2008, and was surprised to lose by only eight points to native son John McCain. Arizona’s two most prominent governors were moderate Democrats – Bruce Babbitt and Janet Napolitano. (Had Napolitano not stepped down in 2009 to become President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, she would likely have vetoed SB1070.)  Progressive strategists figure those wins weren’t flukes, but rather a sign that Arizonans vote for candidates, not parties.  And Democrats predict an Arizona victory will signal that the once-conservative American West is actually the nation’s new electoral battleground.

Arizona is considered a "prognosticator" for a fundamental transformation in the makeup of voters in the West, says Jill Hanauer, the president of Project New America, a Denver-based research and strategy firm for progressives. She says many Arizona voters polled by her firm report being "sick of ideological fights" and misguided Republican politics that focus on immigration instead of jobs and education. If they turn away from the GOP in large enough numbers, Arizona could go blue. And if that happens, says David Berman, a senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, "Democrats will have it good just about everywhere."

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Although Arizona’s electorate is almost equally divided between Republicans, Democrats and Independents, outsiders have long viewed the state as a hotbed of extreme conservatism, and not without reason. For at least a decade, extremists have been purging the Arizona Republican Party of moderates, says Berman, of the Morrison Institute. Arizona’s Tea Party Republican extremists have bullied Republican moderates in state government, disenfranchised the state’s business and university communities, supported Arpaio’s (probably unconstitutional) crackdown on unauthorized migrants in the Phoenix area, battled unions, censored ethnic studies in schools, and pushed for a law allowing pistol-packing on college campuses in the wake of the Tucson shooting that killed six and wounded 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Then there’s Sylvia Allen. A state senator, Allen believes, among other things, that the poor booted off Arizona’s Medicaid rolls need to "save up for their colonoscopy"; that trees steal water from people; and that the earth is 6,000 years old.  Her improbable ascent to power was greased by like-minded Tea Party Republicans. Recently, she sponsored a law to create and bankroll a militia of untrained, gun-toting volunteers empowered to stop, detain and arrest "cross-border criminals" who are in cahoots with Hezbollah and have invaded Arizona’s "heartland." The state Senate Appropriations Committee advanced Allen’s $1.4 million-per-year militia measure to the Senate for an upcoming full vote. The committee approved the militia without credible evidence backing Allen’s contentions, without stakeholders supporting it, and after listening to only one witness, a former Border Patrol agent who said terrorists (and Chinese people) had invaded Arizona.

But right-wing overreach may have triggered a backlash. SB 1070 got Arizona branded as a racist nirvana and cost the state millions in cancelled conventions, declining tourism, boycotts of Arizona goods, the refusal of businesses to expand into Arizona, and legal challenges to the law itself.  The powerful Arizona Chamber of Commerce publicly blasted the state legislature when it tried to pass several other punitive immigration laws (including measures depriving some immigrant babies born in Arizona of birth certificates and carding children in schools) in 2011.

Just a year ago, the chief author of SB 1070, Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, was widely viewed as the most powerful Republican in Arizona. Noted for his hot temper, Pearce is a Mormon who believes God Himself created the U.S.A. He says his son and he have both been shot by an "illegal." He’s been accused of consorting with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and he sponsored immigration laws authored by the legal branch of the Washington D.C.–based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), branded a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  

Many Arizona Hispanics, who comprise one-third of the state’s population, felt targeted by SB 1070 and view Pearce as an all-out racist. (He denies it.) Thanks to Latino activists, in late 2011 Pearce lost his senate seat in a recall election to a moderate Republican Mormon named Jerry Lewis, who is fluent in Spanish and comfortable with Hispanics. Republicans view the recall as an "aberration," and have shunned Lewis, while, out of office, Pearce still holds considerable sway over the Arizona Republican Party. But the recall energized Democrats, who view it as a sign that moderates can win in Arizona.

State senator Steve Gallardo, a Democrat whose name is floated as a possible contender for governor of Arizona in 2014, doesn’t brush off conservative excess (he doesn't doubt, for instance, that Allen's militia bill will surely attract volunteers who want to "hunt Mexicans."). But he's convinced that Arizona Republicans have overplayed their hand, souring the electorate on Tea Party leadership. "Their legislation has been mean spirited and totally out of touch with mainstream Arizona," he says.

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On February 14, Arizona celebrated its 100th birthday. At the Arizona capitol complex, a puffy, corpselike Wayne "Mr. Las Vegas" Newton crooned "Danke Schoen" to hundreds of appreciative Anglo septuagenarians who had converged at the Arizona capitol complex to celebrate the centennial.

The Arizona Centennial Commission – co-chaired by Gov. Jan Brewer, she of the recent airport-tarmac finger wag at President Obama – could have picked, say, Stevie Nicks or Linda Ronstadt or Dierks Bentley or Jordin Sparks – native Arizonans all – to headline the event. The choice of Mr. Las Vegas, a Republican booster who lived only a short time in Arizona, was a blatant pander to a key segment of the Arizona Republican party’s loyal base – conservative white oldsters. Republicans are counting on this voting bloc to keep them in power in 2012.

But Democrats are hoping they’ve got the numbers, the momentum, and the political will to stop them.  And they just might be right.

Terry Greene Sterling is Writer-in-Residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times for 14 years, and was named Virg Hill Journalist of the Year, Arizona’s highest journalism honor, three times. She is the author of Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone.