Biden’s victory comes after Democrats won both Senate seats in the state. In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema defeated the odious Martha McSally, who was then appointed to fill John McCain’s seat and went on to earn the distinction of losing twice when Mark Kelly beat her in a special election this year.
When Hillary Clinton campaigned in Arizona late in the 2016 campaign and then lost the Blue Wall states, this was retrospectively derided as a sign that Democrats were so devoted to chasing fantasies about demographics in the Southwest moving their way that they smugly neglected the hardscrabble Rust Belt voter, to their demise.
But that move by Clinton was part of a quest to flip Arizona that Democrats and progressive organizers have pursued for many years.
“This has been a 10-year project,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona and a rising star in the party who has long championed this goal, told me. “People have to remember that this is where modern conservatism was born. This is the land of Barry Goldwater.”
That’s a reference to the former Arizona senator whose massive 1964 flameout against President Lyndon B. Johnson ultimately came to be seen as launching the ascent of what has been called “The Long New Right.”
Here’s another thing that is constantly overlooked: Arizona was ground zero for the Trumpist immigration experiment. Trump gave his most important 2016 immigration speech there, telegraphing many of the horrors we’ve seen since. Trump pardoned former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio — whose claim to fame was peerless cruelty to migrants — in part because Trump believed it would excite his base. And he delivered another major campaign immigration speech in Arizona this year.
So defeating Trump in Arizona is another sign that, under Trump, immigration is losing its potency for Republicans.
But this misses a broader point: Even if Democrats do have to treat immigration gingerly in a state that’s still red-leaning, the issue plainly failed to work for Trump the way he’d hoped.
The president emphasized it heavily for years, and, despite making the 2018 elections all about the border, Democrats won Sinema’s Senate seat and captured a majority of the state’s congressional delegation. Now, the issue has failed to secure Trump victory there in 2020.
“This is the land where immigration is usually a wedge issue, and now it’s declining,” Gallego told me.
In other words, the issue is losing its ability to pit many white voters against Democrats, even in Arizona. Indeed, Gallego suggested that the issue might now be working against Republicans there, noting that McSally had heavily emphasized typical messaging about terrifying immigrant invaders in 2018 but then went quieter on the issue in 2020 (and lost both times).
In that sense, even if it’s true that Arizona went against Trump as a referendum on him, that in itself is a big deal. In a state where immigration was once the ultimate wedge issue, the president’s cosmically cruel immigration agenda is probably one reason that educated and white suburbanites — including in Arizona — turned on him.
Democrats and progressives in the state say they still see the election as a vindication of the decades-long effort to push Arizona to the left. They won several labor-backed ballot measures, including one that raised taxes to send more money to public schools. Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Kelly won with a coalition of white women, young and new Latino voters, as well as suburban moderates who have been repelled by the president’s actions.
That Biden and Kelly won with this coalition also complicates pundit narratives hyping Trump’s gains among Latino voters. Those gains are real, but the fact that Democrats defeated Trump and Republicans in Arizona with a heavy reliance on Latino votes seriously complicates the story.
Gallego tells me he thinks Trump did gain marginally with Latinos, but that this was swamped by Democrats’ ability to organize and turn out Latinos on their own side. Given the strong rural white turnout for Trump, Gallego said, there’s no way Biden would have won without “strong, across-the-board support from Latinos in Arizona.”
Finally, as Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg argues, the transformation of the Southwest in a Democratic direction is a bigger story. Though this has been overshadowed by Democrats falling short of expectations in Texas, Rosenberg notes, back in 2004 George W. Bush won Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, yet this time Democrats swept all four, and Colorado and New Mexico weren’t even contested.
And in January, all eight of those states’ Senate seats will be held by Democrats.
“These gains are no small thing,” Rosenberg says, noting that it shows the Democratic Party’s electoral map now draws heavily on the Southwest, which Biden has now “cemented.”
No question, Arizona will remain deeply divided; Democrats are in a hole on the state legislative level; and their gains could prove precarious. But as part of a broader trend, this victory is a big deal.
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