Editor’s Note: Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan and former Arizona Republic columnist. He blogs on Arizona politics and history at Rogue Columnist. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
I was raised a Barry Goldwater Republican in the 1960s. When Goldwater ran for president in 1964, however, I was one of only two students to wear his campaign button at Kenilworth Elementary School – and I was attending the senator’s alma mater. Lyndon B. Johnson buttons were seemingly everywhere.
Goldwater won our home state, but only barely (50.45%), amid Johnson’s landslide. In those days, Arizona remained competitive for both parties. And before Goldwater pulled a surprise win for the Senate in 1952, it was often a reliably Democratic state.
That didn’t mean the same as liberal. Arizona Democrats tended to be conservatives – “pintos” in the local lingo.
I’ve long since moved to the center. As a journalist, I’m a registered independent. And Arizona, after decades of Republican dominance, might be poised to turn purple or even blue. Polls show that Democrats Joe Biden and Mark Kelly lead in the races for president and US Senate, respectively. To be sure, 2016 taught everyone to be wary of polls. But this might be the year when Arizona makes a tectonic shift.
If it happens, no single string of political messaging from the candidates will get credit.
In 2016, Donald Trump won Arizona, including Phoenix’s Maricopa County, but only by taking 49% of the vote.
Now, some who voted for him four years ago might be alienated enough by his performance as president to pick the solid, decent former Vice President, Biden. And Kelly’s credentials as a former astronaut and a naval aviator who flew combat missions in the Gulf War insulate him from being painted as a far-left extremist.
(Kelly is married to Gabby Giffords, a former congresswoman who was grievously wounded in a 2011 mass shooting).
Kelly’s credibility for independence gets an assist from the Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also a Democrat. Sinema is a contemporary “pinto,” who sometimes frustrates her party’s left, but has a sense of what it takes to be viable with voters.
Five of Arizona’s nine congressional seats are held by Democrats. Tucson has long been blue. Phoenix, the nation’s fifth-largest city, is increasingly blue. Wins by Biden and Kelly would be crushing defeats for Republicans.
But some caution is in order.
Arizona has grown spectacularly – from 1.3 million in 1960 to an estimated 7.3 million this past year. But politics have been dominated by the GOP in recent decades. One explanation is “the big sort,” a theory by the journalist Bill Bishop where people alike ideologically cluster together. Thus, although the state drew Californians and Midwesterners they tended to lean to the right.
It’s true that Bill Clinton carried Arizona in 1996, but this was a fluke. H. Ross Perot was again on the ballot – as an independent. Clinton won 45.6% to Bob Dole’s 43%, but the president lost in populous Maricopa County.
Meanwhile, Latino voter turnout is generally low, although growing slowly. It wasn’t roused by the anti-immigrant SB-1070 law or the racially biased antics of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
To be sure, Hispanics are not monolithic in their voting patterns, according to the Pew Research Center. But majorities favor Democrats. If turnout increased this year, it could hit a tipping point for the Democrats. Otherwise, we’ll see the same dynamic where conservative Anglos vote and Hispanics don’t – making a Biden-Kelly victory more problematic.
What Arizona voters need from Washington is at odds with the myth of rugged individualism. In fact, Arizona has constantly depended on the federal government, from the Army pacifying native tribes and land-grant railroads to federal funding for dams, canals, flood control, defense-related installations and industries, and Phoenix’s light-rail system. Arizona is one of the “taker states,” receiving more from Washington than it pays.
Today’s Arizona is highly urbanized with many unmet urban needs. For example, sprawling Phoenix badly needs commuter rail as an alternative to car dependency. Phoenix is by far the most populous city in North America without intercity passenger-train service.
On the other hand, rural Arizona’s needs range from protection of public lands, including National Parks, to aid for many tribal reservations with health and poverty ills.
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In the state’s deserts, summers are getting hotter and lasting longer. This is in part because of “local warming.” Phoenix lost its citrus groves, shade trees and grass, replaced by pavement. And global climate change presents a growing threat, from drought (especially affecting Colorado River water supplies) to enormous wildfires.
Arizona will badly need federal help for constructive responses to climate change, but getting a majority of Arizona voters to understand these needs is another thing. It was once a given that the state’s congressional delegation sought not just its “fair share” of federal funding, but even more.
As for election 2020, I’ll be watching eagerly. But I sure wish I’d have kept those Goldwater buttons from 1964. They’d be worth a few dollars on eBay – if not worth their weight in gold.