Democrat Mark Kelly will be sworn in on Wednesday as Arizona’s junior US senator, finishing the final two years of the term won by the late Sen. John McCain in 2016. Both President-elect Joe Biden and Kelly were certified as the winners of their respective Arizona races on Monday.
Their victories make it clear that Arizona is no longer a red state. The state that gave us celebrated Republicans Barry Goldwater and McCain is now a purple state in every sense of the phrase.
Both victories followed that of Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. She became the first Democrat to win a Senate race in the Grand Canyon State since 1988. One win could be a fluke; two is a trend.
Indeed, you have to go back before most of us were born to find a time when Democrats controlled both Senate seats in Arizona. It last occurred after Carl Hayden was reelected in 1950. That lasted just two years, since Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland was defeated by Goldwater in 1952.
From that point nearly 70 years ago until Wednesday, Republicans held at least one of Arizona’s two US Senate seats.
The swing in Arizona’s political allegiances can be seen well in the contrast between the 2012 and 2020 Arizona US Senate elections.
Both races were held in similar political environments. Democrats won the presidential race by about 4 points nationally in each year. House Democratic candidates outpaced House Republican candidates by less than 3 points in both years. And both the 2012 and 2020 Arizona US Senate races featured no elected incumbents.
The outcomes in the 2012 and 2020 races were different, however. Kelly took his race by a little over 2 points. In 2012, Republican Jeff Flake won by 3 points.
The presidential results were even more different, despite the similar national environments. Biden, a Democrat, scored a 0.3 point victory in Arizona this year. Republican Mitt Romney won Arizona by 9 points in 2012. That’s about a 9-point jump to the left, even as the Democrats won the national popular vote by about 4 points each time.
In fact, Republican presidential candidates won Arizona by between about 8.5 points and 10.5 points from 2004 to 2012.
Biden became the first Democrat to win the presidential race in Arizona since Bill Clinton in 1996. His 49% was the largest vote share for any Democrat in the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The about 4-point difference between the national vote (Biden by about 4 points) and Arizona’s vote (Biden by 0.3 points) is the best for a Democrat since 1948, when Harry Truman won.
The movement left has been rather sharp in Arizona. It’s one of fewer than 10 states where the Democrats have improved relative to the national vote in each of the last three elections.
That shift to the left in Arizona can also be seen on the House level. Democrats hold the same number of seats (five) after the 2020 election as they did after the 2012 election. The percentage of votes won by Democrats, however, has gone way up.
Arizona Democratic and Republican House candidates basically received the same percentage of votes in 2020. (Republicans got about 0.3 point more.)
In 2012, Republican candidates for the US House in Arizona easily got more votes. Totaling up each district, Republicans won the statewide House vote by about 8.5 points. That equates to a significant shift of about 8 points to the left since 2012.
More amazingly, Republicans actually didn’t have a candidate running in the state’s 7th District in 2012. Had they had one, they probably would have beaten the Democrats by closer to 10 points statewide.
The question going forward is whether Arizona will continue its march to the left and become a blue state, like Virginia has over the last decade, or whether Republicans hold their ground or even gain some back in the next few elections.
If it’s the former, it couldn’t have come at a more needed time for Democrats. Republicans have been outperforming their national margins in the Electoral College the last few cycles. Arizona going blue could help balance that out.