Long a Republican Stronghold, Arizona Edges Toward Flipping Blue

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SUN CITY, Ariz. — For months, for years, Democrats have said that 2020 is when Arizona goes blue. But Patti Thompson, who joined fellow Republicans on Saturday in a state party office decorated with cardboard cutouts of Presidents Trump and Ronald Reagan, was not hearing it.

Even before state G.O.P. leaders urged the volunteers to ignore the polls showing that Democrats were ahead in Arizona, Ms. Thompson, a 72-year-old party activist, professed nothing but optimism.

“I’ve never seen energy like we’re seeing now,” she said, dressing to reflect her confidence in a Women for Trump T-shirt emblazoned with an image of a stars-and-stripes stiletto and holding a bedazzled mask in her hand. “People care about saving our country. You can’t let the liberals take power. We cannot let them run our country.”

In a year when energy is hard to see — when Democratic campaign events have been mostly virtual — it is impossible to know whether Ms. Thompson is right.

Yet two years after voters elected the first Democrat to represent the state in the Senate in decades, the question is plain: Can Democrats create the same winning coalition in 2020 as they did in 2018? And is the once reliably Republican state, the birthplace of Barry Goldwater conservatism, on the verge of flipping to a potential bastion for Democrats?

In the past week, both Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, have held rallies in the state. Both campaigns have coordinated staff members and volunteers knocking on millions of doors, with local officials saying it’s the most frenzied political outreach they’ve seen.

That the state is in play at all is a remarkable change. Arizona has not voted for a Democratic candidate for president since Bill Clinton won in 1996, which made him the first Democrat to win the state since Harry Truman.

In some ways, Arizona’s political shift mirrors its demographic one. It has a growing population of younger Latino voters who tend to be more progressive and focused on more liberal immigration policies, universal health care and climate change. Those voters helped Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, defeat Martha McSally in 2018 to win the seat vacated by Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican. (Mr. Flake famously broke ranks with the president but did not run for re-election to find out whether Arizona voters would punish him for that.)

The optimism among Democrats is also fueled by polling that shows women in the suburbs decisively voting for Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mark Kelly, the Democratic candidate for Senate. Mr. Kelly is running in a special election against Ms. McSally, who was appointed in December 2018 to the Senate seat held for decades by John McCain until his death in August of that year.

State polls also suggest that voters over 65, who have long favored Republicans in the state, are now split between the parties.

ImageVoters in Maricopa County have moved away from Republicans, though that erosion has apparently slowed in recent months.
Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

“We’ve got more and more people willing to come out of the closet as liberals,” said Phyllis Minsuk, 82, who lives in a retirement community in Goodyear, a suburb near Phoenix, and volunteered for Mr. Kelly. Ms. Minsuk said her local Democratic club had more than quadrupled in size over the past four years. “But even those who won’t declare themselves Democrats, who want to stay secret, they are moving with us. I hear it from them in whispers anywhere I go.”

With 2.6 million voters, Maricopa County is bigger than many states, and is by far the biggest county in Arizona. It’s home to Phoenix and scores of suburbs, and is one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. It was also the largest county in the state to vote for Mr. Trump in 2016, when he received 46 percent of the vote in Maricopa. Roughly 435,000 new voters have registered in the past four years and, as of Sunday, voter turnout in the county — which opened early voting on Oct. 7 — had already exceeded that of 2016.

Still, for all the shifts, a crushing blue wave is not certain for Democrats in a state where independence is seen as virtue of the highest order. Mr. McCain, who long cultivated his image as a maverick, is lionized even by many Democrats. Both Mr. Kelly and Ms. Harris have invoked him on the campaign trail, and his widow, Cindy McCain, has endorsed Mr. Biden. Independent voters make up 31 percent of those registered.

Much as Ms. Sinema did in 2018, Mr. Kelly, who registered as a Democrat only two years ago, has portrayed himself as a moderate independent. Ms. McSally has tried to tie him to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and liberal members of the Democratic Party’s leadership.

“I think the partisanship and the polarization is what has broken Washington and has broken the government,” Mr. Kelly said in an interview on Sunday, after an event to encourage volunteers knocking on doors in Maryvale, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. “I think the only way to solve some of these problems is for both parties to work together.”

Though such an aspiration — and a move toward bipartisanship — may seem impossible at the moment, he pointed to history, singling out both Mr. McCain and Mr. Kelly’s wife, former Representative Gabby Giffords, who had a reputation as a moderate before she resigned after being shot in the head by a constituent in 2011. The couple’s subsequent gun safety advocacy led to the start of Mr. Kelly’s political career.

Mr. Kelly’s emphasis on working across the aisle has not stopped Republicans from trying to portray him, along with Mr. Biden, as tools of the far left. A victory for Mr. Kelly would mean that the state has two Democratic senators for the first time in modern history, which the state’s Republicans are fighting to prevent.

Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

One of their main messages in that fight is that Democrats would “lock us down and open our borders.”

That’s how Mr. Pence put the risks of electing Mr. Biden and Mr. Kelly when he visited Flagstaff, in the northern part of the state, on Friday.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic this spring, when Mr. Trump began pushing to open the economy back up, Arizona was among the first places to do so. Then infection rates exploded and the state eventually had one of the highest per capita rates in the country. Now, people are packing restaurants again even as the curve goes up.

People are very mindful of who’s going to help us with our economy, get that back on track, ensure that there’s opportunity for families, that people can get kids back to school safely,” Ms. McSally, who campaigned with Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in recent days, said in an interview. “When I’m asking them what’s on your mind, they think about how and what are we going to do going forward? How are we going to get the economy going again? People are making choices to keep themselves safe.”

As she fired up her Republican base at volunteer events last weekend, Ms. McSally, who declined to back Mr. Trump in 2016, warned supporters that Arizona was on the verge of becoming like the liberal boogeyman next door: California. At one stop after the next, it was an argument that resonated. (And, indeed, hundreds of Democratic volunteers came from California to knock on doors in the final days.)

The Democrats have been plotting state by state, precinct by precinct, to take over here for a long time,” said Rich Hale, 71, a lifelong Republican who has lived in the state for more than a decade. “They want to take over coast to coast and then become a totalitarian state. They just see Arizona as a stepping block for the presidency.”

But for some voters, making the state more like California is just what they want to see.

“We have to be more tolerant, more willing to care about decency and each other, and that’s what I think we will get if we get this guy out of office,” said Angel Lopez, a 54-year-old Phoenix resident who drove his 1967 pale yellow Chevy Impala to a “Low Ridin’ for Biden” event in Phoenix on Sunday afternoon. A Dia de los Muertos altar there honored several people who had died from Covid-19 this year. “We’re just letting people get hurt, letting people die, and we have a president who just doesn’t care.”

Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

While Mr. Kelly and other Democrats have tried to make the election a referendum on the president’s handling of the virus, it is unclear whether that will turn voters in their favor. In interviews with dozens of voters across the state in the last week, there was a clear partisan split between those who view the virus as a threat to be feared and those who see it as a nuisance to be dealt with or even ignored.

Ms. Minsuk, the Biden volunteer, said that several of her friends had contracted the virus after attending social gatherings they worried could put them at risk. And when they fell ill, she said, many were too ashamed to tell their friends right away.

Asked whether she or her older friends in Sun City worried about getting sick, Ms. Thompson motioned to the room filled with Republican volunteers and cardboard cutouts of Mr. Trump and Reagan.

“Look around here,” she said. “Two-thirds of the people who are here aren’t wearing masks, so what does that tell you?”

Not long afterward, Ms. McSally led the indoor crowd in singing a rousing rendition of “God Bless America.”

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