Recent polls suggest that Democrat Mark Kelly is likely to handily win the Senate race in Arizona against the incumbent Republican Martha McSally, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of John McCain. (She was actually the second McCain replacement: Jon Kyl, who left the Senate in 2013 after three terms, kept the seat warm briefly in late 2018.)
McSally—who in the 2018 midterms had lost a close Senate race to Kyrsten Sinema—seemed in some respects on track to be a decent senator: By the end of her first year, she had sponsored more bills than any other freshman senator. But, as we shall see, instead of acting responsibly as a senator on behalf of her state, she has decided that her primary responsibility is to be loyal to Donald Trump.
And Trump, too, looks likely to lose the state to Joe Biden. Arizona was a mini-battleground state in 2016, when Trump ultimately took its eleven Electoral College votes. In 2018, its Senate race went blue—Sinema’s narrow win over McSally. If Biden wins the state in November, it will be only the second time Arizona voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1948. And, if McSally loses, the formerly solid-red state will have two Democratic senators for the first time since 1953, as well as a majority-Democratic delegation in the House of Representatives.
Arizona is a politically complicated state. It was the birthplace of Barry Goldwater—in 1909, three years before Arizona became a state—and so the birthplace of a kind of Western American conservatism that rose to national prominence with Goldwater’s failed presidential bid in 1964 and then to ascendancy with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.
Traditionally, conservative Arizonans have generally had a soft spot for Hispanics because they are their friends. This is why the Koch brothers’ libertarian infrastructure has been so influential on the right in Arizona, through organizations such as the Libre Initiative (a Hispanic empowerment nonprofit) and Americans for Prosperity. Both Gary Johnson and Evan McMullin performed above their national averages in the state in 2016. In fact, Johnson’s 4.1 percent of the vote in Arizona was greater than Trump’s 3.5 percent margin of victory in the state.
The state provides a good case study of what happens when a political party lets the inmates take charge. Arizona’s population is growing for several reasons: because of its economic boom since the 2008 crash, because it’s a destination for California tax refugees, and because of international emigration from Latin America. Overall, Arizona is becoming more and more brown; the population is now about 56 percent white, 31 percent Latino, and 4 percent black. And white people living in the state’s metropolitan areas, like Phoenix and Tucson, inevitably have Hispanic friends they want to protect. This hadn’t been a problem in the past for the Republican party. The GOP in Arizona had been associated with the likes of McCain, Kyl, and Jeff Flake, all champions of immigration and engagement with local Hispanic communities.
But more recently, Arizona Republicans decided to antagonize the Hispanic voters they needed to win at the state level. And by antagonizing and demonizing Hispanic Arizonans, the GOP has alienated many white voters, too.
The shift in the Arizona GOP began around 2010. How did it happen?
After Janet Napolitano joined the Obama administration in 2009, Jan Brewer succeeded her as governor of Arizona. Two years later, Brewer won her own full term as governor, and Russell Pearce was elected to be the senate president. Pearce had neo-Nazi and white nationalist connections. His major agendum was the passing of the infamous S.B. 1070, with the support of white-nationalist groups and the votes of Republican lawmakers, signed into law by Brewer. That harshly anti-illegal-immigrant law would be struck down by the United States Supreme Court over its provision “authorizing state and local officers to make warrantless arrests of certain aliens suspected of being removable,” otherwise known as racial profiling. An early indicator of how the GOP’s stance on immigration had alienated Arizonans: A year after S.B. 1070 became law, Pearce was removed from office in a recall election, becoming the first Arizona lawmaker ever to be so removed. (The state party kept him around, though, making him its vice chairman, until he was forced out even from that job for saying that women on Medicaid should be sterilized. Clearly the eugenicism runs deep with him.)
The state’s gerrymandered congressional districts have also had an effect on the party and its immigration stance. Case in point: The 4th congressional district—which is demographically the whitest district in Arizona, and among the most sparsely populated, encompassing most of the state’s western part—first elected Rep. Paul Gosar in 2010. He is an anti-immigration hardliner and a close ally of the anti-immigrant Iowa congressman Steve King (who lost a primary re-election bid last week). Like Gosar, all of the other Republicans in the Arizona congressional delegation came into office in the last decade. And like Gosar, they all currently have rankings of A or A+ from the anti-immigration group Numbers USA.
By 2014, the state GOP had shifted so far that it passed a resolution censuring McCain—its longtime incumbent senator and the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008—over his “disastrous and harmful” record. What had sparked the resolution was McCain’s championing of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 that had passed the Senate and was stalled in the House.
The same year, the governorship opened up again as Brewer’s term came to a close. Polls in July 2014 showed that the difference between the top contenders for the Republican nomination, Doug Ducey and Christine Jones, was within the margin of error. But an August 1 endorsement from the notoriously anti-Hispanic—and soon-to-be nationally disgraced—Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio boosted Ducey and helped get him the nomination. After securing the nomination, Ducey would continue to make joint appearances with Arpaio. He won the general election that year.
In 2018—the year Ducey ran for and won re-election—two members of Arizona’s congressional delegation, Rep. Gosar and the similarly anti-Hispanic Rep. Andy Biggs, signed a letter calling for forced labor for illegal immigrants for a $1 a day wage, something that one might call slavery.
The same year, Kelli Ward, a former state senator and a failed 2016 Republican challenger to John McCain for his U.S. Senate seat, announced her intention to challenge incumbent Jeff Flake. Knowing that he would lose, Flake announced he would retire rather than run for re-election. This created an opening for Martha McSally, who was at the time pro-immigration, having twice won a House seat in Hispanic-heavy southern Arizona.
But in the race to replace Flake, McSally had to fight off two other major Republican contenders who were strongly anti-immigration: not just Ward but “Sheriff Joe,” who was trying to stage a comeback. To secure the nomination, McSally took a hard line on immigration. Then, during the general election, she lamely tried to portray her opponent, Kyrsten Sinema, as an elite by calling her “Hollywood Sinema” and framing her as too feminine. McSally lost to Sinema by a very narrow margin, with 70 percent of Latinos voting for Sinema. Arizona had elected a Democrat to the Senate for the first time in 30 years.
Why did Kelli Ward lose the GOP nomination to McSally? Because Ward is just awful. She liked to pal around with Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. She won praise from white nationalists. She associated with alt-right figures like Mike Cernovich. A day after McCain’s announcement of his illness, she suggested that McCain should resign and the governor should appoint her. The day that McCain announced that he had stopped treatment, she claimed that the announcement was timed to hurt her Senate campaign. McCain would die a day later. Her husband is infamous for such acts as spitting on one of Ward’s former volunteers for switching allegiance to McSally.
With baggage like that, surely the state GOP would want nothing to do with Ward, right? Wrong: Five months after losing the primary, Ward was elected the chairwoman of the state GOP. Ever since, Ward has made headline after headline in the Arizona press for her ridiculous actions, outrageous tweets, and mismanagement—not to mention an allegation of corruption. In a fundraising email from last September, Ward wrote that “we’ll stop gun-grabber Mark Kelly dead in his tracks.” This is grotesque. Kelly, the Democratic nominee, is nationally famous in his own right for being a NASA astronaut (and the twin brother of another NASA astronaut) but also for being the husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head at point-blank range in an attack that nearly killed her and did kill six others.
McSally, too, has been making a name for herself as an anti-immigration, anti-media, MAGA senator. She called CNN congressional correspondent Manu Raju a “liberal hack” this past January because he dared to ask her “should the Senate consider new evidence as part of the impeachment trial?” She proceeded to send out fundraising emails crowing about this triumphant attack against CNN. She received her reward in the form of a shout-out from the Trump campaign’s Twitter account. She has dropped her previous support for a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers in favor of a much stricter policy.
In the Arizona House of Representatives, Republicans have a narrow 31-29 majority; according to several legislative staffers from both parties I have talked to, after November’s election, the chamber could well flip Democratic for the first time since 1967. The state senate is also in play. Which is why the Democratic National Committee is investing its resources in local elections.
Among the reasons the Republican party might lose its grasp on the legislature is that Arizona’s GOP state lawmakers have been involved in a parade of scandals over the past few years:
- Most infamously, former representative David Stringer faced calls for his resignation after a recording of his racist remarks surfaced in 2018. (Full disclosure: I have met Stringer several times, and I heard more racist and anti-Semitic comments from him in one night than I have heard in my six years living in the United States.) Stringer didn’t resign. Then, in 2019, it was revealed that he had been convicted of horrific sex crimes in the 1980s. Stringer then resigned—but he soon ran for and won a GOP state committeeman position, which allows him to vote for the state party chair and run for a national committeeman position during the party’s national convention. Meanwhile, he is running for public office again, for the position of county attorney for Yavapai County.
- In early 2018, state representative Don Shooter was expelled from the legislature for sexual harassment.
- A Republican state senator who was a longtime state representative, Michelle Ugenti Rita, was accused this past February of sexual harassment.
- Also in February, state representative David Cook was caught in an extramarital affair with the daughter of an influential lobbyist. Cook faces bribery and campaign-finance-violation charges related to his affair.
- Kelly Townsend, a state representative since 2013, suggested a year ago that vaccines are a Communist plot, then weirdly suggested that mandatory vaccines are like “government-imposed tattoos,” which naturally offended people since it sounded like she was comparing vaccination to the Holocaust.
Amidst this lunacy, Governor Ducey, for better or worse, has tried to stay out of partisan politics, and Arizonans do not see him as the face of the state’s Republican party. (He did call for Stringer’s resignation, to his credit.) The fact that Ducey was a successful businessman—he was the longtime president and CEO of Cold Stone Creamery—has helped keep his reputation out of the muck. And his approval ratings in April were very high, as voters supported his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. That may change, though, as the rate of new cases in the state has suddenly spiked upward since the beginning of June.
Meanwhile, polls continue to suggest that in the 2020 elections—just five months away—voters could send a clear signal of disapproval to the state’s Republicans. The party once known for immigrant-friendly statesmen is now associated with racism, xenophobia, lunacy, scandal, and corruption. In a state that is becoming browner, Republicans are increasingly known for kicking Hispanics. But is the state’s GOP capable of heeding a clear signal? Can it learn from electoral defeat and turn back toward more reasonable, moderate policies and candidates? Don’t bet on it.