The Story of the Dramatic Political Change in the Southwest
Three years ago, Arizona had zero Democratic senators. After yesterday’s official swearing in of Mark Kelly, Arizona now has two Democratic senators. Together with the official certification of Joe Biden as the winner of Arizona in the presidential election, it reflects a political transformation that is both unique to Arizona and part of a larger pattern in the Southwest.
So why did Arizona turn blue?
- “What has made Arizona turn blue has been organizing.” As reporter Fernanda Echavarri in Mother Jones put it, “Arizona’s slow leftward march is a result of a decade of grassroots work by Latinx organizers and activists – not necessarily to support the Democratic Party, but to protect their own community. A generation of Latinos was galvanized when Arizona passed SB 1070 in 2010, the extreme anti-immigration measure that would become known as the ‘show me your papers’ law. Organizations that are working on mobilizing Latinx voters today were formed as a response to SB 1070 and Arpaio’s harsh tactics.” A recent Arizona Republic story details the on-the-ground work, especially following the enactment of SB 1070, by community groups. Stephanie Maldonado of LUCHA, one of the leading grassroots groups, said, “The work for Arizona that has been done over the last 10 years is what truly got us to this moment … What has made Arizona turn blue has been organizing.”
- Trump’s xenophobia and the GOP lurch to the nativist right alienated a diverse, multiracial majority. As Grant Woods, a former Republican Arizona Attorney General and Chief of Staff to Republican Senator John McCain stated, “I think Arizona going blue so fast shows that Republicans are on the wrong side of demographic trends and history. There is no long-term future in bigotry or xenophobia.”
- Anti-immigration “wedge” politics in Arizona lose “potency.” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent recently took a compelling look at the factors that flipped Arizona in 2020 and transformed the Southwest over the past two decades. He writes: “Arizona was ground zero for the Trumpist immigration experiment … defeating Trump in Arizona is another sign that, under Trump, immigration is losing its potency for Republicans … The president emphasized it heavily for years, and, despite making the 2018 elections all about the border, Democrats won [Sen. Kyrsten] 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.” Sargent quotes Democrat Rep. Ruben Gallego, who says: “This is the land where immigration is usually a wedge issue, and now it’s declining.’”
- Don’t overlook the importance of the tribal lands vote in Arizona and its break toward Democrats. As an Arizona Public Media story by Emma Gibson, “Voters in tribal lands ‘reclaimed’ Arizona in this election, advocate says,” detailed, “Indigenous voters made their voices heard throughout tribal lands in Arizona as voter precincts showed strong support for Democratic presidential and congressional candidates … The American Election Eve Poll suggests that 71-72% of Indigenous voters in the state voted for the Democratic presidential and congressional candidates.”
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:
One of the biggest stories coming out of the 2020 election is the transformation of Arizona from a red state into a blue state, placing it alongside other Southwest states that preceded it. In 2004, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico all voted for Republican George W. Bush, and five of the eight Senators were Republicans. Coming out of 2020, all four states voted for Democrat Joe Biden, and eight out of the eight Senators are Democrats.
The political transformation of these four Southwest states stands on the shoulders of the political transformation of California from a purple state that regularly elected Republican governors to a blue state in the aftermath of Prop 187 in 1994. In all these processes, there are common elements: Republicans dialed up the racism and xenophobia in order to mobilize white grievance voters; the backlash effect mobilized multiracial, multiethnic and multigenerational majorities capable of winning elections; labor and community groups built electoral power from the ground up.
Climbing the mountain in each of these states took enormous time, but the model – sustained investments in people close to diverse voters and leaning into rather than running from charged issues such as immigration – strongly suggests similar strategies can work in top Sunbelt targets such as Texas, Florida and North Carolina. Clearly, it’s already working in Georgia.