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Why Arizona, the State’s Latino Voters and the Political Transformation of the Southwest Matter

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Must read by WaPo’s Greg Sargent on why Arizona going blue is a big deal

Yesterday, Arizona officially certified that Joe Biden won the state. Tomorrow, Democrat Mark Kelly will be sworn in as the new U.S. Senator for Arizona. These developments reflect one of the most consequential trends in recent election cycles: the political transformation of the Southwest. 

In his 2004 re-election victory, President George W. Bush won the Latino-heavy battleground states of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, receiving an estimated 40% of the Latino vote nationwide. Coming out of the 2004 elections, Republicans controlled 5 of the 8 Senate seats in these states.

In 2020, Joe Biden won all four states, flipping Arizona from red to blue and keeping Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico in the Democratic column. The American Election Eve Poll showed Biden winning Latino voters 70-27% nationally with similar margins in the Southwest. Now, all 8 Senate seats are held by Democrats.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent takes a compelling look at the factors that flipped Arizona and transformed the Southwest. These include a multiracial majority voting in opposition to the xenophobia and racism embodied by Trump, the SB1070 “show me your papers” law, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s dehumanizing racism. Sargent correctly asserts that immigration is “losing its potency” as a wedge issue that benefits Republicans. Sargent also captures the importance of the state’s decade-long grassroots effort that transformed Latino voter engagement and mobilization, noting how SB1070 helped to galvanize a sustained organizing effort led by Latino organizations and activists in the state.

Sargent’s must-read piece, “Joe Biden just officially won Arizona. That’s a big deal for Democrats,” is excerpted below

“[F]or all the punditry minimizing the scale of Biden’s victory and inflating the meaning of President Trump’s gains among Latino voters, the fact that Biden carried Arizona has important big-picture implications … 

… Arizona was ground zero for the Trumpist immigration experiment. Trump gave his most important 2016 immigration speech there, telegraphing many of the horrors we’ve seen since. Trump pardoned former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio — whose claim to fame was peerless cruelty to migrants — in part because Trump believed it would excite his base. And he delivered another major campaign immigration speech in Arizona this year. So defeating Trump in Arizona is another sign that, under Trump, immigration is losing its potency for Republicans.

To be sure, some Democrats believe the way to win statewide in Arizona is to avoid the immigration issue. And they think the victory in Arizona only reflects a referendum on Trump himself. But this misses a broader point: Even if Democrats do have to treat immigration gingerly in a state that’s still red-leaning, the issue plainly failed to work for Trump the way he’d hoped.

The president emphasized it heavily for years, and, despite making the 2018 elections all about the border, Democrats won 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.

‘This is the land where immigration is usually a wedge issue, and now it’s declining,’ [Democratic Congressman Ruben] Gallego told me.

In other words, the issue is losing its ability to pit many white voters against Democrats, even in Arizona. Indeed, Gallego suggested that the issue might now be working against Republicans there, noting that McSally had heavily emphasized typical messaging about terrifying immigrant invaders in 2018 but then went quieter on the issue in 2020 (and lost both times).

In that sense, even if it’s true that Arizona went against Trump as a referendum on him, that in itself is a big deal. In a state where immigration was once the ultimate wedge issue, the president’s cosmically cruel immigration agenda is probably one reason that educated and white suburbanites — including in Arizona — turned on him.

…That Biden and Kelly won with this coalition also complicates pundit narratives hyping Trump’s gains among Latino voters. Those gains are real, but the fact that Democrats defeated Trump and Republicans in Arizona with a heavy reliance on Latino votes seriously complicates the story.

Gallego tells me he thinks Trump did gain marginally with Latinos, but that this was swamped by Democrats’ ability to organize and turn out Latinos on their own side. Given the strong rural white turnout for Trump, Gallego said, there’s no way Biden would have won without ‘strong, across-the-board support from Latinos in Arizona.’

Finally, as Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg argues, the transformation of the Southwest in a Democratic direction is a bigger story. Though this has been overshadowed by Democrats falling short of expectations in Texas, Rosenberg notes, back in 2004 George W. Bush won Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, yet this time Democrats swept all four, and Colorado and New Mexico weren’t even contested.

And in January, all eight of those states’ Senate seats will be held by Democrats.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice

In Arizona and throughout the Southwest, GOP radicalism, nativism and divisiveness backfired on Republican candidates, and a multiracial, multiethnic and multigenerational majority capable of winning tough races has emerged. This is similar to what happened in California following the GOP’s backing of Prop 187, to what has transpired in Arizona in the decade following the approval of SB 1070, and to what is possible in Sunbelt states going forward. 

As the Republicans lurch to the right to mobilize white grievance voters, Democrats are learning to lean in on immigration, backed by strong majority support for their positions. If Democrats and donors make smart, early and sustained investments in the organizing groups that build electoral power from the ground up – as has happened in the many Southwestern states that have flipped blue – then the Arizona example will pave the way for a bright future in diversifying states.