PHOENIX (AP) — Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, are campaigning together Thursday for the first time since the Democratic National Convention in August, converging in Arizona to lend weight to the state’s newfound battleground status.
Vice President Mike Pence is in the state, as well, giving the state a rare view of October campaign jockeying for 11 electoral votes that could tip the Electoral College scales if President Donald Trump can rebound from his fall slump. The two campaigns passed briefly on the tarmac in Phoenix on Thursday afternoon, with Pence’s motorcade driving by shortly after Biden’s plane landed.
A Biden-Harris bus tour marks Biden’s first trip to Arizona as the presidential nominee, but it’s a long time coming for a campaign that for months has singled out the state as the first example of an expanded battleground map, owing to demographic changes, new residents and a noticeable realignment away from Republicans among key suburban voters.
Arizona’s transformation seems stark for a state that just a decade ago was the epicenter of Republicans’ push against anti-illegal immigration push. But with early voting underway and millions of ballots in the mail, the home of pathbreaking Republicans from Barry Goldwater to John McCain to Sandra Day O’Connor is a top Democratic target this year, and some Republicans are anxious.
Voters like Dolores Novoa help explain why.
When Novoa left Orange County, California, for her new home in a Phoenix suburb, there was one thing at the top of her to-do list.
“As soon as I got here, I did my civic duty. I registered,” said Novoa, a 70-year-old Latina and retired legal secretary who now lives in Peoria, Arizona. She immediately voted in local elections and is eager to cast a ballot for Biden and build on Democratic gains in the 2018 midterms.
While the Trump campaign projects its own confidence in a state the president won by 3.5 percentage points four years ago, it’s notable that Thursday marks Pence’s fourth trip to the state this year, on top of Trump’s five trips here this year.
“I didn’t think it would happen this soon,” said former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer of the shift. Brewer rose to national prominence when she signed the state’s anti-illegal immigration law in 2010 and publicly feuded with then-President Barack Obama. “But I think we have done a bad job of trying to educate them, the new population, that they ought to be Republican.”
Veteran lawmakers and political operatives point to three main factors driving Arizona’s move away from Republicans: Democratic-leaning newcomers such as Novoa; a young Latino population that was politically activated by Arizona’s immigration fights of the past decade and is now reaching voting age; and the turn away from the GOP by suburban women.
The state appears to be following a pattern seen elsewhere in the West, going from solidly Republican to up for grabs. To varying degrees, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico have all moved closer to Democrats since the turn of the century.
Democrats point to Brewer’s decision a decade ago to sign SB1070, a law that cracked down on immigrants living in the country illegally, and immigration roundups by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Young Latinos organized, ousting the legislator who sponsored the legislation in 2011 and Arpaio in 2016. In the process, they built a progressive infrastructure that endures.
“It created a whole new class of activists and organizing,” said U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, who represents many of Phoenix’s Latino neighborhoods. “I came out of the 1070 movement. A lot of the state reps, state senators, voter registration organizations — all were born because of SB1070.”
Brewer, who has never wavered from her support for the immigration bill, agrees that it galvanized Latinos.
“I’m sure it was probably a rallying cry that they utilized to bring people together,” Brewer said.
Trump has worked overtime to keep Arizona in his column, and he had two more rallies scuttled here this week after his coronavirus diagnosis.
Since 1952, a Democrat has won Arizona only once — Bill Clinton in 1996, with about 46% of the vote. Public polling has shown Biden with a narrow but consistent lead over Trump, who also finished shy of a majority in his victory four years ago.
Biden’s path to an Arizona victory runs through Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and its rapidly growing suburbs. It has grown 18% in the past decade, according to Census Bureau data. Once a reliable Republican stronghold, it went comfortably for Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in 2018, a victory that got attention in Washington and opened the spigot of money for Democrats and progressive organizing groups.
Democrats have long dominated in the Tucson area. Biden will look to run up the score there and on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona.
Trump’s hopes lie in winning back some of the suburban women he’s alienated and picking up votes in the whiter areas of rural Arizona, where he remains popular.
Arizona is in the midst of a political transition away from the old-guard Republicans who held sway among moderate voters, such as Sens. McCain and Jeff Flake, said Lorna Romero, a Republican consultant who worked on McCain’s last reelection campaign. McCain died in 2018, and Flake walked away from politics after angering the GOP base by feuding publicly with Trump.
Now those voters habituated to voting for Republicans are looking around, and some are finding they’re open to Democrats like Biden, she said.
“We have a group of Republicans that don’t really have a home,” Romero said. “They’re trying to figure out who that is.”