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Michelle Obama makes play for Arizona

PHOENIX — First lady Michelle Obama didn’t even need to say the word “Arizona” for the first 20 minutes of her rally here on Thursday to send shock waves across the state.

The very presence of the Democrats’ most coveted surrogate in the traditionally deep-red state was enough to send the message that Hillary Clinton is taking it seriously, and Obama’s appeal to local Democrats just hours after the final debate was designed to make the stakes clear.

“We have a candidate whose vision for our country is completely and utterly lacking in hope, a candidate who tells us our country is desperate and weak, that our communities are in chaos, that our fellow citizens are a threat,” she told the crowd of 7,000, yet again ripping into Donald Trump without using his name once. “To him, most of America is ‘them.’”

What’s more, she warned, Trump’s insistence that the election is “rigged” and his refusal to commit to accepting the results in the case of a loss is an attempt to suppress their vote.

“He is threatening the very idea of America itself,” she said. “You do not leave American democracy in ‘suspense.’”

And before long, building up to an emotional crescendo in the same cavernous convention center where Trump delivered a hard-line immigration speech in August, she directly addressed the voters of Arizona.

Making the case that this year’s race in Arizona is far closer than it was 2012, she recalled her husband’s experience: He lost the state by just 280,000 votes, she reminded them.

“Only about 63 votes per precinct,” she added, letting the room drop to silence. “Yeah, just take that in.”

And then, a shout from the crowd broke the hush: “Arizona’s going blue!”

The question in Arizona now isn’t whether a state that’s gone Republican in 15 of the past 16 elections is suddenly in play thanks to Trump — many veteran Republicans concede that it is. The real question is whether Democrats, led by Clinton, are justified in believing that the country has just met its newest swing state.

“I wouldn’t call it blue or even purple quite yet,” said a longtime Republican strategist with extensive experience in Arizona, who nevertheless expects Clinton to win the state because of Trump’s weaknesses. “I think it’s a perfect storm of factors that have really put it very much in play just this time around.”

Trump allies reject the idea that Democrats have anything close to a shot here, but even the state’s most skeptical operatives — who acknowledge that Democratic candidates still need to sway large numbers of independents to win state-wide — see Arizona’s battleground status as a fast-approaching reality.

After all, Arizona is suddenly the country’s closest state. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Clinton leads by just 0.2 points, and she led Trump by a margin of 39 percent to 34 percent in an Arizona Republic poll published Wednesday. The race is slightly clearer in the critical battlegrounds: she leads by 3.8 in Florida, 2.5 in North Carolina, 6.2 in Pennsylvania, and trails by 0.6 in Ohio.

That’s partly due to Trump’s unique unpopularity with Arizona’s large Native American and Mormon populations, Gary Johnson’s appeal to Libertarian-leaning voters in the western part of Arizona, and the conservative business community’s skepticism about Trump’s tough talk on Mexico given the state’s trade relationship with the country.

It’s why Democrats, led by Clinton’s campaign, are flooding the state with headline-grabbing surrogates — Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Chelsea Clinton — and homestretch advertising and get-out-the-vote resources to the tune of $2 million. And it’s why Democrats are eyeing a chance to lay the groundwork for 2018 and 2020.

“This is us rising to battleground status,” said Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is sometimes mentioned as a potential candidate for statewide office. “We know if we ever had the proper investment in the past we would’ve had that status. Something has always happened in the past: [Barack] Obama didn’t need our state in 2012, and in ’08 [Arizonan John] McCain ran.”

Democrats have been feinting toward Arizona for years, and Clinton’s team spent months this summer and fall trying to force Trump to play defense here, figuring any resources he poured into the state would detract from his efforts in Florida or North Carolina. But while the state’s demographic makeup is trending toward Democrats in the long term, Clinton has also dropped in on a local political opportunity this cycle: The Republican nominee’s recent decline has laid bare the already-existing fractures within the state’s GOP.

One of Trump’s highest-profile long-standing Republican critics is Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, and now his colleague McCain has backed away from his own tepid Trump support, making for an uncomfortable dynamic within the state GOP leadership that recently skewered Washington pols who abandoned the nominee. At the same time, other rank-and-file Republicans cheer Trump’s relationship with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, cultivated over a shared embrace of a hard-line approach to immigration policy.

What’s happening inside the Arizona GOP is a reflection of Trump’s bigger national problem — getting the party to unify behind his candidacy. With just 18 days to go, Trump’s only securing 85 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters, according to a new Bloomberg poll, a smaller proportion of base support than previous nominees have notched.

“What you’re seeing here is a likely depressed Republican turnout, in real terms,” said former Arizona GOP Executive Director Brian Murray.

But even without an anti-Trump surge in future cycles, Democrats say they intend to keep pushing, pointing to the example of 2012’s Senate race — when Flake beat Richard Carmona by only 3 points in a race with no national party involvement — as an example of their opportunity.

Arizona’s Democrat-leaning Latino population is growing, which has helped shift Phoenix’s Maricopa County away from its Republican tradition, said veteran state Democratic operative Andrew Gordon. If that population were to vote more reliably — as it’s expected to in a year that features anti-illegal immigration crusader Arpaio on the ballot, and trailing — then the state would follow New Mexico and Nevada into the purple-tinted category, he said.

Plus, in a year in which Democrats are targeting McCain’s Senate seat and both of the state’s legislative chambers, the state party built up its capacity earlier than usual, putting over 100 staffers on the ground long before Clinton got involved — making it an attractive investment opportunity for the national party.

And to make matters even sunnier for Democrats, their recent strength among college-educated white voters has led to surprising strength in suburban Phoenix and Scottsdale.

“Arizona, I’m almost certain, will be a swing state in 2020 from Day One,” said Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. “It’s largely due to the growth of Hispanics in the state demographically, but I would say what’s special in this election is, I think, the kind of divisiveness that Donald Trump is stoking is alienating, particularly, college-educated voters there.”

Trump’s Republican allies, however, scoff at that optimism.

“I’m shocked in the sense that Hillary Clinton is investing so much time and money in our state when they’re virtually tied in Ohio, Florida, other states,” said Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham, noting that other Democrats had also talked up their chances in Arizona before falling short, and that “there’s no way” Clinton will win it this year. “It would appear she’d try to pick up more electoral votes [rather] than spend $2 million losing in Arizona.”

And it’s not that the state is suddenly the next Ohio. For now, even the most optimistic Democrats acknowledge there’s still work to be done beyond November before the state enters the second tier of battlegrounds.

“Trump has sort of helped us jump ahead in ways that we would not have been capable of on our own. We did the things in terms of voter registration and mobilization to hasten the process on our side,” acknowledged Arizona Democratic strategist Andy Barr. “But if Hillary wins Arizona, we’ll have Donald Trump to thank for that.”

To some GOP operatives, however, the story’s even more straightforward.

Democrats “are not winning,” said longtime Arizona GOP operative Chuck Coughlin, a veteran of McCain and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s campaigns, adding that he’s considering voting for Clinton.

“The Republicans are losing.”

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