Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, right, the state's GOP Senate candidate, and Democratic candidate Richard Carmona shake hands before a debate on Oct. 18 in Chandler, Ariz. (Photo: Ross Franklin, AP)
Arizona's reliably Republican designation in the national terrain of
presidential battlegrounds is being tested this year -- not by President
Obama and Mitt Romney -- but by a trio of congressional races that
could push presidential candidates as early as 2016 to vie for the
rapidly changing Western state.
"One of the lessons that will come
out of this election is that Nevada is no longer a battleground and
Arizona now is," said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington professor
and a co-founder of the non-partisan research firm Latino Decisions,
which studies how Hispanics are altering the American political
landscape. "It could be a key battleground in 2016."
would be a rapid turnaround from 2012, where neither Obama nor Romney
invested in the state on the belief that Romney would win Arizona's 11
electoral votes. Considering that no Democrat except Bill Clinton in
1996 has won the state since 1952, the two campaigns made a safe bet.
down-ballot races for two U.S. House seats and an open U.S. Senate seat
will test a theory held by Barreto and many national Democratic
strategists that Hispanic growth, and the population's alienation from
the Republican Party, is making a red state turn purple and
fundamentally altering its place in national politics if Democrats
outperform on Election Day.
"We're on the march in terms of what
our demographics look like, but Republicans have also given us
opportunities," said Andy Barr, spokesman for Democratic Senate
candidate Richard Carmona, who has turned the Senate race against
Republican Rep. Jeff Flake into a nail-biter in the homestretch, in part
because of his support among Hispanics, who make up 20% of the state's
voters and counting. He will need a significant amount of crossover
appeal in a state favored for Romney.
Carmona would be the first
Hispanic sent to the U.S. Senate from Arizona, a state which has not
sent any Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1988.
Two swing U.S.
House seats are evidence of the state's evolving landscape. A vast
northern Arizona district with the highest Native American population of
any congressional seat pits former congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, a
Democrat seeking a comeback after losing in the 2010 Tea Party wave,
against GOP state Sen. Jonathan Paton. The district is 21% Hispanic and
voted 48% for Obama in 2008. The non-partisan Cook Political Report gives Republicans a narrow edge, but the race remains too close to call.
9th District, based in east Phoenix and including Tempe and parts of
Scottsdale, has Democratic state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema facing off against
Vernon Parker, a former president George H.W. Bush aide, in an area that
was "once a haven for country club Republican types," according to Cook. The new district, which includes increasingly Hispanic areas like Mesa, would have voted 51% for Obama in 2008.
Hispanic voter population grew 72% over the past decade. If current
trends continue, Hispanics could make up 24%-26% of the state's
electorate in time for the next presidential election.
over the next two or three elections, (Arizona) will become much more
competitive," said Jennifer Duffy, an election analyst with Cook, which rates the Senate race as a tossup.
controversial crackdown on illegal immigration has roiled the state's
politics -- and Hispanic voters, in particular. For example, last
November, GOP state Sen. Russell Pearce, viewed as the architect of the
state's immigration laws, was the first state legislator in the state's
100-year history to be recalled.
According to Barreto's polling
analysis, Obama now leads Arizona's Hispanics 77%-10% over Romney,
although he is expected to lose the state, which still has a Republican
edge. GOP voters make up 36% of the electorate, compared with 30% for
Democrats, while unaffiliated voters are 33%, according to data compiled
by Arizona's secretary of State.
There has been no jump in the
number of registered Democrats, which suggests Arizona is not surging
toward the party but holds potential for Democrats who can appeal to the
state's decisive bloc of unaffiliated voters.
Barreto is so
certain of Arizona's movement toward battleground territory that he said
the Obama campaign might regret passing on the state next week. "I
think they are going to look back and think, 'That's a state we could of
won,' " he said.