For years, Carlos Garcia would grab his bullhorn each afternoon and head downtown to the office of Joe Arpaio, the brash, hardline, anti-immigrant Maricopa county sheriff who became known as “the Donald Trump of Arizona”.
When Garcia’s protests began in 2007, just a handful of devoted activists joined him. A conservative firebrand, Arpaio was re-elected every four years by the mostly white residents of the state’s most populous county. He was seemingly untouchable.
But as Arpaio’s crusade against immigrants intensified, the backlash grew. “We literally went from five to 200,000 people,” Garcia said of the protests.
On 8 November 2016, the same night Donald Trump won the White House, Arizona finally ousted Arpaio. After nearly a quarter-century in power, the sheriff was undone by Latinos, young progressives and white voters who Garcia believes “felt shame over Maricopa’s reputation” as a hostile and intolerant place.
Just as Arpaio’s tenure foreshadowed Trump’s national rise, the same forces that expelled the sheriff in Maricopa county appear to have flourished across the country as the president pursued his own hardline agenda. And now, those forces – catalyzed by the coronavirus pandemic – may seal the president’s fate in next week’s US election.
“We are a community that has suffered through Trump-like policies for such a long time,” said Garcia, who was elected to Phoenix city council in 2018. This year, Latinos and others are mobilizing to defeat the “Arpaio in the White House”.
The future of America
Maricopa county, which encompasses Arizona’s capital, Phoenix, and blossoming rings of surrounding suburbs, has nearly 4.5 million residents and dominates the state politically. One third of Maricopa residents identify as Latino, according to US census data.
Over the past decade, demographic change, population growth and a cultural shift seen across America’s suburbs has turned this sprawling desert metropolis – a bastion of western conservatism for decades – into one of the most closely watched and fiercely contested presidential battlegrounds in the nation.
Winning a statewide election in Arizona without Maricopa is nearly impossible. And so it is likely that here, in the sprawl of stucco housing developments and retirement communities, voters will deliver a referendum on Trump – and the Republican party.
“If the president loses Arizona, it’ll be in large part because he lost Maricopa county,” Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator, told the Guardian.
The Trump administration’s failure to control the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout has hastened the state’s political transformation – driving moderates, independents and even some conservatives away from the Republican party. Flake, a prominent Republican critic of Trump, has endorsed the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, for president along with Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, John McCain.
Arizona has voted for the Republican presidential nominee in every election but one since 1952, but polling this year finds Biden with a narrow but steady lead over Trump. While it’s mathematically possible, no Republican has ever won the White House without the state’s 11 electoral votes.
So voters here are poised to decide not only who wins the White House, but which party controls the US Senate, which in turn will shape the national debate around immigration, education, healthcare and the climate crisis.
“This state, whether you like it or not, could determine the future of America,” the Phoenix-based rightwing activist Charlie Kirk warned Arizona voters at a Trump campaign event last month. “If you would’ve told me that 10 years ago, I would’ve thought you were joking.”
‘Our Arizona roots’
Four years ago, Trump carried Maricopa county by three percentage points – and won the state by roughly the same margin, a significantly narrower victory than previous Republican presidential hopefuls.
Just two years later, Kyrsten Sinema won the county by four percentage points to become Arizona’s first Democratic senator in a generation.
Sinema’s success was due to a confluence of factors that are also in play nationally this November: a surge in Latino turnout, plus support from voters in Phoenix’s traditionally conservative suburbs. Sixteen per cent of Republican women broke with the party to vote for the Democrat, according to exit polls.
In a sign of Arizona’s importance, Trump has visited the state half a dozen times in the past year, with another campaign stop later this week. Biden, who has been more circumspect about travel because of the virus, visited Phoenix with his running mate, Kamala Harris, for their first joint campaign appearance earlier this month. Both campaigns are spending lavishly on Spanish and English language advertising here, making Phoenix one of the most expensive media markets in the country.
Arizona is not only crucial in the presidential race, however. Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly, the astronaut and husband of the former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, finds himself well ahead in a special election to fill the seat once occupied by McCain. And Kelly’s Republican opponent, Senator Martha McSally, has struggled to disentangle herself from an increasingly unpopular president.
In Phoenix, meanwhile, Democrats also have their best chance of winning control of the state legislature in more than a half-century. Arizona Democrats have been waiting for this moment for years. The only surprise, some say, is that it has taken this long to arrive.
“If you look at our history, we’re much more of a populist, independent state than a quote, unquote, conservative state,” said Chad Campbell, a former Democratic state House minority leader. “Unfortunately, for the past decade or so, we’ve had some people, mainly from the Republican side, attract national attention with very extreme policies, particularly around immigration.”
“Now,” he said, “I think we’re starting to get back to our Arizona roots.”
‘That’s not my Republican party’
When Arizona became a state in 1912, the final addition to the contiguous US, Maricopa was a vast desert outpost, inhabited by Native Americans and westward-bound settlers. Access to refrigeration and air conditioning in the mid-20th century transformed the arid landscape into what is now one of the largest and fastest-growing counties in the nation.
Maricopa was the most populous county Trump won in 2016. But like other Republican-leaning metropolitan regions, it has become more competitive as its suburbs increasingly resemble cities, becoming more crowded, more educated and more diverse.
A new generation of Latinos are moving further from Phoenix, buying homes and starting families in the enveloping suburbs. Professionals and young families from more liberal states across the country, are also moving to Arizona, lured by the promise of year-round sunshine, low taxes and affordable housing.
These newcomers are softening the state’s conservative edge – and changing its politics, strategists say.
“They are not these Arizona Republicans who think they’re cowboys and cops,” said Josh Ulibarri, a Phoenix-based Democratic pollster. “They are fiscally-conservative Republicans who have, over time, been pro-public education and pro-choice, and they’re coming to this state that is still controlled by far-right Republicans and thinking, ‘that’s not my Republican party.’”
Yet since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the state Republican party has veered even more sharply to the right and has adopted Trump’s base-first strategy, almost-singularly focusing on energizing bedrock supporters.
The approach risks further alienating moderate Republican and independent voters, particularly women, who have recoiled from the party’s Trumpian turn. According to a New York Times-Siena College poll, Biden is leading by 18 points with Arizona women, and, in a sign of his strength in the suburbs, by nine points in Maricopa county. McSally is trailing her Democratic opponent by similar margins.
“The one thing we know is that there is no future with Trumpism – it’s a demographic cul-de-sac,” said Flake.
Though Trump won suburban areas overall by roughly four percentage points in 2016, opinion polls suggest his standing nationally is collapsing as women, suburbanites and college-educated voters continue to walk away from the party.
“As a party, we are going to have to change,” Flake continued. “I just hope that we do it before giving the president a second term.”
Robbie Shaw, another lifelong Republican and a former member of the Arizona house, is actively helping to elect Democrats this year. During a virtual “Republicans for Mark [Kelly]” roundtable last month, Shaw said she was appalled by the way Senate Republicans had enabled the president’s “blunt, authoritarian grab for power”.
“Today, everything feels unsafe and it feels uncertain from our health to our money to our basic freedoms,” she said. At this moment, she added, “I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a Republican.”
A 15-year mission
As Republicans reconsider their party loyalties, the young, Latino-led protest movement that rose in opposition to Arpaio and the anti-immigrant policies of the last decade is now working to galvanize their community once again.
Since 2010, when the Arizona legislature passed SB1070, one of the most restrictive anti-immigration laws in the country, One Arizona, a coalition of progressive groups, has registered 780,000 voters.
“This has been a 15-year mission,” said Eduardo Sainz, the Arizona state director for Mi Familia Vota. “And now, it is paying off.”
Most Latinos in Maricopa are young – their median age is 26 – and of Mexican descent. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Mi Famila Vota canvassers have been redoubling their efforts to register as many Latino voters as possible.
On a blistering September afternoon, as temperatures reached 105F, Melissa Garcia, 23, opened her door to canvassers, her infant in one arm and an enthusiastic chihuahua at her feet.
“I used to think my vote doesn’t count,” she said. But this year, she plans to vote for the first time, spurred on by how Trump talks about immigrants and “wants everybody out”.
She mentioned the Trump’s administration’s policy of child separation – taking kids away from their parents at the southern border as a deterrent for would-be immigrants. More than 500 children are still yet to be reunited with their parents.
“He puts children in cages – we got so upset,” she said. “I just want him out.”
In 2018, young Latino voters cast ballots in record numbers. An analysis of the results by Latino Decisions concluded that Latino voters were “largely responsible” for Democratic gains in Arizona that year. Since then, an estimated 100,000 more Latino voters have turned 18 and become eligible to vote.
For the first time, Latinos are poised to be the nation’s largest non-white ethnic voting bloc in the 2020 election, with an estimated 32 million eligible to vote. And Democrats believe their vote will be decisive this year, in swing states from Wisconsin to Arizona.
“Everything we’ve fought for in healthcare, education, immigration and criminal justice is all up in the air,” said Carlos Garcia, the Phoenix council member. “So there’s this next level of pressure on us to show up and vote.”
In Arizona, as in the rest of the country, the coronavirus pandemic has dominated the election campaign. The virus has killed nearly 6,000 Arizonans and pushed hundreds of thousands more to file for unemployment and taken a disproportionate toll on Latino, Black and Native American residents.
Maricopa county was especially hard hit – and remains the fifth-worst affected in the US.
“It’s so tough,” said Bill Whitmire, 56, his voice shaking as he recounted contracting the virus earlier this year. Now, his small, mobile coffee cart business is no more – and he and his wife are struggling with lingering symptoms of fatigue, sluggishness and confusion.
Like many Arizonans, he blames Trump and the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey. “I’m so upset,” he said. “I had even voted for Ducey – he seemed like an honest guy.”
In May, at Trump’s urging, Ducey rushed to reopen restaurants, businesses and salons. Shortly after the restrictions lifted, Trump appeared maskless at an indoor rally in Phoenix to applaud the governor’s swift action. By then, however, Arizona was a national hotspot, slowing efforts to revive economic activity.
Infections soared, hospitals neared capacity and funeral homes were overwhelmed. Mayors pleaded with the governor for the authority to implement their own safety-protocols such as mask mandates to slow the virus’s spread. Ducey ultimately relented.
Now, as new outbreaks in schools and universities fuel another surge of infections, the pandemic remains front of mind for many voters – impacting their priorities and potentially their vote.
Polling shows a majority of Americans do not approve of the president’s handling of the pandemic. While Trump continues to minimize the virus and insist it will “go away” soon, Biden has pledged to enact a detailed, science-led plan to curb the spread and reopen schools and the economy safely.
“For the first time in my life, I think I’m going to vote Democrat up and down the ballot,” Whitmire said.
Like elsewhere in the country, the pandemic has also hurt Trump among the state’s seniors, who are among the most vulnerable and are a critical voting bloc in this popular retiree destination. In 2016, Trump won voters 65 or older in Arizona by 13 percentage points, according to exit polls. But an October Monmouth poll of Arizona showed Biden leading Trump, 56% to 42% among voters in that age group.
Yet many conservatives believe enthusiasm for Trump and his party is more widespread than polls and fundraising figures reflect.
In the past four years, Republicans have only become even more dominant in the rural parts of the state. They tout a recent spike in voter registration and polls that show moderates and independents still trust the president over his opponent on the economy.
At the same time, Trump maintains a firm grip on the legions of conservatives who make up the party base. Campaign events with the president and his children drew hours-long lines and packed crowds of supporters who largely ignored mask wearing and social distancing guidelines.
Wearing a rhinestone “Deplorable” hat and American flag earrings, Peggy Stewart was among those waiting in line to attend an event with Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, in Chandler last month. Despite her confidence that Trump will again defy the polls, Stewart fears a Biden administration.
She was alarmed by scenes of violence that shook some cities in the wake of mostly peaceful demonstrations against racial injustice this summer, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Stewart said residents of the senior living community where she lives in Peoria want “law and order,” something she believes only the president can deliver.
“I think Biden and the Democrats are trying to bring socialism to America,” she warned darkly, echoing one of the president’s political attack lines. “Trump is trying to get us back on track.”
Arizona is changing
Regardless of what happens in November’s elections, Maricopa county, like other fast-growing regions across the American south and west, is undergoing a political transformation.
In Arizona, party affiliation is now almost evenly split among Republicans, Democrats, and independents, a critical constituency of unaffiliated voters. In 2016, independents were critical to Trump’s victory, but now polling suggests they are swinging sharply away from him and his allies.
“When you look at the Senate race and other statewide races, it’s clear you can’t be a Trump acolyte and expect to win statewide in Arizona,” Flake said. “There’s just too much aversion to that kind of politics.”
If Flake is right, Republicans in Arizona could, in the span of four years, lose a presidential election, a second Senate seat and potentially both chambers of the state legislature. A resounding rejection in the traditionally conservative state would foreshadow even deeper challenges for Republicans in states across the south and west that are critical to their electoral success.
For now, liberals in the state are largely aligned behind the shared goal of removing Trump and his allies from office. But as the Democratic party gains political power here, there is also potential for clashes between moderate Democrats and emboldened progressives, eager to push the priorities of the left on healthcare, climate and immigration.
Athena Salman, a progressive activist turned Democratic state representative from Tempe, was first elected on 8 November 2016 – the same night as Arpaio’s defeat and Trump’s stunning upset. For her, Trump’s win had a silver lining: it was “a wake up call” for many, she said.
Four years later, Salman believes Arizona will not only deliver a definitive blow to Trumpism, but it will mark the beginning of a new political era.
“Like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” she said, “we’re rebuilding Arizona.”