Democrats Get Best Shot in 30 Years to Turn Arizona Blue

(Bloomberg) -- Arizona voters will elect their first female senator on Nov. 6, picking between a Republican who’s embraced President Donald Trump and a Democrat who’d rather they forget about party.

A backlash to Trump and demographic changes in the Grand Canyon State have led to a tight race between two congresswomen for what used to be a safe Republican seat. The contest could give Democrats their first Senate win here since 1988, and one that’s essential if the party has any hope of seizing a majority in the chamber.

Democrats Get Best Shot in 30 Years to Turn Arizona Blue

The Democratic candidate, Kyrsten Sinema, has an unlikely profile. A former Green Party activist who’s evolved into a moderate Democrat, she’s making a bid for the center -- and for some Trump voters -- with a strategy of focusing on issues such as protecting health care access and improving education.

“This race is about Arizonans, not party politics in Washington,” said Sinema, 42. “I’ve never been afraid to buck my party to get things done for our state.”

Republican Martha McSally has had her own evolution. She refused to endorse Trump in 2016 as she has represented a Tucson-area swing district, but cozied up to him during her Senate primary this year en route to defeating two hard-right rivals. Now she’s emphasizing her party affiliation to juice voter turnout.

“If there’s any chance to flip the majority, it goes through Arizona,” she told supporters Wednesday at a rally in Scottsdale as she invoked the name of the Democratic leader in the Senate. “I am literally the firewall to make sure Chuck Schumer and his allies are not in charge.”

Trump on Saturday invoked another frequent target for Republicans, the House Democratic leader, tweeting that “Martha McSally is a great warrior, her opponent a Nancy Pelosi Wacko!”

The race -- rated as a tossup by independent analysts -- comes down to whether Trump is better at turning out Republicans or Democrats to vote in his first midterm elections.

“Just as Trump has the potential to mobilize the Republicans, he also has the potential to mobilize the other side, particularly when he makes off-the-cuff remarks that might not sit well,” said Kate Kenski, a professor of political communication and public opinion at the University of Arizona. “Both candidates are running neck and neck. It does seem like it’s a good opportunity for the Democrats.”

Democrats Get Best Shot in 30 Years to Turn Arizona Blue

Close Margins

In 2016, Hillary Clinton came within 3.4 percentage points of winning the state, the closest margin for a Democrat in more than two decades. In 2012, Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona lost to Republican Jeff Flake, who’s retiring, by just 3 points.

“We used to be 100 degrees red,” said Josh Rosenbaum, a 44-year-old teacher in Phoenix. “But trends come and trends go. I’m ready for a blue trend in this state and I’m beginning to see it.”

Rosenbaum plans to vote for Sinema. “I like the way she treats people,” he said. “She has humility and class, and she’s level-headed.”

But Trump retains fervent supporters in Arizona, and they could quash the Democrats’ dreams.

“I adore him. I think he’s awesome. I’m from New York originally so I get the way he speaks. I get it,” said Lisa Karlovsky, a psychologist and Republican activist based in Scottsdale. She praised McSally’s “down-to-earth demeanor” and her background as an Air Force fighter pilot.

Election Issues

In the closing stretch, Sinema is highlighting her support for Obamacare’s pre-existing condition protections (and attacking McSally’s 2017 vote to weaken them) and her promise not to cut Social Security and Medicare. McSally, 52, is emphasizing Sinema’s background as a former liberal activist and core GOP issues of immigration and border security.

Jeremy Vaughan, a 51-year-old photographer from Phoenix, said he used to support the late Republican Senator John McCain, but now he plans to vote for Sinema. He’s not a fan of Trump and believes the GOP has gone off the rails. “People here like to say how conservative they are, but the Republican Party today is just this side of being fascist,” he said.

Vaughan also chafes at Trump for calling himself a nationalist, as he did at a rally in Texas this week: “Look at what nationalism did to Germany.”

Latino Voters

Bolstering the hopes of Democrats in Arizona is the growing population of Latinos, who tend to prefer the party’s candidates by large margins. They made up 31.4 percent of the state’s voting age population of 7 million in 2017, according to Census Bureau. But they’ve historically lagged behind other groups in voter turnout.

“There is incredible potential with the Hispanic base and they’re an important part of the path for Democratic candidates,” Kenski said. “In highly polarized times, with Trump being so atypical as a leader, anything is possible.”

Part of what makes Trump so atypical is the support he maintains even from voters who recoil at his behavior.

Rick Freeman, 56, a small business owner in Scottsdale, said he “can’t stand” Trump’s blustery rhetoric and tweeting habits. “I wish he’d be quiet and not be so Trumpian,” he said. “I wish he wasn’t such an easy target with all of his nonsense and bad behavior.”

Yet Freeman, a longtime Republican, says he gives the president a pass because he likes his policies. He plans to vote for McSally, in part because he doesn’t want Democrats to take over the Senate.

“Voters here know it’s for all the marbles,” Freeman said.

McSally is taking nothing for granted.

“We need your help,” McSally said in Scottsdale. “We are literally neck and neck.”

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