Call it their fail-safe option.
If Joe Biden were to lose a critical Midwest battleground like Michigan or Wisconsin, Democrats are counting on Arizona to bail him out, acting as a potential replacement state with enough electoral power to prevent President Donald Trump’s re-election.
After Trump carried this emerging swing state by just over 91,000 votes four years ago, some Republicans are now already bracing for a defeat that could “cut deeply down the ballot,” as one GOP aide in state government put it.
With early voting now underway and Democrats consistently tracking Biden with a 3-to-4 point lead, the Trump campaign is planning additional visits here from the ticket as soon as this week, attempting to salvage a reliably red bastion as suburban women are turning away from the GOP in droves.
“It’s fairly close. If anybody has a slight polling advantage it would be Biden,” said Constantin Querard, a conservative political consultant in Phoenix, “but the Trump campaign is much stronger on the ground.”
While the Trump operation has maintained a vigorous door-knocking presence throughout most of the pandemic, a battery of Democratic groups have been working online to mobilize the two constituencies most crucial to their success: Latinos — which now make up 24 percent of eligible voters here — and moderate Republican women.
Bettina Nava, a former state director for Sen. John McCain, falls into both groups. The lifelong Republican welled up in tears during a recent zoom call with the Arizona Democratic Party as she spoke about her decision to endorse Biden due to Trump’s divisiveness.
“I’m following my conscience,” she said. “Under a Biden-Harris ticket, we can return to those civil conversations about the great debates of our time. That’s what we need to be doing. You notice I didn’t say agreement over everything — but civility.”
Last week, as Vice President Mike Pence visited Peoria, a conservative Phoenix suburb, and Biden and Kamala Harris campaigned just miles away inside a carpenters union hall, a small group of veterans met in a park in northern Phoenix to try to turn Republican-leaning voters away from the president and a slate of local GOP candidates with conversations rooted in civility and respect.
Arizona’s VetsForward, comprised of members who served in wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan, positioned themselves strategically in a precinct with troves of crossover voters. In 2016, Trump carried it by about 400 votes, but in 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema edged out a 50-vote advantage in the U.S. Senate race.
“We’ll see how many times we get called Antifa,” quipped Joanna Sweatt, a Marine and the outreach director for the group as she gazed down the street to homes adorned with Trump flags.
The group has no illusions about the difficulty of converting hardened Trump voters to abandon their party, especially in the closing weeks before a bitter election when opinions are hardening. But in Arizona, where 9% of the population are veterans, it has found that deploying service members to conservative doors has the strongest persuasive effect. Some Democratic groups have only recently resumed in-person canvassing after the coronavirus pandemic sidelined them.
On this particularly torrid late afternoon, some voters were equally searing.
Republican Theodore Wynn said he was sticking with Trump and the entire Republican ticket, proudly declaring that he defies mask mandates by walking into stores without one and calling the coronavirus outbreak “a government pandemic.”
Asked if he had any reservations about the president, Wynn replied, “He’s just a dude that says stupid [stuff],” using an expletive. “You know, we all say stupid [stuff]. He’s not a politician. … He’s not bought and paid for.”
Wynn then briefly flashed part of the handgun he had in his front pocket, a visual symbol of the freedom and liberty he cherishes.
Aaron Marquez, the co-founder of Arizona’s VetsFoward, said in 16 years of door-knocking, he’s never had a weapon flashed at him.
“If you have 10 conversations, nine are going to suck,” Marquez, an Army Reserve soldier, acknowledged.
Still, the group’s research shows that about 20% of conservative voters moved about 3 points away from Trump on a 0-10 scale after a 15-to-30 minute conversation with a military veteran.
Even modest gains can have dramatic effects in local races.
Democrats are not only currently favored to collect the state’s 11 electoral votes and swipe another U.S. Senate seat, but the reliably Republican congressional district held by Rep. David Schweikert has become surprisingly competitive. And the party is within striking distance of flipping at least one legislative chamber, a result that would likely spark a reckoning within the Arizona Republican Party.
And many of the down-ballot GOP candidates are likely tied to Trump’s fate. Republicans with access to internal data have anxiously watched their candidates’ numbers slide as Trump has struggled to reach more than 45% of support in the state. An October New York Times/Siena College survey of Arizona showed Biden with an 18-point lead among women and a 38-point advantage among Latinos.
As Democrats gain strength in metropolitan Phoenix and greater Maricopa County — home to 60% of the state’s total vote — Republicans increasingly see Trump’s ability to further expand his margins in rural counties as his best chance at a narrow victory.
But only one statewide candidate in Arizona history has ever managed to pull that off: a candidate for superintendent of public instruction in 2014.
While Biden doesn’t necessarily need Arizona to reach 270 electoral votes if he manages to win back the so-called “blue wall” states in the Rust Belt from Trump, Republicans have never won the presidency without it.
And then there’s the nightmare scenario where Biden takes back Michigan, Wisconsin and adds Arizona, but Trump carries Pennsylvania. If every other state votes the way it did in 2016, that would result in a tie at 269.
Ray Gomez, a 89-year-old retiree who cast his ballot for Biden on the second day of early voting, doesn’t see that happening. He believes his state is going to contribute to a rout of the president.
“He knows he’s gone,” Gomez said of Trump. “He’s losing in every one of them.”