Blue state or blue sky? Arizona Democrats hopeful for fall elections

Delegates at Wells Fargo Center cheer during the Democratic National Convention. Arizona Democrats say they are optimistic about the party’s chances in the state this fall. (Photo by Isabel Menzel/Cronkite News)

PHILADELPHIA – Fresh off the history-making nomination of Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee for a major U.S. party, Arizona Democrats said they think the historically Republican state could turn blue – or at least purple – this fall.

“I think that Arizona is ready for a big transition back to the Democrats,” said Flagstaff resident Patrice Horstman, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention here. “It was (Bill) Clinton that turned the state blue and now it’s going to be Hillary Clinton that’s going to turn it blue again.”

Political experts didn’t say it couldn’t happen, but they were not as optimistic as the state’s Democrats.

Kyle Kondik, an analyst for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said a Democratic turn in Arizona is highly unlikely.

“Arizona has a fairly long history of voting a little more Republican than the national average, that goes back several decades,” Kondik said. “There are some signs that Arizona has a growing Hispanic population, and non-white voters are more Democratic than white voters, and so as that group grows Arizona could hypothetically become more Democratic.

“But, there hasn’t been a lot of signs in recent election results that the state is truly trending Democratic,” he said.

But Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst with the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, was not as dismissive. He said that “with Donald Trump we have to open our mind to the possibility that many states are in play” to go blue.

“I think it’s up to Democrats to prove Arizona is ready to go Democratic after years of going Republican,” Gonzales said. “Demographically, Arizona seems to be trending Democratic, but it’s starting from a Republican position.”

The latest voter registration numbers from the Arizona Secretary of State’s office showed GOP voters still outnumber Democrats, with 1.2 million registered Republicans to 990,417 Democrats.

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Rob McCutcheon – an Arizona Republican delegate who attended last week’s convention in Cleveland – agreed with Kondik.

“If you look at the numbers and the energy in the state, that’s coming from the right right now and that’s not going to change,” McCutcheon said.

And Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham said the party has more than just numbers on its side: He said the state party has been preparing for the presidential race for more than two years, and that Democrats beginning presidential operations in the state are “too late” to change the equation.

He also said the state party has a dynamic ground game, including phone calls, people going door-to-door, as well as what he described as a “social media war room” to get out their message.

“All of these tactical elements combined is what leads to success,” Graham said. “You have to have a ground game, but your ground game also has to have intent and purpose.”

Graham said voters see Clinton as “part of that old-guard establishment … and people want change.”

Arizona’s DNC delegates were still hopeful, though, saying that 2016 is the year to be a Democrat in the previously safe Republican state.

“I think it’s not just for Clinton I think it’s going to go down into the House and the Senate,” Horstman said. “I think it’s a great time for (Democratic Senate hopeful) Ann Kirkpatrick. We’re very excited about the election in November.”

Editor’s note:

The placement of quotes in a previous version of this story may have left the incorrect impression that Arizona Republican spokesman Tim Sifert was commenting on voter access to the polls. Sifert’s comments were aimed at what he sees as the unlikelihood that Democrats will be successful in the state. The story here has been revised to clarify. Clients who used earlier versions of the story are asked to use the clarification found here

Harriet Young, a retired Northern Arizona University political science professor and guest of the Arizona Democratic delegation, agreed that 2016 could be a “critical election” that turns the state blue.

“At certain critical times the public becomes so unhappy with absolutely everything that the public itself changes,” Young said. “It’s not designed, they don’t know what they’re doing but things shift and in some ways you don’t know why but suddenly everything turns upside down and they vote for different packs.”

But Arizona GOP spokesman Tim Sifert called the Democrats’ hope misplaced. While he wishes the Arizona delegation well this week in Philadelphia, he said the state will not be going Democratic any time soon.

“It’s always good to see optimism in any political contest,” Sifert said. “But the fact is that this optimism is misguided.”

Stephen Lewis, the governor of the Gila River Indian Community and a Democratic delegate, said he thinks that Arizona has always had a strong community of Democrats. But the party needs to ensure that those voters have access to the polls to see the blue trend he predicts.

“I think that has always been there especially in the northern area of Arizona where there’s a large basis of tribal voters,” Lewis said. “We need to make sure that members have unfettered access to the polls.”

Even if Democrats prevail in Arizona this fall, however, Kondik said it is unlikely that the state will give Clinton a decisive boost.

“I think if Hillary Clinton were to win Arizona it really would not provide her a decisive 270 electoral votes, it would probably be that she’s racking up a decent sized victory nationally,” Kondik said.

– Cronkite News reporters Kelsey DeGideo and Selena Makrides in Philadelphia and David Marino Jr. in Phoenix contributed to this report.