PHOENIX — The Grand Canyon State is ahead of the curve.
From gay rights, to border security and immigration, to the rise of Latino-American politicians, to absorbing military cuts, Arizona has been busy adjudicating the issues that states across the nation will soon be facing, debating and resolving.
Time after time, the country’s political focus turns to Arizona, whether for a strict anti-illegal immigration bill or controversial legislation this year that would have allowed businesses to turn away customers who were gays or lesbians.
So why is Arizona so politically relevant? The state is at the forefront of changes affecting much of America: the trend away from party affiliation, the influence of a young and growing Hispanic population, and the struggles over illegal immigration.
Arizona, the last contiguous state to join the union, is among the first to see independents outnumber Republicans or Democrats.
Its independent streak is illustrated by a number of centrist, technocratic policies: the public financing of elections, bipartisan independent redistricting, indexing the minimum wage to inflation, and merit-based judicial appointments.
So far, this independence leans towards the Right: Arizona gave Mitt Romney a 10-point win over President Obama in 2012. This conservatism is pitted against the overwhelmingly progressive views of young Latino-Americans, who are now getting their first taste of politics -- the median age of non-Latino whites in the state is 45; among Latinos, the average age is 25, according to a report from Latino Decisions. By 2029, minorities will make up a majority of the state's population.
The demographic trends favor Democrats — Hispanic voters favored Obama to Romney in the 2012 presidential election, 79 percent to 20 percent. And those on the Left suggest that the controversial anti-immigrant and religious freedom laws are the death throes of an increasingly threatened, aging majority.
“The majority is concerned about losing control,” said Danny Ortega, a lawyer and immediate past chairman of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.
Three congressional districts along the corridor between Phoenix and the state’s second-largest city, Tucson, provide a glimpse of Arizona's — and America’s — political future. Two are among the country’s most competitive, and a third in central Phoenix shows the rise of Hispanic politics in the state.
Arizona’s 9th Congressional District – Suburban Phoenix
Listening to her give an address to the Tempe Chamber of Commerce, you can’t tell if Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is a Republican or a Democrat (she’s the latter).
“[I'm] working hard every day for common sense solutions that help businesses,” she says, highlighting her efforts to convince high-tech companies to come to Phoenix to create a “Silicon Valley 2.0.” Google and Tesla, the electric car company, have indicated interest.
It makes political sense for Sinema to speak to the center, as her district is one of the most centrist in the country. The Cook Partisan Voting Index pegs her district as narrowly Republican. Like many other vulnerable Democrats across the country, she tells the crowd that the Obama administration has done an “atrocious job” rolling out the Affordable Care Act. She has been, she says, “beating on [the Obama administration's] door to get them to fix things … trying to force them to be accountable and transparent.”
Sinema ends her day with a visit to a Tempe high school that is hosting a Rock the Vote event to encourage seniors to get politically involved. With a nod to social media and changing demographics, Sinema urges the teens to vote for someone “who looks like you, and who knows what Instagram is.”
Elsewhere in the district, Republican challenger Wendy Rogers holds forth on the worries of suburban America, a cause that is echoed in almost every other moderate-to-conservative district in the country. The suburban voter is worried that the fundamental character of America is slipping away. The concerns range from health care coverage to insufficient work to increasing government regulations.
“I don’t know if I could start a business today” in this economic environment, Rogers said, adding that many of her would-be constituents share this sentiment.
Rogers, one of the Air Force’s first female pilots and now the owner of a home inspection business, has knocked on 13,000 doors in the district in less than four years.
“They really appreciate eye-to-eye contact in the age of the Internet,” Rogers said.
Arizona’s 7th Congressional District – Phoenix and Glendale
Ruben Gallego, the son of immigrants from Mexico and Colombia, is kicking off his bid for the Democratic nomination in a hip bar just south of downtown Phoenix. With veteran Rep. Ed Pastor retiring from his seat in a heavily Democratic district, this primary is all that matters.
Gallego's first English word, his wife says in introducing him, was "Spiderman." The son of immigrants grew up to go to Harvard and was deployed to Iraq as a Marine. “It's going to be a tough race,” Gallego said, taking the center of the room. The nomination will pitch “friends against friends.”
When Sinema flirted with changing districts before entering this race, Hispanic community and business leaders criticized her for nearly squandering an opportunity for the district to have Latino representation in Washington.
A number of Hispanic politicians have jumped into the race, reflecting the strength of the local community’s political bench. Gallego, who is Assistant Minority Leader in the Arizona House, will face off against well-organized County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and state Sen. Steve Gallardo, who if elected would become the first openly gay Latino in Congress.
Given how overwhelmingly Democratic the district is, all the candidates are running to the left. The key to the race, argued Ortega, is not going to be a candidate’s policies, but rather his or her ability to organize supporters.
“We all do have kind of the same views,” Wilcox acknowledged. “The question is who has actually been doing the work. You’ve got some relative newcomers … who have not proven that they can get into the trenches and be the advocates we really need.”
Interestingly enough, the mechanics of civil engagement are a fundamental challenge in Latino-American politics. Only 48 percent of eligible Hispanic voters turned out to vote in 2012, down from 49.9 percent in 2008, according to a Pew study. This is well below the 66.6 percent of blacks and 64.1 percent of whites that voted in the last presidential election.
The organizational challenge is what threatens to prevent demography from becoming destiny. For Ortega, organizers need only two more election cycles until the Hispanic communities can become the critical vote in Arizona’s swing districts.
Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District – Tucson and the Arizona-Mexican border
Rep. Ron Barber has a stunning statistic: His district includes 13 percent of the U.S.-Mexico border but accounts for 47 percent of all the drugs seized by U.S. law enforcement officials.
The Democrat’s district leans Republican, putting him in a precarious position as he tries to navigate his constituents’ concerns about border security, the rollout of Obamacare, comprehensive immigration reform, the drug war, and gun rights. (The district was the scene of the shooting that killed six people and gravely wounded former Rep. Gabby Giffords wounded and six dead.)
In 2012, Barber bested Republican Martha McSally by fewer than 2,500 votes. McSally’s impressive biography includes being the first female fighter pilot to ever fly in combat. As a former Warthog A-10 instructor at the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, she claims that she would be a more aggressive advocate for keeping the A-10 from the Pentagon chopping block.
But beyond the issue of economic security, McSally doesn't show much command of political issues. “I’m not an expert,” she said when asked by the Washington Examiner what she thought caused the financial crisis of 2008. Questioned about what she might present as her first piece of legislation if elected, McSally didn’t have an answer. “I’m not in Congress. I don’t have a taxpayer-funded staff to review every bill,” she said.
Barber, on the other hand, ticked off the numerous bills that he voted for as a member of Congress, highlighting the ones that have made changes to the Affordable Care Act in an effort to show how he has pressed for changes to Obamacare.
“We are at the forefront of the issues that the country will need to deal with,” Barber said, advocating for a “movement to the center, which is where people want us to be, because that is where problems are solved.”