The view from Arizona, the nation’s most politically fascinating state

The Japan News

TEMPE, Ariz. – It’s strange to look out my window and see green grass in January. Yet that is what I will observe for the next few months as I sojourn in sunny – and politically crucial – Arizona.

I’m here because I am teaching a course this semester in the politics of American statesmanship at Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. This opportunity allows me to refine the thought I’ve given over the years to what some of the greatest American presidents – Lincoln, FDR and Reagan – did both to obtain power and to build coalitions that long outlasted their tenures. But it also gives me the chance to look closely at the goings-on in what is arguably the most politically fascinating state in the country.

Arizona was once deep red, the home of conservative icon Barry Goldwater and reliably Republican. Few states have changed more, however, since Donald Trump entered politics in 2015. Democrats have won most of the statewide contests since 2018 and now hold the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats for the first time in decades. Statewide campaigns are now hypercompetitive.

This is due in part to the fact that the state GOP’s ultra-MAGA wing now holds the upper hand in intraparty contests. There has always been a strong, hard-right component to the state’s Republican Party, but it has recently supplanted the long-dominant McCain wing. Former state senator Kelli Ward, who had challenged McCain in the 2016 primary for U.S. Senate, was elected state party chair in a close contest in 2019. Candidates backed by this faction – including the nationally infamous Kari Lake, who ran for governor – won all the contested primaries for statewide office in 2022. All but the nominee for superintendent of public instruction, however, lost. I’ll be covering the intraparty battles and maneuverings that will have significant influence on whether Republicans can prevail in the 2024 presidential and Senate contests.

There’s a contributing factor to Arizona’s swing to the center: the importance of highly educated White people. They have swung against the Trump-dominated GOP since his nomination, providing the margins for Democratic wins in each of the last three elections. This creates a conundrum for Republicans. The less hyper-conservative ones, such as former governor Doug Ducey and State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, win because they do better with college-educated White people. Even Rep. David Schweikert, a founder of the House Freedom Caucus, who remains highly conservative but not ultra-MAGA, won reelection this year in the district with the highest share of voters with at least a four-year degree. But people like them now find it hard to get past the GOP primary.

The state’s growing Hispanic population is also worth paying attention to. Trump gained support with this demographic in 2020, which is why he came so close to winning the state. Lake did even better than Trump with Latinos in 2022, according to exit polls. If this group keeps moving right, even the slightest rebound with educated White people would return the state to team red.

All these factors will be in play as the parties gear up for 2024. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s surprising decision to become an independent raises the possibility of a three-person race for her Senate seat. Democrats are likely to nominate Rep. Ruben Gallego, a staunch progressive, while Republicans could easily nominate someone from the Ward-Lake faction. I’ll be looking closely into the early stages of this race while I’m here.

We might get a preview of that battle this year. That’s because Gov. Katie Hobbs is also a staunch progressive Democrat, while the state legislature is narrowly controlled by conservative Republicans. Her State of the State speech presages battles over abortion rights, education spending and the continued survival of a statewide school choice program passed last year, when the GOP controlled everything. Conservatives will not want to go along with much of Hobbs’s agenda. Who will prevail, and how will Arizona’s crucial bloc of moderates view each side?

I’ll still be writing my regular columns on national issues while I’m here. But my stay will give me the chance to put a special focus on Arizona’s fascinating politics, giving you deeper insight into the developments that are likely to have outsize national influence over the next few years.