Traditionally a Republican stronghold, Arizona has rarely been a state that political analysts consider on Election Day. Aside from 1996, when Bill Clinton won by two percentage points, the Grand Canyon State hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1948.
But this year, polling indicates Arizona is worth watching.
“Arizona should not be up for grabs,” said 60 Minutes correspondent John Dickerson, who reported from the state for 60 Minutes. “And Arizona is up for grabs because there’s something happening in Arizona that’s actually happening in the larger country, which is that the electorate is becoming more diverse.”
Latinos — many of whom are young, American-born, and coming of voting age — currently make up about one-third of the state’s population, which is rapidly growing. Roughly 60 percent of Arizonans live in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale. It was the largest county the president won in the 2016 election, and it is one of the fastest growing counties in the country.
But Arizona’s changing demographics and burgeoning population are not enough to explain the state’s shift, particularly given the fact that the state’s proportions of registered Republicans and Democrats have remained mostly stable. Registered Republicans still outnumber registered Democrats.
Instead, the changes are also playing out within Arizona’s Republican Party itself.
THE HISTORY OF ARIZONA’S REPUBLICAN PARTY
“This is not just any old Republican Party,” Dickerson said. “The Republican Party of Arizona has, in the history of the Republican Party, played a signature role.”
In the last 60 years, two of the party’s presidential nominees came from Arizona — Barry Goldwater in 1964 and John McCain in 2008 — two senators whose impact rippled throughout the GOP.
For his part, Goldwater ignited his party’s right wing for decades to come, even though he lost the presidency in a landslide.
Goldwater pushed back against changes within American government and within the Republican Party, calling the policies of the Eisenhower administration a “dime store New Deal.” His criticism of Eisenhower was also one of Republicanism at the time: Rather than rolling back the Democratic, big-government policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Republicans were, in Goldwater’s view, simply offering them at a discount to taxpayers.
During the 1964 Republican National Convention, Goldwater famously made a statement in defense of his more radical approach: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
“He was really the hard kernel at the center of conservatism, which said, basically, individual liberty, states’ rights, in opposition to a big, blossoming federal government,” Dickerson said.
McCain succeeded Goldwater, both in the Senate and in stature within Arizona’s Republican Party. When McCain first ran for president in 2000, he was considered an outsider compared with George W. Bush, the son of a former president. That is also when McCain earned the nickname of “maverick” for the first time.
“Because McCain was a dealmaker and often at odds with his party, he came to fill out a picture of the Republican Party in Arizona that had an independent streak,” Dickerson explained.
McCain’s enthusiasm for bipartisanship often put him at odds with other members of his party. He reached across the aisle to co-author a campaign finance law with Democrat Russ Feingold and criticized the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation methods of suspected terrorists, calling on the Senate to reject Gina Haspel’s nomination to be CIA director in May 2018.
Most famously, McCain voted against Republican legislation to undo the Affordable Care Act. It was a decisive vote that upended his party’s efforts to dismantle part of President Obama’s signature legislation — and one he cast just a week after learning he had a terminal brain tumor.
Another former Arizona senator, Republican Jeff Flake, was also frequently a thorn in his party’s side. As a congressman, he sought to cut earmark spending, a quest that often put him at odds with his fellow Republicans. As a senator, he became a vocal critic of President Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, even publishing a book that criticized not only the president, but also the Republicans Flake feels have enabled Mr. Trump, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In 2017, Flake announced he would not run for reelection because he felt that in the Republican Party today, he could not win in a primary and be at odds with members of the GOP — namely, the president.
“Arizona has always been pretty tolerant of mavericks,” Flake told 60 Minutes. “You know, Barry Goldwater and John McCain and I even won reelection several times. That’s always been kind of the prototype Arizona voter. That’s no longer the case. It’s very much a ‘litmus test’ kind of party. You’re with the president or you’re not.”
REPUBLICANS IN ARIZONA TODAY
Cindy McCain never envisioned herself supporting a Democrat.
The wife of late Sen. John McCain, she is a born-and-bred Arizona Republican. But in the 2020 election, she has endorsed Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
“It’s not about the party, it’s about the person for me,” she told 60 Minutes. “I’m going to remain a Republican. I’m not changing parties. I just think that our party right now is misguided.”
Cindy McCain is not alone. After the 2016 election, some Arizona Republicans have turned away from the direction they feel President Trump has taken their party. Lawn signs endorsing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris now dot the lawns of Maricopa County.
Kelli Ward, the chairwoman of Arizona’s Republican Party, called the debate within the party “a manufactured tension” and pushed back against the Republicans who say the party under President Trump has left them.
“I would like them to tell me what policies the Republican Party has put into place, or who has touted that they don’t agree with,” she said. “And I’d also like to know what policies that Biden and Harris have put on the table that they can’t wait to uphold and see put into place.”
Ward went on to tell 60 Minutes that she thinks the president has expanded the size and scope of the GOP more broadly by delivering on promises to women, minority communities, and blue-collar workers.
But when it comes to Arizona, its voters will ultimately determine where the party fits in — and whether it has achieved swing-state status.
“We’ll learn on election night whether the new Republican Party in Arizona, Donald Trump’s Republican Party in Arizona, can match up with that changing demography in Arizona and in fact be able to be a party of the future in a very competitive arena,” Dickerson said.
The video above was produced by Will Croxton and Brit McCandless Farmer. It was edited by Will Croxton.