Arizona Becomes A Battleground State Before 2020 Elections

May 5, 2020
Originally published on May 5, 2020 7:04 pm
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Well, President Trump took his message to Phoenix today, where he toured a factory making badly needed face masks. Arizona is a state that will get more than its share of attention between now and Election Day. Long a safe bet for Republican presidential candidates, Arizona has joined the ranks of hotly contested battleground states where the outcome is unpredictable. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Today's visit by President Trump is not a campaign stop. Even so, you don't have to go back very far to find such an event on the president's calendar. This was weeks before things shut down in a crowded sports arena.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's great being here in the great state of Arizona with thousands of hardworking patriots.

GONYEA: But Arizona is complicated for the president. In 2016, he barely won here - by just 3.5%. Compare that to Mitt Romney's more-than-nine-point win over President Obama in 2012. The shift from red state to purple state has actually been underway for a long time. It's just that it's now reached the point where it's affecting statewide elections in Arizona.

Kim Fridkin is a political scientist at Arizona State University. She says it's about new people moving in and changing demographics.

KIM FRIDKIN: So we have a large and growing Latino population.

GONYEA: Which she says is becoming more engaged in politics.

FRIDKIN: So that's part of it. And there's also a lot of migration from other parts of the country. So California - a lot of people from California moving to Arizona. So the politics and the state have changed.

GONYEA: We've already seen this shift play out in neighboring Colorado and Nevada, where rural areas watch their clout shrink as the suburbs grow. All that is good for Democrats. But longtime Arizona GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin says Trump expects to keep Arizona in the win column by taking credit for the pre-pandemic economy and arguing he's the one to get things back on track.

CHUCK COUGHLIN: Prior to this experience that we've all been through, it was the hottest economy in the country. He's trying to find his way out of this COVID-19 narrative. And what better place to do that in Arizona?

GONYEA: Still, Trump has trouble with those suburban voters. Democrat Joe Biden's goal will be to capitalize on that. Another alarm bell for the GOP is that Democrats won four statewide races in Arizona in the midterms, including capturing a U.S. Senate seat. Then there's the legacy of the late Senator John McCain, who was an outspoken Republican Trump critic. Trump has continued insulting McCain and his family since the senator's death in 2018. Recently on the program "Watch What Happens Live" on the cable channel Bravo, McCain's daughter Meghan was asked if she'd be voting for Democrat Joe Biden, a close friend of her late father.

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MEGHAN MCCAIN: There's one man who has made pain in my life a living hell and another man who has, like, literally shepherd me through the grief process. This really shouldn't be rocket science for people.

GONYEA: There's something else that makes the presidential race in Arizona so interesting this year. It's that there's also one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races underway to fill the seat once held by McCain. Republican Martha McSally currently holds the seat by appointment. She's a former Air Force fighter pilot running against former astronaut Democrat Mark Kelly. The race is considered a toss-up, though Kelly has consistently led in polls. That contest and the presidential election mean Arizona is not just a brand-new battleground. It will also be as closely watched as any place in the country.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "VENTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.