In Arizona, Republicans worry about losing traction with independent voters

In a state that could prove pivotal in both the presidential race and the fight for Senate control, Republicans are concerned about a shrinking base.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 20, 2020.Leah Millis / Reuters

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By Vaughn Hillyard

PHOENIX — Long renowned for electing maverick politicians such as Democrat Mo Udall and Republican John McCain, Arizona voters now find themselves in the epicenter of a 2020 campaign that may alter the political balance in the country.

And longtime Republicans here are growing pessimistic, not only about President Donald Trump’s chances for winning Arizona in November, but also the future prospects for the state party.

“Trump only won by 3 percentage points last time and does not appear to have expanded his base of support since,” former GOP Sen. Jon Kyl said in an interview. “And he may be losing some of the independents he needs to win by the things he says to motivate his base.”

From 2008 to 2020, the number of registered independents in Arizona grew by more than 50 percent, according to data released by the office of the Arizona secretary of state, while the number of registered Republicans and Democrats increased by just 25 percent. And Kyl said the shift in party leanings among that growing bloc of voters is what should concern the state party the most, noting Republican Martha McSally’s struggle to garner traction in this year’s Arizona Senate race after narrowly losing statewide in a 2018 Senate bid by 55,000 voters.

“McSally suffers from the divisions surrounding Trump. She needs support from both pro- and anti-Trump Republicans, and it’s not easy to get that given the difference in feelings most have about Trump,” Kyl said. “The Senate race should be more concerning to Arizona Republicans since it is more reflective of baseline Republican versus Democratic support than the presidential race.”

Now, with polls showing a virtual dead-heat between Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Republicans are worried that those divisions will sap them of suburban votes in both that race and the almost equally important U.S. Senate race here.

The president will travel to the state Tuesday for a tour of border wall construction in Yuma and a “Students for Trump Convention” in Phoenix. And he is certain to get a warm reception from the Arizona state GOP, which has hewed closely to him throughout his presidency.

But some Republicans see less upside in the president's approach than the winning one politicians such as the Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and McCain have used.

“Pretty much the Republican orthodoxy has become Trump orthodoxy, which is a reaction to identity politics in a factionalized country and state,” Chuck Coughlin, a longtime Arizona Republican operative, said. “McCain was about bringing people together.”

Trump won Arizona by 3 points in 2016, earning 78,000 fewer votes than McCain in his final Senate race. But that was the closest margin of victory in the state since Bill Clinton won it by just a 2-point margin in 1996 — the last Democratic presidential candidate to win it.

The stakes are high outside of Arizona’s 11 electoral votes, with the critical Senate race between McSally, who was appointed to fill McCain’s seat after his death, and Democrat Mark Kelly, an astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords.

And for observers like Coughlin, it’s the down-ballot race that has them most concerned as the number of independent voters continues to grow. He noted that in 2018, the state’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey — a more traditional, measured conservative — easily won his own re-election bid by 14 points while McSally — who campaigned as a close ally of the president, lost the Senate race to Sinema.

“I think she's capable of that other [McCain] path,” Coughlin said of McSally. “[But] she succumbed to the identity politics of the Trump era.”

Now in 2020, Democrats smell blood in this once-ruby-red state.

“I’d be ringing the alarm bell,” Phoenix-based pollster Mike Noble of OH Predictive Insights said. “There’s a reason prior to the 2018 elections that every statewide office in Arizona was held by a Republican. And it’s because independents have historically voted center-right. Not only are they now center-left, but they’re moving much farther to the left in this current political environment.”

A Fox News poll this month showed Kelly beating McSally among independents, who make up nearly one-third of the Arizona electorate, by a margin of 59 percent to 28 percent. In 2018, NBC News exit polling showed that McSally lost independents by 3 percent to Sinema.

“She essentially has a six- to eight-week campaign to remain viable in the national conversation as competitive,” said Republican Kirk Adams, the former speaker of the Arizona House and the former chief of staff to Ducey.

“Most observers will tell you McSally needs a softer image. She is a warrior, and it shows. Which is good as far as it goes — but, people also want to see dignity in their senator and a person who cares about them as their representative,” Kyl said.

“Ironically, McSally the person embodies these qualities; but, she has been at a disadvantage in convincing the voters,” Kyl added.

McSally is presently underperforming Trump’s own polling numbers in no small part because she has not captured — to the same extent as Trump — the enthusiasm within the registered Republican base in the more rural areas of the state, Republican operatives say. Trump has dug in to drive the turnout of his base of supporters.

“He is anything but moderating,” Coughlin said. “He is who he is. He’s Popeye. His goal will be to use that fortune that he has in his campaign to make Biden and the Democrats look so unappealing and so unattractive and such a threat to the America that that older generation knows and values.”

That message from Trump, and other firebrand Republican candidates in the state, has taken a significant electoral toll in the state’s most populous county, Maricopa County, which encompasses the mass of suburban neighborhoods across the greater Phoenix area and a growing Latino electorate. Only one candidate in the last decade has won statewide while losing Maricopa County.

The Republican Party saw its first sign of deteriorating support in the county when voters ousted Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2016 after 24 years in the role and Trump won it by just 3.4 percent. In 2018, McSally lost the county to Sinema by 3.2 percent.

By contrast, McCain won the county by 11 percent in his 2008 presidential bid and by 15 percent in his 2016 Senate victory.

To counter this drop, the Trump campaign believes it can drive up turnout in the rural counties to make up for some of the losses it expects to concede in the suburbs of Maricopa County.

“There’s no doubt that they’re running that strategy right now,” Coughlin said. “But if he’s not within 1 or 2 points in Maricopa County, that strategy won’t be enough.”

By mid-June, Biden’s campaign had yet to place a single staffer on the ground solely dedicated to the state, and the former vice president has not visited since July 2018. The campaign, however, announced last week its first three hirings in the state, including Sinema’s 2018 campaign manager, Andrew Piatt.

Instead, the campaign has heavily relied on the sizable campaign operation built by Kelly and the Arizona Democratic Party, which also doubled its number of active local organizers from 2016 levels. The Priorities USA super PAC is also already running television ads in support of Biden’s campaign in the state.

The Trump campaign has acknowledged its need to defend the territory. It already has 70 staffers on the ground and restarted its door-knocking operation this month.