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How new Arizona residents have turned the state purple — and made it a key battleground in 2020


For Molly Nygren, longtime Democrat and Houston transplant, 2018 was her first election in Arizona. 

Buckeye resident Alice Lehr skipped the 2016 presidential election, but believes politics reached an intolerable tipping point last year under President Donald Trump. 

Both women participated in the state’s historic 2018 election, in which Democrats won a U.S. Senate race in Arizona for the first time in 30 years and won three other statewide contests. 

They are the type of voters who will help settle Arizona’s elections in a year when Democrats and Republicans alike are treating the state as a crucial battleground for the White House and control of the Senate in November.

Nygren, a Gilbert nurse, lives in the southeast Valley, where Democrat Kyrsten Sinema persuaded voters who collectively supported Trump in 2016 to back her Senate bid in 2018. 

“I wasn’t working, and didn’t know what to do with myself,” Nygren, 41, said of her political engagement in her new home state. “I kind of thrust myself into politics when I moved here.”

Lehr lives in a new home in Buckeye, near where Democrats have traditionally done well, but where turnout is relatively light. Unimpressed with her choices, she didn’t vote in the presidential race in 2016, but Lehr chose Sinema over Republican Martha McSally in 2018.

In 2018, voters like Lehr, 74, turned out in record numbers. The bulging margins in those areas helped negate McSally’s strong showing in rural Arizona.

An Arizona Republic analysis of precinct-level voting results and registration trends shows both parties making gains, but Democrats turned Republican red precincts purple, while their blue precincts turned deeper blue. 

An area that roughly traces Loop 101, from communities spanning the Gilbert-Chandler line up north through Scottsdale, west to Peoria, has emerged as a key battleground within a state where the outcome will be fiercely fought. These voters were most likely to split their tickets in 2018 and could do so again this year. 

Arizona’s changing election results owe partly to evolving demographics and to the unique moment in our politics. 

The state is, as usual, one of the fastest-growing in the nation, and its Hispanic population is increasingly of age to vote.

At the same time, Trump, the most polarizing figure in politics, has helped push up GOP support among whites and in rural areas, while pushing away college-educated voters and minorities.

With Trump back on the ballot this year, Democrats think they can build on their winning formula from 2018.

Republicans are hopeful their party can again carry a state Trump won by 3.5 percentage points in 2016.

Both parties will be battling for voters like Jeff Blodgett, a Republican from Peoria, just off Loop 101. He's a disaffected Republican who voted for Trump and McSally in past elections but is open to voting for Democrats in the presidential and Senate races this year. 

He's fed up with the partisan fighting that has gridlocked the nation. So, too, were most of the two dozen Arizona voters interviewed in key precincts by The Arizona Republic.

"They don't want to work together," Blodgett, 62, said. "It's like a war." 

A state in demographic flux

At a recent appearance at the Arizona Republican Party’s headquarters in central Phoenix, Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, was preparing his troops.

Parscale stood before a room filled with supporters to give them the inside scoop on the “biggest volunteer army in the history of the Republican Party” that he was building to help Trump in 2020.

For Republicans, alarm bells are ringing.

Trump's narrow win in 2016 and the party's 2018 loss of a Senate seat signaled peril. Republicans view the state as one of the most competitive in the election cycle and began building out their 2020 political infrastructure months earlier than normal. 

Vice President Mike Pence said during his October visit to the state that he and Trump would spend a lot of time in Arizona this election season. Republicans expect Trump could visit the state early this year.

“You’ve got to understand,” Parscale said to supporters. “Arizona has not normally been a state where we’ve had to put this much work into it. Democrats see Arizona as a possibility. I don’t think it’s there yet, but that’s why all of you have to make sure you get active and you work hard.”

Republicans are having to work harder because the state is in flux, political experts say.

“In some ways, this is like the proverbial frog in the boiling water. These changes are happening, but they’re happening so slowly, it’s hard for us to observe them,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who studies voting behavior.

“You’ve got a competitive Senate election, you’ve got a competitive presidential election, and these changes are going to manifest themselves statewide, but at the same time they’re going to be geographically located” in the suburbs, he said. 

McDonald said Arizona’s newfound competitiveness is a combination of an electorate growing more ethnically diverse, which usually benefits Democrats, while it also becomes older, which typically helps Republicans. 

Rachel Bitecofer, an election forecaster at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University, sees Arizona continuing its leftward lean in 2020.

“When I’m looking at Arizona, I’m looking at the metro areas … and how much untapped surge potential is there,” she said. “They have not tapped into anywhere near the potential of the Latino population. If the Democrats were running Republican campaign efficiency, Arizona would already be blue. The voters are already there.” 

Hispanic voters a rising force

Midterm elections typically see a sharp fall in participation. This is usually most evident in more diverse areas. But in 2018, Arizona’s Hispanic voters remained politically engaged, according to a voting analysis by Catalist, a progressive firm that tracks voter data. 

The estimated share of Hispanics in the midterms fell by 0.2 percentage points or less in 16 of the state’s 30 legislative districts, the firm's data shows. 

In three contiguous districts running diagonally from Litchfield Park, east to Paradise Valley, the Hispanic share of voters actually went up.

Their sustained presence was seen in districts with large Hispanic populations and in ones where they are a small fraction of the electorate. And there are Hispanics who plan to vote this year who haven't before.

In 2016, Democrat Norma Hernandez was so uninspired with her choices for president, she didn’t vote. She won’t do that again in November. 

“I want him out,” the middle-aged mom said of Trump. “I feel like he’s not really working for the people. He’s working for himself. I want to have a voice. If there’s going to be change, I want to be a part of it.” 

Hernandez plans on voting for whomever the Democrats nominate. She also plans on voting for Democratic candidate Mark Kelly in the Senate race.

Whether it was driven by Trump’s border and immigration policies or just a growing political engagement already seen in other states, such as Florida, Hispanic voters had a bigger stake in the results in 2018. That trend is expected to carry over into the 2020 elections.

A less rural electorate

While Hispanics figured more prominently in the state’s electoral equation in 2018, so, too, did the state’s two population centers, Phoenix and Tucson. 

In 2014, turnout in Arizona’s two most populous counties, Maricopa and Pima, was about 1 percentage point lower than it was in the 13 other counties.

In 2018, turnout in Maricopa and Pima was 3 percentage points higher than the rest of the state. It has meant a growing share of voters — 77% in 2016 and 2018 — came from areas that are more urban and racially diverse.

There is another troubling fault line for Republicans in Pima County.

Trump lost in that historically Democratic-leaning county by 57,000 votes. He mostly erased that deficit by winning Maricopa County by 44,000 votes and carried the rest of the state by 104,000.

In 2018, McSally won rural Arizona by 65,000 votes. But she lost by 60,000 in Maricopa County and by 61,000 in Pima County. The Pima results were especially disappointing for a candidate from Tucson.

Her problem in Pima County could get worse running against the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who hailed from southeastern Arizona.

Trump carried Arizona in 2016, but McSally's performance in 2018 suggests a need for Republicans to expand well past the rural voters who have been a reliable cornerstone of their political base.

Both parties are working on the ground to identify new voters they believe will help them get the upper hand in a narrowly divided state.

For Republicans, one Trump-aligned PAC has identified 142,000 prospects they deem as conservatives who have not already voted for Trump but likely would.

Groups aligned with Democrats are targeting a pool of 200,000 new registrants.

The changing mix of people who vote in Arizona contributes to the state’s partisan drift.

Arizona remains one of the fastest-growing states in the country, and Maricopa County has been the nation’s fastest-growing county three years in a row.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest the county’s new residents largely come from Democratic-leaning areas.

Twelve of the 15 out-of-state counties that have provided the most new residents to Maricopa County in recent years are locations where Democrats have dominated elections or voter registration.

These include Democratic counties encompassing areas such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston and Chicago.

But the transplants come in all political stripes.

Republican Scott Fishman, 53, moved to Goodyear three years ago from New Jersey, drawn by the nice weather and lower taxes. He plans on voting for Trump again in 2020, even though he views him — and all other politicians — as “corrupt.” 

Fishman said Trump’s America First agenda is a patriotic appeal to people like him, who feel like the nation has been ripped off by international trade deals. 

“I’m us-first,” he said. “We put everybody first all the time. You can’t do that. You’ve got to put us first.” 

He sees the Democratic candidates as too weak to go toe-to-toe with Trump on the issues that matter most to him, such as border security and job creation.

“I like (Trump’s) personality. He’s not boring," Fishman said. "Is he the most articulate? No, but then again you’ve got (former Vice President Joe) Biden, who is articulate, but can’t put two sentences together without jumbling it up. And with them, everyone’s far left. Everything is free.”

Southeast Valley up for grabs

Perhaps no part of Maricopa County better epitomizes the changing complexion of the state’s most populous region than the area around Chandler and Gilbert.

The cities, home to corporate anchors such as Intel, GoDaddy and Northrop Grumman, have had some of the largest population gains in the nation’s fastest-growing county.

Census data shows residents are, as usual, relatively well-educated and affluent. But the political winds have shifted.

While many areas of the county voted less Republican than in recent years, this area of the southeast Valley flipped outright from 2014 to 2018.

Voters in those cities supported Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in 2014 and Republican Sen. John McCain in 2016. But they supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, and Sinema in last year’s Senate race.

Thad Letnes, 41, is one of them. 

The Chandler software engineer is an independent who split his 2016 ballot to vote for Clinton and McCain, who was elected to his sixth term. 

Troubled by Trump’s attitudes toward science, the media and abortion rights, Letnes finds himself more aligned with Democrats these days.  

He voted for Sinema over McSally and plans to vote against McSally again in 2020. He’s not yet impressed with any of the Democratic presidential candidates, but he plans to vote against Trump. 

“I’m worried that we’re going to continue all the craziness,” Letnes said, sitting on a park bench in Chandler.

Across the street, Toyosi Omojaro said Democrats may force her to vote for Trump.

Omojaro is a physician who moved to Chandler from Virginia last year and is a longtime Republican, although she hasn’t voted for a president since George W. Bush in 2004. 

The middle-aged mom is so turned off by the partisan “chaos” that she registered in Arizona as an independent voter. 

“I didn’t want a label this time around,” Omojaro said. “I wanted to go in with a free mind.”

She appreciates Trump’s anti-abortion stances and his rejection of political correctness. But she’s turned off by his profanity-laced tirades and his treatment of women. 

“I do applaud some of the things he does, but the way he goes about it just rubs me the wrong way,” Omojaro said. “I would want to be able to turn on the TV and let my daughter listen to a news conference without all this vulgarity. It’s not necessary.” 

She’s open to voting for a Democrat, but it must be someone more moderate than Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

If Democrats veer too far left, “I may close my eyes,” and vote for Trump, she said. 

She hasn’t paid attention to her new state’s Senate race, and was unfamiliar with McSally or Kelly, the Democratic contender.

More blue, not less red

One thing that isn’t changing in Arizona is whom GOP voters want.

Bitecofer, the professor of political science, dismissed the idea that Republican voters abandoned their party in 2018.

“This idea that Republicans were disaffected is wrong. There’s no evidence that Republicans were embarrassed or sad because they showed up in big numbers in 2018,” she said. “There was no additional crossover voting. It’s not that these House districts flipped because of Republicans joining hands with Democrats.”

Bitecofer said Sinema, who won by 2.3 percentage points, received at most up to 2 percentage points of Republican voters more than what happens in any election.

Beyond that, Arizona voters just included more people who voted for Democrats, she said.

To get a sense of where Arizona may be heading, keep an eye on Texas, she said.

“If Texas is within reach, Arizona basically becomes locked in,” Bitecofer said. “If there’s a Latino somewhere on the ticket, I just can’t see how Arizona can’t go Democratic.”

Reach the reporters at ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.comyvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com and pamela.larson@azcentral.com. Follow them on Twitter @ronaldjhansen, @yvonnewingett and @PamReporting.

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