Border security and illegal immigration are dominant issues in Arizona, where the states politics are now the subject of national interest in light of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
The backdrop for Saturday's tragic shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is the politics of a state and region that political consultants there describe as a "cranky libertarianism."
Arizona is a land of legendary political figures — a conservative icon in Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater and a widely respected Democrat in Rep. Morris Udall. Both died in 1998, which was the year Arizona became the first state to elect women to each of its top five statewide elected positions.
The Southwest is also where illegal immigration looms beneath discussions of nearly every issue. It can cause intensely divisive debates, as it did last year in Arizona, when the state instituted a beefed-up enforcement law. The contentious border issue — touching on crime and socioeconomics — led to the formation of organizations such as the Minuteman Project, a citizen border patrol group, that, along with relaxed gun restriction laws, helps illustrate the uniqueness of the region's politics.
Longtime Arizona GOP consultant Margaret Kenski, who saw Giffords in the Tucson grocery store parking lot Saturday morning just minutes before she was shot, told Roll Call the region's politics "doesn't fit with either political party too well."
"People kind of like to be left alone and are apt to be like Barry Goldwater," said Kenski, who once worked for Udall. "They don't want the government imposing interference on abortion — not that they like abortion, but it's for the same reason they don't like taxes. But at the same time, they do have a concept of public good and things that the government should do, like education."
Consultants in the region who spoke with Roll Call agreed that there is a "Western approach" to government, even as views on specific issues differ among the political parties.
"We're the state of Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall and Janet Napolitano," Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said. "It's an interesting mix of government minimalism, yet also wanting government responsibility for things like education and caring for people. A Western value of independence is at the core of how people view politics in Arizona."
Kenski said Giffords, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, typified this characterization of a unique politician. "If you look at Gabby's voting record, it's very interesting. Like Mo Udall, Gabby is a very strong supporter of gun rights. She supported the compromise tax package, but she also supported the health care reform bill and bigger government."
Much of the political debate in Arizona last year focused on the state's new illegal immigration law, which broadened the enforcement powers of police, made it a state crime to be in the country illegally and required immigrants to carry the paperwork to prove their legal status.