ANALYSIS — In 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump carried Arizona by about 91,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million votes cast. His 3.5-point margin over Hillary Clinton was significantly narrower than the showings of recent GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, John McCain or George W. Bush in the state. Their victory margins ranged from 6 to 10 points.
Also on the Arizona ballot in 2016 was Sen. John McCain, who was running for reelection. McCain, a critic of Trump even back then, carried the state by 328,022 votes — a margin of 13 points.
Clearly, Arizona voters, who have elected Republicans such as McCain, Jeff Flake and Jon Kyl to the Senate over the past 30 years, were not enthusiastic about Trump.
And two years after Trump’s election, the unthinkable happened. Democrats in the Grand Canyon State won their first statewide election for federal office in 22 years when Rep. Kyrsten Sinema defeated GOP Rep. Martha McSally by 2.4 points in a hard-fought Senate race.
The problem for Republicans is that Sinema’s victory and Trump’s relatively weak showing in 2016 suggest that Arizona’s politics are changing — or at least that state voters find Trump unpalatable.
At the heart of that partisan change is Maricopa County, a sprawling, once reliably Republican area that includes Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, Scottsdale and other suburban communities. The county is huge, usually accounting for about 60 percent of the total statewide vote.
While Trump squeezed out an unimpressive 44,454-vote victory in the county in 2016, McCain, running for reelection that same year, carried the county by 239,790 votes.
Two years later, Democrat Sinema carried the county by 60,256 votes. Since her statewide margin over McSally was 55,900 votes, Maricopa was decisive in Sinema’s victory. All McSally needed to do was run even in Maricopa County to win the election. But in a midterm contest with Trump in the White House and an albatross around McSally’s neck, she couldn’t even do that.
It’s not that Maricopa County voters have suddenly turned the state dark blue. Far from it.
County voters remain sensitive to taxes and spending, and they continue to vote for Republicans who are competent and broadly appealing. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, for example, won reelection comfortably in 2018, carrying Maricopa by over 197,000 votes.
Clearly, the problem is Trump, whose style doesn’t sell well in Maricopa County (and in many other urban and suburban areas). As long as he is in the White House or on the ballot, the GOP has a problem in the county, and therefore in the state.
Unfortunately for Trump, he doesn’t have anywhere to turn to make up the votes he is losing in Maricopa County. Together, Maricopa and the state’s second largest county, Democratic Pima (Tucson), account for three-quarters of Arizona’s vote, and the state’s other counties simply don’t deliver a large enough number of voters to change an election outcome.
Even worse for Trump and the Arizona GOP, Maricopa is growing. Quickly.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s July 1, 2019, report on population changes, Maricopa County had the fastest growth in the country, in terms of population change, between 2010 and 2019.
In fact, Maricopa is now the fourth most populous county in the nation, ranking behind only Los Angeles County (California), Cook County (Illinois) and Harris County (Texas).
Why is that important? Because Trump and the GOP underperformed in the nation’s most populous counties in 2016 and 2018.
The 2020 election
It’s difficult to see how Trump can win Arizona in 2020 without at least breaking even in Maricopa. The same applies to McSally, who was later appointed to the Senate to fill the late McCain’s vacant Senate seat and will face the voters this fall.
The early polling, some of which comes from dubious sources, suggests that Democrat Joe Biden has a narrow lead over Trump in the state.
Part of the contest is about turnout — whether Democratic operatives can turn out Native Americans and Hispanics — and part is about whether generally conservative voters who find Trump unacceptable will actually vote for Biden, a pragmatic liberal who is widely viewed as a decent and honorable man.
With the voting in 14 of Arizona’s 15 counties generally predictable, Maricopa becomes the real test for both parties.
The Arizona Senate race, pitting McSally against Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, is also “must-watch.”
Again, the limited number of early polls show Kelly in the lead. But unlike the presidential race in the state, which everyone thinks is tight, Kelly has a narrow but clear lead in the Senate contest.
Without a legislative record, Kelly, whose wife was shot in the head during an assassination attempt in early 2011, is harder to paint as a liberal who is “too extreme.” That should make him a formidable Democrat in Maricopa County, where, of course, the Senate contest will be decided.
While much of the national attention has been on Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), insiders know that Arizona (11 electoral votes) is equally important to Trump’s reelection strategy. And on election night in November (or even a few days later, given the state’s slow vote counting in 2018), Arizona’s results from Maricopa may well determine who sits in the White House for the next four years. And that is not good news for Trump.