In Arizona’s shift toward purple, a backlash to Trump hastens the pace

Democrats hope increased Latino turnout will upset Republican dominance in the state.

The Café Royale is a two-story stucco building with a royal blue wraparound porch. This cheery café serves lattes and regular cups of joe to the working-class, heavily Latino community of Avondale, west of Phoenix. Lately, though, it also serves as a hub of Democratic activism. The local Democratic Party headquarters occupies the building’s second floor, and the immaculate coffee shop below regularly hosts political events.


One weekday this summer, Ann Kirkpatrick, the Democratic congresswoman determined to eject Sen. John McCain from the seat he’s held for 30 years, arrives at the Café Royale and is greeted by leaders from the Latino communities of Phoenix’s western suburbs.

This is new territory for Kirkpatrick, whose sprawling congressional district includes nearly half the state, from the Navajo Nation in the northeast corner to just north of Tucson in the south. As big as it is, though — the tenth-largest in the country — her district covers mostly rural areas. To have any hope of seizing McCain’s seat and helping Democrats take back the Senate, Kirkpatrick needs the backing of the state’s Latino communities, especially those surrounding Café Royale.

Sitting around a coffee table, where plates of cookies go untouched, Kirkpatrick tells the group — a dozen well-dressed, well-coiffed business-owners and local politicians — a parable of sorts, describing the kind of determination she believes is necessary to get people to the polls. In Kirkpatrick’s 2014 campaign for the U.S. Congress, a Navajo organizer arrived to pick up a rural family to vote early. But the Navajo family had other plans that day — slaughtering a sheep. As she tells the story, Kirkpatrick, a slender woman with bangs and shoulder-length brunette hair, pauses for emphasis: “She said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll slaughter the sheep. You go vote.’ ”

The story clearly resonates with her listeners. “We look forward to having you turn the state over to blue,” Jose Diego Espinoza, a state legislator, tells her. “We’re going to do it! It’s time. It’s time.”

Sitting around the table, laughing and strategizing, the group is optimistic that Latino anger over Donald Trump will expand voter turnout and help Democrats in races all the way down the ballot. Were Democrats to take back the U.S. Senate and keep the White House, this community could see a boost in federal funding for everything from public transit to education. Such a victory also could help Democrats win local and statewide races and improve chances for ballot initiatives they support, such as increasing school funding and the minimum wage. Several of the locals at the table are running for office: state Legislature, city councils, local school boards.

Everyone here knows, though, that victory will only be possible if Latinos do what they have never done before: Register and vote in numbers that echo their swelling position in the state, where 31 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2015’s census.

Arizona’s changing demographics, with Latinos making up an ever-larger share of the population, herald a likely shift in the electorate from red to purple and then, eventually, blue, following the pattern of California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. This election cycle, however, Republican candidate Donald Trump may be accelerating that trend.

Trump’s antipathy toward immigrants, his plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and his ceaseless insulting of minorities have stirred up many Latinos. State data show a significant increase in voter registration, with Democrats up by 7 percent and Republicans by nearly 5 percent. In Maricopa County, the state’s largest, 70,000 more people are registered as Democrats than in 2012, while Republicans are up 50,000. The big question for Kirkpatrick and others will be whether backlash to Trump (and his local doppelgänger, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio) will translate into votes on Election Day.

Ann Kirkpatrick, front left, greets Isela Blanc, Democratic candidate for the Arizona Legislature, during a “Latinos for Ann” event in Phoenix. Kirkpatrick needs the backing of Latinos to win the Arizona Senate seat John McCain has held for three decades.
David Jolkovski

Carmen Cornejo takes a selfie with Marcos Garcia Acosta and U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick during a “Latinos for Ann” event, to support her run for the U.S. Senate, at Luna Culture Lab in Phoenix in September.
David Jolkovski

Most Republicans here are confident they’ll retain their long-held dominance in the state. At a late-summer campaign event in Chandler, southwest of Phoenix, McCain scoffed at predictions of a Democratic takeover. “In 2012 and 2008, there was all this conversation about how Arizona could go Democrat, and obviously it did not,” he said. “It won’t this time.”

That may be true. A number of institutions are set up to preserve Republican dominance. One big difference between Arizona and other purpling Western states is that its political and economic institutions are largely designed to resist influence from Mexico and its immigrants. The state’s election laws, for example, make it harder for Latinos to be elected to local and state office: Because Arizona voters elect two representatives to the state Legislature from relatively large districts, minorities are at a disadvantage. If the districts were smaller, Latinos would be in the majority more often and could send more representatives to the Statehouse.

“There are few institutions (in Arizona) that can harness the political will of the lower socio-economic strata of the Hispanic community,” says Stephen A. Nuño, associate professor at the University of Northern Arizona. “Hispanics don’t have a whole lot of institutions they can use to mobilize, and that is not a mistake.”

Arizona is also a right-to-work state, so labor unions have not played a big role in supporting Democratic candidates. Voter registration happens through the Department of Motor Vehicles, so Republicans, who tend to be more affluent, register to vote without thinking about it, while low-income minorities without cars might not ever be asked to register.

Traditionally, the national Democratic Party hasn’t paid much attention to Arizona, considering it a lost cause. That may be changing, however: Latinos remain underrepresented in the state Legislature, holding 21 percent of seats for 31 percent of the state’s population, but that’s up from only 14 percent in 2009. Seeing an opportunity, Hillary Clinton’s campaign sent staff to the state in August, and, in September, she was polling even with Trump.

Consequently, the Trump factor has some GOP leaders worried. Even one of the state’s top Republicans, Sen. Jeff Flake, believes Trump’s perceived racism and anti-immigrant policies will make it harder for down-ticket Republicans to win their elections. He’s repeatedly appealed to Trump to drop his anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals, and has refused to endorse him. Republicans conducted an in-house “autopsy” after the last election and came up with suggestions for broadening their appeal to an increasingly diverse nation. “And we’re doing none of them,” Flake told me when I interviewed him in August. “We’re going in the other direction, in terms of inclusivity.”

Protesters rally around giant balloons of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in late August in Phoenix, where Trump was speaking about immigration.
David Jolkovski


Despite any unintentional boost she might get from Trump, Kirkpatrick has her work cut out for her. Incumbent senators rarely lose. McCain, 80, still has a large following in the state and a huge campaign chest. A September Marist poll for NBC and Wall Street Journal had McCain leading by 57 percent to 38 percent among likely voters.

Latino turnout in past elections has been stubbornly low. In 2014, Latinos represented 12 percent of all votes cast statewide, although they make up 21 percent of eligible voters and 31 percent of the state’s population. In the last presidential election, in 2012, Latinos made up 18 percent of all the state’s voters, still an underrepresentation.

But there are small signs that encourage the Latino leaders gathered at the Café Royale: Turnout was up for the late August primary in Latino areas. “This is the year to drive people to action from the presidential race down to the local races,” Anna Tovar, 42, a former state senator and the former vice mayor of nearby Tolleson, says later. “Trump will rouse the Latino turnout; the vast majority is vehemently opposed to him.” (In August, Tovar won the mayoral race for Tolleson, ousting a man who had held the job for 22 years.)

Lorenzo Sierra, the organizer of the café event, believes Trump’s “bigotry” and his anti-immigrant policies propelled more Latinos to the polls. An Avondale city councilman, vice chair of the Arizona Latino Chamber of Commerce and a successful business consultant, Sierra is impatient for Latinos to exert their latent electoral might. He has been busy this summer — as have many pro-Democratic groups — registering voters and canvassing to encourage registered voters to get to the polls. “We’re getting there,” he told me. “This might be the tipping-point election.”

Kirkpatrick isn’t counting on being swept into the Senate by anger over Trump. She’s determined to woo voters by demonstrating her commitment to improving their lives. She tells them she recently won funding to improve school buses for the Navajo Nation and expand Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix. And, most crucially to her election bid, she supports immigration reform, including the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents.

At the table, Mariana Sandoval, a paralegal in a sharp black suit, hair fastened in a neat bun, tells Kirkpatrick that Latino communities need better public transportation to connect them to jobs and education. Sandoval, who is running for a seat on the Agua Fria Union High School District board, says that her neighborhood, for instance, has no bus, so she has to drive or get a ride to the bus she takes downtown. Her son has to drive to his classes at the community college.

Such traditional Democratic policies, mixed with a Trump bump, could help Kirkpatrick and others. But politics-as-usual may hurt them. Kirkpatrick expects to be far outspent this election by McCain and by dark money from corporations and individuals that would like to see McCain keep his seat and the Senate stay in Republican hands. As of late August, the race ranked as having the fifth-largest amount of dark money spent in any Senate race. It was also the most lopsided: Nearly $1.3 million was spent in favor of McCain and $300,000 went to negative ads against Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick received no dark money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics analysis.

More dark money was spent against her in the 2014 election than any other candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It was the fourth-most expensive House race in history. Yet Kirkpatrick won, in part because the turnout in her district was 10 percent higher than the state average. Her secret? “You meet people where their needs are,” Kirkpatrick tells the Latino leaders at Café Royale. If they need child care or a ride to the polls, you provide it.

Seated to her left, Tommy Morales, a longtime local politician and former mayor of Avondale, injects a sober note. He warns Kirkpatrick that she must do more to court Latino voters if she hopes to win support and get people to the polls. “I truly believe our culture requires and demands that you hit them in the heart,” he says. “If you don’t touch them, they’re not going to vote for you.”

Kirkpatrick clearly knows this. She stresses the similarities she shares with Morales and others in background and values. Kirkpatrick, who is 66, attended reservation schools in a poor part of Arizona, worked her way through college and law school, raised a family and started her own business. As a new grandmother, she understands the Latino communities’ need for better public transportation, higher-paying jobs and better schools.

The Trump factor allows her to further leverage her platform, when it comes to advertising, for example. A recent YouTube ad in Spanish ties McCain to Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, showing clips of McCain first endorsing Trump and then walking at the border and telling a Border Patrol agent: “Complete the dang fence.”

Field organizer Eduardo Vasquez and volunteer Yvonne L. Chavez try to register voters outside of Food City in Avondale, Arizona, a heavily Latino Phoenix suburb.
David Jolkovski


Trump’s vitriol is having other purpling effects. It’s pushed some people out of the Republican Party altogether, Bill Mundell among them. He was horrified to see Trump’s rise in the race for his party’s nomination. Mundell, who at 63 has thick gray hair and a youthful face, was an elected and appointed Republican politician for decades — in the state Legislature and on the Corporation Commission, which regulates electric companies and other utilities. His wife, Barbara Rodriguez Mundell, was the presiding judge of Maricopa County Superior Court and Arizona’s first Latina judge. She’s also a third-generation Mexican-American, so Bill was personally offended when Trump called Mexicans “rapists” and accused Jeb Bush of being “soft” on illegal immigrants because his wife is from Mexico.

He was especially angry and alarmed when Trump defended supporters who had brutally beaten a homeless Latino man in Boston, where one of Mundell’s daughters goes to college. One of the assailants later told police: “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”

Not long after that, Mundell was on vacation with his family in Cody, Wyoming, when he came across a gigantic billboard with Trump’s face and the slogan “Make America Great Again.” “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he told me. “I thought, ‘I don’t belong in this party any more.’ ”

Trump’s bigotry resonates deeply with Mundell, because for years, his wife and their family were harassed by Trump’s ally, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is under federal investigation for intimidating and wrongly arresting Latinos and other minorities. Mundell claims that Arpaio and a now-disbarred county attorney, Andrew Thomas, investigated Barbara Mundell on bogus charges, claiming she was involved in a criminal racketeering scheme. (In a statement, Barbara called the allegations “false, frivolous and slanderous” and an “attempt to intimidate the judiciary.”)

Unmarked Ford Crown Victorias were posted outside the family’s home, and even followed Mundell’s elderly father-in-law round town. Mundell remembers the pain of having to warn his daughter that their house might be searched and her bedroom ransacked, a tactic that Arpaio had used on others. The Mundells ultimately settled with the county for $500,000 for the harassment. Yet no other Republican defended his wife throughout the ordeal, Mundell says. And there was a bigger lesson: “If they could do that to a person of my wife’s stature, can you imagine what they could do to people who didn’t have the ability to fight back?”

The moment of truth came in September 2015: Mundell sat down with his laptop in his house in Paradise Valley, Arizona, north of Phoenix, and changed his registration to the Democratic Party. This was a huge decision after his long career as a Republican politician: He had chaired the Arizona Legislature’s Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee and served nine years as chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, until he reached his term limit. “When I pushed that button, it was a significant moment in my life,” Mundell said, during a late summer interview at a coffee shop near his home.

After the news of his switch broke, some state Democratic leaders tried to recruit him to rejoin the Arizona Corporation Commission, this time for their party. He had been following news stories about how, in 2014, the state’s biggest electric company, Arizona Public Service, surreptitiously funneled millions of dollars to support the election of Republicans to the commission and oust Democrats who supported a faster transition to cleaner renewable energy. Still, after all his family had suffered, he hesitated. “I thought I had retired from politics,” he said. “But I couldn’t sit back idly and watch what was going on at the commission. I was disgusted and disheartened.” In February, he jumped into the race. “This is going to be a fascinating election to watch in Arizona, because people are fired up,” Mundell said. “We’re right on the cusp of turning purple and ultimately blue.”

Bill Mundell, right, and running mate Tom Chabin deliver their nominating petitions for the board of the Arizona Corporation Commission in May. Mundell, a long-time Republican politician, became a Democrat in response to actions and comments by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and one of his supporters, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Courtesy Bill Mundell For Corporation Commission


As Latinos expand as a portion of the West’s population, candidates who are perceived as racist and anti-immigrant will have an increasingly difficult time.

Demographers project that by 2030, minorities will make up more than 40 percent of the electorate in both Arizona and Alaska. Nevada’s electorate is projected to plunge from 62 percent white in 2016 to just 48 percent in 2032. Even Utah’s electorate would be nearly a quarter non-white by 2032, according to projections by a group of Washington, D.C., think tanks. 

To explore our data, hover over states or trend lines for more details.

The implications of such a shift are huge. Assuming high Latino turnout (a big assumption, granted), Colorado could become a solidly blue state in 2016, and Arizona move from Republican red to a Republican-leaning swing state, and then to blue by 2028. Arizona’s electorate has already seen a boom in eligible Latino voters, from 796,000 in 2008 to 1.3 million in 2016.

How all of that will play out remains to be seen, but Trump’s campaign continues to exert a palpable influence, from the national to the state level, and even in some local issues, from mayoral contests to school funding initiatives. One of the most glaring examples is the possible unseating of Arpaio, who has held his position for 24 years.

On a blisteringly hot Saturday morning outside Café Royale, voters from around the region gathered to meet Paul Penzone, Arpaio’s opponent.

Lorenzo Sierra, the Avondale city councilman, who is also a spokesman for the Clinton campaign, was there, having left a stay-cation with his wife at a Phoenix-area resort to attend the meet-and-greet. One of the first faces he recognized was a bit of a surprise: Sophia Johnson, a longtime Republican activist who ran for the state Legislature two years ago and represented her district at the GOP convention this summer.

A few days after the event, Johnson posted a photo of herself and Penzone on her public Facebook page with the note: “Vote for Paul Penzone for Maricopa County Sheriff!” She says the posting elicited some “nasty” comments from other Republicans. Despite her support for Penzone, she hesitates to say much about it, and she even congratulated Arpaio after his win in the primary.

But other prominent Republicans have been very outspoken in their support for Penzone. Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, a Republican, is a co-chair of Penzone’s campaign. Woods, who also supported Penzone in a bid against Arpaio four years ago, introduced his candidate at a recent press conference in August, saying: “We haven’t heard or seen the truth when it comes to enforcing the laws protecting our families in a long time. … We need a competent, serious person to protect us … not an egomaniac.”

Arpaio is a Trump stalwart, warming up crowds at Trump rallies around the country, including a late-summer immigration speech at the Phoenix Convention Center that drew 7,500 people. “We’ve got the greatest guy probably in the world that knows how to make a deal,” Arpaio, standing in front of a row of American flags, told the roaring crowd. “He’s not going to give away the United States of America.” He credited Trump for making illegal immigration a campaign issue, asserted that he won’t be “politically correct” when he decides whom to lock up, and declared that Trump will build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and get Mexico to pay for it.

Penzone, who lost by 10 percentage points in 2012, is looking better this time around; one independent poll out in August showed him up by 5 points, which, given the margin of error, puts the candidates in a virtual tie. Since 2012, the news has been full of reports about lawsuits against Arpaio for illegally detaining and harassing Latinos and others. Penzone has raised a lot more money than last time, but his war chest is a tiny fraction of Arpaio’s $11.3 million.

Penzone’s campaign has seen supporters rally, including a mysterious mass mailing on Penzone’s behalf. One flier, which pictures Arpaio holding a bucket of money, accuses the sheriff of “using our money to clean up his messes, instead of keeping us safe.” The group is called Maricopa Strong, but Stacy Pearson, Penzone’s spokeswoman, says the campaign does not know who is involved in it. Still, the support, she says, is an indication of the difference between now and the last election, “when the cavalry never came.”

In this race, as in others, there’s no guarantee. And yet, here in a state that has been red since 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, there’s surprising momentum behind the candidacies of Kirkpatrick, Mundell and Penzone. Could Arizona be on the edge of a political metamorphosis? If Democrats pull off some or all of these wins, anger over Arpaio and Trump will clearly have played a significant role.

Still, a permanent shift to Democratic dominance in Arizona is unlikely to result from this election. Most statewide officeholders and both branches of the state Legislature will remain Republican. Democrats will have to work much harder to better organize themselves and motivate Latino voters to exercise their long-dormant political muscle. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the strange turns and divisive words of this year’s races, the 2016 election has boosted the morale of Democrats here, giving them a taste of the future — one in which they are not only competitive, but maybe, just maybe, dominant.

A voter leaves after casting her ballot in Arizona’s primary election in Phoenix in March.
Matt York/Associated Press

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes from Washington, D.C.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.


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