Dems aim to turn AZ blue in November

2012-07-29T00:00:00Z Dems aim to turn AZ blue in NovemberBrady McCombs Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 29, 2012 12:00 am  • 

President Obama volunteers Sandra Brody and Jenny Sawada have come to this south-side bus stop with a mission: to get people registered to vote.

They engage people of all ages and ethnicities at the Roy Laos Transit Center, but the focus of the two fluent Spanish speakers is clear - Latinos.

Democrats believe traditionally red Arizona is in play this November in the presidential and U.S. Senate elections, and their strategy hinges on getting Latinos to the polls.

On this rainy afternoon, 18-year-old Jacqueline Romero is one of several young Latinos whom Brody and Sawada register. Romero, waiting for a bus to take her to work at Taco Bell, is excited to vote for the first time this November. She plans to vote for Obama for one straightforward reason: Her family supports him and other Democrats.

This is exactly the dynamic that has Democrats bullish on their chances. The theory goes like this - get enough Latinos to the polls to erase the Republicans' wide margin in voter registration.

Hispanics represent 24 percent of eligible voters in Arizona, but they made up only 19 percent of those who cast votes in 2010, U.S. census figures show.

Among Hispanic voters in the state, there are more than three times as many registered Demo-crats as Republicans, the Obama campaign says.

"Obama is listening to our needs and supporting us to get better opportunities," said Brody, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Colombia and a member of the Obama campaign's bilingual team in Tucson. "That's what we want, because we want to give back. ... I think we can turn Arizona blue."

Republicans aren't losing sleep with worry. Not only do Demo-crats face a major disadvantage in voter registration, but President Obama is at the helm of an economy in shambles, said Bruce Ash, Republican National Committeeman in Tucson.

Arizona has 183,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats, show the latest figures from the secretary of state. The approximately 1.1 million registered Republicans account for 36 percent of registered voters, and the nearly 947,000 registered Democrats account for 30 percent. There are more independents than Demo-crats, with about 1 million voters declining to register with either party.

"They're dreaming," Ash said. "There is not one poll that suggests there is any chance of that. Voter registration puts them in third place. They don't have a chance."

The Latino turnout will likely be slightly higher this November, particularly among young Hispanics, said longtime pollster Bruce Merrill of Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy. But he doesn't expect an unprecedented flood of Latinos heading to the polls.

"I've been doing this for 40 years, and every year they tell me there is going to be a massive turnout of Hispanics, and I haven't seen it," Merrill said. "Will it be enough to swing the state to the Democratic side? I really doubt it."

Democrats don't concede

In 2008, the Obama campaign invested lightly in Arizona because the Republican presidential nominee was Arizona's senior U.S. senator, John McCain. McCain won the state by 8 percentage points.

Four years later, the president is not conceding Arizona. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama have each headlined campaign events here.

The grass-roots efforts are amplified this year, too. Brody and Sawada are among a large group of volunteers who work out of the Obama campaign office in Tucson, which is one of six in the state. Volunteers do nightly phone banks and fan out across the city to register voters and tell them about the merits of President Obama.

"It's a diametrically different situation than we had in 2008," said state Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, who is working closely with the Obama campaign. "We've opened more offices, we have more staffers, and you truly see a more active campaign, with people hitting the streets every day."

History may favor the GOP, but momentum is on the side of Democrats, in part because Arizona's Republican Party has alienated voters, said Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.

As evidence, they point to recent Democratic wins such as Ron Barber's in the June 12 CD8 special election, Jonathan Rothschild's in last year's mayoral race in Tucson and Greg Stanton's in the Phoenix mayoral race. They also point to the 2011 recall of former state Senate President Russell Pearce, who sponsored Arizona's controversial immigration enforcement law, SB 1070.

Even though Republicans have won 16 of the last 20 elections in Arizona for president, U.S. Senate and governor, Democrats point out that they've had breakthroughs before. The most recent example is Janet Napolitano, who won two gubernatorial elections in the same Republican-leaning electorate and served 1 1/2 terms before leaving in 2009 to become Homeland Security secretary.

"It was only six years ago that we had a governor and attorney general that were Democratic," Gallego said. "We could quickly and easily switch back to that."

Red state reputation

The Democrats' zeal and determination don't erase the fundamentals that make Arizona a red state.

No Democratic presidential candidate has won here since 1996, when Bill Clinton narrowly defeated Bob Dole. Before that, Harry Truman was the last Democratic candidate to win in Arizona, in 1948.

No Democratic U.S. Senate candidate has won since Dennis DeConcini made his final run for re-election in 1988.

Perhaps most daunting for the Democrats in this particular presidential election is an economy that remains stagnant.

Jobs and the economy are still the main issues on voters' minds, and that's not good news for Obama, said Merrill, the pollster.

The Obama campaign says Arizona voters understand that the president inherited an economy already in a tailspin and that he has provided vital leadership to stabilize the situation.

"The president took swift action to address the immediate jobs crisis while laying the foundation for an economy built to last," Mahen Gunaratna, spokesman for the Obama campaign in Arizona, said in an emailed statement.

The Romney campaign sees things differently.

"Arizonans know that our economy is sputtering under President Obama," Alison Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Romney campaign in Arizona, said in an emailed statement. "Mitt Romney will win the vote in Arizona because he has a plan to get our economy back on track and the president does not."

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard Carmona may have a more realistic shot at victory, Merrill said, partly because he doesn't have to deal with some of the baggage Obama does.

The bruising Republican primary between six-term Rep. Jeff Flake and businessman Wil Cardon, who has poured $7.6 million of his own money into a blitz of TV and radio ads, also helps Carmona, Merrill said. In 1976, DeConcini won thanks in large part to the nasty GOP primary that sent Sam Steiger limping into the general election.

Conservative Republicans who don't like Flake's moderate stances may choose not to vote for him in the general election, Merrill said. If that happens, and there is a larger turnout of Latinos, Carmona may pull off the upset, he said.

"Carmona is the real deal," said Merrill, highlighting his résumé as combat veteran, deputy sheriff, trauma surgeon and U.S. surgeon general.

President Obama's announcement last month that the government will let some illegal immigrants under age 30 stay in the country and work has been a key selling point for Sawada and other Obama volunteers.

"Especially after the Dream Act announcement, we have been greeted with enthusiasm," said Sawada, a senior this fall at the University of Arizona.

Democrats hope the plan, along with the Supreme Court's decision to uphold key parts of the state's immigration enforcement law, SB 1070, will galvanize Latino voters. "A lot of Latino communities woke up after SB 1070 and realized that the Republican Party we know now is not the same Republican party of years ago," Rep. Gallego said.

GOP also woos Latinos

The Romney campaign is doing its best to court Latino voters, too. A new TV ad featured Romney's son, Craig, speaking in Spanish about why his dad should be president.

Hispanics have suffered disproportionately under Obama and will appreciate Romney's priority to grow the middle class and get people back to work, said Hawkins, the Romney campaign spokeswoman in Arizona.

No one group of people is monolithic, and not every new Latino voter leans Democratic, said Ash, the Republican National Committeeman. Democrats have been talking for years about the growth in Hispanic population translating into more Democratic voters in Arizona, and it hasn't happened.

The number of Hispanics who are eligible to vote in Arizona grew from 616,000 to 1 million from 2000 to 2010, but the Republican voter margin over Democrats actually widened during that time. Republicans have 6 percent more voters today, compared to 5 percent in 2000.

Latina sisters Angie Noriega and Carmen Carrillo are proof that Hispanics do not vote as a bloc. Noriega is set on voting for Obama and believes in his leadership. Her sister doesn't like the president and plans to vote for Romney.

Carrillo thinks Obama's recent Dream Act announcement is nothing more than a political ploy.

"He is going to do the same thing again," said Carrillo, 47. "Promise people all kinds of things and then not do them."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at bmccombs@azstarnet.com or 573-4213.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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