Arizona Blues: The land of Barry Goldwater and John McCain may never be the same
Early Friday morning, November 13, NBC News called Arizona for President-elect Joe Biden — which gives the former vice president at least 290 electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election. Fox News, much to the consternation of President Donald Trump, and the Associated Press, had already called Arizona for Biden on Election Night, but NBC News and other major media outlets chose to hold off on making a call for Arizona while there were still votes being counted. In addition to Biden's win in Arizona, Democrats are celebrating Democrat Mark Kelly's victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona's 2020 U.S. Senate race. And all of this is happening in a state that, for decades, was a GOP stronghold.
In 2021, Kelly won't be Arizona's only Democratic U.S. senator: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, also a Democrat, was elected in the 2018 midterms. And the fact that Arizona will have two Democratic U.S. senators next year is stunning in light of the fact that Arizona, for decades, was synonymous with the GOP conservatism of Sen. Barry Goldwater and his successor, Sen. John McCain.
For Democrats, there is a major caveat to all of those statewide Democratic victories in Arizona: Kelly, Biden and Sinema are all quite centrist. Sinema has a decidedly centrist voting record, and she has repeatedly described McCain as her hero. In fact, Sinema has been praised by the late senator's daughter, conservative activist and "The View" co-host Meghan McCain, for meeting Republicans half way — and Sinema's voting record has often frustrated the liberal/progressive wing of her party.
Regardless, there is no doubt that Arizona is now much more Democratic than it was in the past. What was once a deep red state is now best described as a Democrat-friendly swing state.
To understand how much of a sea change there has been in Arizona, one needs to examine its history. In the 1964 presidential election, Sen. Goldwater (who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1952) suffered a landslide defeat at the hands of incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson — who had become president following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The Johnson campaign successfully painted Goldwater as a warmongering extremist, swift-boating him with the infamous "daisy ad." Johnson ran a hardball campaign, and it worked. Goldwater lost badly, with Republicans suffering their worst humiliation in a presidential race since President Franklin D. Roosevelt's victory of over President Herbert Hoover in 1932.
But in Arizona, Goldwater was quite popular. The term "Goldwater conservative" was a badge of honor in that state — one that McCain wholeheartedly embraced after Goldwater resigned and McCain, in 1986, was first elected to the seat that Goldwater had held for many years.
During the 1980s, many Democrats developed a certain respect for Goldwater. As much of a hardcore conservative as he was, Goldwater expressed nothing but disdain for the Christian Right — who were becoming increasingly prominent in the GOP. And Goldwater had nothing good to say about evangelical extremists like the Moral Majority's Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr., the Christian Broadcasting Network's Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. As Goldwater saw it, the Christian Right was terrible for the GOP and terrible for the conservative movement.
Politics make strange bedfellows. Just as many Democrats on Capitol Hill applauded Goldwater for standing up to the Christian Right, they had a generally friendly relationship with Sen. McCain during the 1990s and 2000s even though they often butted heads with him on policy. McCain got along quite well with Biden during Biden's many years in the U.S. Senate even though they didn't always see eye to eye, and in a hilarious "Saturday Night Live" skit during the 2008 presidential race, Jason Sudeikis — in his wacky portrayal of Biden — declared that he considered McCain a raving lunatic as well as one his closest, dearest, most cherished friends. And unlike Trump, McCain and Biden weren't offended when they were lampooned on "SNL." McCain had a sense of humor.
But despite the generally cordial relationship between Democrats and McCain during those decades, the Democratic National Committee viewed Arizona and as a deep red state and knew that statewide races were an uphill battle for them there. Democrat Janet Napolitano served as governor of Arizona during the 2000s, but she had a very centrist record — which is one of the reasons why the Obama Administration choose her as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Napolitano was a Democratic governor in a red state, and she got along well with Sen. McCain.
Arizona is still a long way from being a bastion of liberal/progressive politics when it comes to statewide races. But there is no question the state has become increasingly friendly to centrist Democrats — and following the victories of Sinema in 2018 and Biden and Kelly in 2020, Arizona has clearly become as much of a swing state as its neighbor Nevada.
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