Why you should care

Because what’s happening in Arizona could happen across the country.  

Arizona Legislative District 8 is drawn through a rural desert region about 100 miles north of the Mexican border. The local economy is spurred mostly by agriculture and mining, and sturdy, middle-class jobs are precarious. But no one was talking jobs during the district’s most recent Republican primaries. It was all immigration. Second-term incumbent T.J. Shope’s two challengers demanded the state do more to secure the border — call in the National Guard! Shope, or as he’s been called by some right-wingers, legistraitor, disagrees. It’s a federal issue, he says; he’d rather focus on the economy and education.

Turns out that’s what district residents, 35 percent of whom are Hispanic, cared most about too, since they re-elected him. “I’m not a hyper-partisan guy,” the 30-year-old grocery store manager says. “I learned quickly it’s all about relationships, being close to the community.”

Luckily for Democrats, not everyone learns so quickly. For years, the alarm bells have been sounding in Arizona. The demographic and political tides are turning, and if the GOP doesn’t do something to connect with Latino voters, it could lose a state it’s long had solidly under its thumb. “There is a tsunami sea change coming to Arizona politics,” says Joe Garcia, director of the Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University. One study predicts the state could turn blue as soon as 2025. For now, Republicans hold majorities in both the state Senate and House, and the establishment continues to plow forward supporting immigration policies often seen as anti-Latino, such as denying driver’s licenses to those here under the president’s deferred-action program.

Polls show Arizona Latinos leaning further left.

Baby-faced state legislators like Shope and 32-year-old Tony Rivero may be showing a new way forward. Both demonstrated that it’s possible to slip through the primaries with moderate or, dare we say, liberal views on immigration. And they’re not mincing words: “The sideshows hurt the Republican party,” says Rivero, a first-time legislator in Peoria, a Phoenix suburb. “It’s time to move beyond the rhetoric.” Rivero’s parents are Mexican immigrants, as is Shope’s mom.

In the past, Republicans could overlook Latinos because many didn’t turn out to vote. But Hispanics now make up 30 percent of Arizona’s population; by 2030, that’s projected to grow to 35 percent. There’s also this: Nearly 99 percent of the state’s Latinos age 4 and under were American citizens in 2010. Latino children and adolescents have similarly high citizenship numbers. That means, even if immigration somehow comes to a screeching halt, by 2030 all those first-generation Latino kids are going to be of voting age. That would mean a 178 percent increase in such voters, compared with just a 42 percent jump projected for non-Hispanic voting-age whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And though they can’t vote today, that doesn’t mean they don’t matter right now. “People have memories, and they take those to the voting booth,” says Garcia. That suggests legislation like Arizona’s SB 1070 — which, before the Supreme Court gutted it in 2012, required police to verify the immigration status of anyone they suspected was illegal — will leave a mark in the minds of voters for years to come.

Polls show Arizona Latinos leaning further left. Latino Decisions, a political opinion research group, reports that 44 percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and for John McCain in 2008, but only around 20 percent voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey earned about a quarter of the Hispanic vote last year. Still, when asked, 38 percent said they’d be more inclined to vote Republican if a candidate supported immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship. After all, Latinos tend to be pro-family, pro-faith, patriotic and entrepreneurial, all values that mesh with stated GOP ideals.

Shope and Rivero may be only the first of a new wave of Hispanic candidates. Last year, the GOP created its first Latino coalition. But Sergio Arellano, who’s leading the Republican National Committee’s Hispanic outreach here and is a representative of the Arizona GOP — one of 10 states the RNC is staffing — got started earlier. About two years ago, he launched a grassroots campaign, meeting with Latino community leaders and grooming candidates. And at the top, Arizona’s Republican leaders are beginning to sound less conservative than the rest of the party on immigration. Both Ducey and the state’s two U.S senators have denounced the anti-immigration rhetoric of presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, while Marco Rubio, whose parents once fled Cuba, led a bipartisan effort in 2013 to reform immigration law but has since backed off his own bill in favor of a more difficult path to citizenship for some immigrants. (A campaign spokesperson declined to comment.)

That shift appears to be working. In little Santa Cruz County, 83 percent of the 47,000 residents are Hispanic. But last year, for the first time in nearly two decades, they elected a bespectacled, pale-skinned Republican high school physics teacher as their state legislator. Turns out all people really wanted was a familiar face and someone willing to tackle the area’s almost 30 percent poverty level. Arellano says he has another seven Hispanic candidates running for state offices in the next election, compared to just one in the previous. “We’re teetering on a cliff,” he says. “It has to stop being just about the party and become about the people.”

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