Arizona's reliably Republican designation in the national terrain of presidential battlegrounds is being tested this year -- not by President Obama and Mitt Romney -- but by a trio of congressional races that could push presidential candidates as early as 2016 to vie for the rapidly changing Western state.
"One of the lessons that will come out of this election is that Nevada is no longer a battleground and Arizona now is," said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington professor and a co-founder of the non-partisan research firm Latino Decisions, which studies how Hispanics are altering the American political landscape. "It could be a key battleground in 2016."
The evolution would be a rapid turnaround from this year. Neither Obama nor Romney invested in the state on the belief that Romney would win Arizona's 11 electoral votes. Considering that no Democrat except Bill Clinton in 1996 has won the state since 1952, the two campaigns made a safe bet.
However, down-ballot races for two U.S. House seats and an open U.S. Senate seat will test a theory held by Barreto and many national Democratic strategists that Hispanic growth, and the population's alienation from the Republican Party, is making a red state turn purple and fundamentally altering its place in national politics if Democrats out-perform on Election Day.
"We're on the march in terms of what our demographics look like, but Republicans have also given us opportunities," said Andy Barr, spokesman for Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona, who has turned the Senate race against Republican Rep. Jeff Flake into a nail-biter in the homestretch, in part because of his support among Hispanics, who make up 20% of the state's voters. He will need a significant amount of crossover appeal in a state favored for Romney.
Carmona would be the first Hispanic sent to the U.S. Senate from Arizona, a state which has not sent any Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1988.
Two swing seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are evidence of the state's evolving landscape. A vast northern Arizona district with the highest Native American population of any congressional seat pits former congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat seeking a comeback after losing in the 2010 Tea Party wave, against GOP state Sen. Jonathan Paton. The district is 21% Hispanic and voted 48% for Obama in 2008. The non-partisan Cook Political Report gives Republicans a narrow edge, but the race remains too close to call.
The 9th District, based in east Phoenix and including Tempe and parts of Scottsdale, has Democratic state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema facing off against Vernon Parker, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, in an area that was "once a haven for country club Republican types," according to Cook. The new district, which includes increasingly Hispanic areas such as Mesa, would have voted 51% for Obama in 2008.
Arizona's Hispanic voter population grew 72% over the past decade. If current trends continue, Hispanics could make up 24%-26% of the state's electorate in time for the next presidential election.
"I think over the next two or three elections, (Arizona) will become much more competitive," said Jennifer Duffy, an election analyst with Cook, which rates the Senate race as a tossup.
Arizona's controversial crackdown on illegal immigration has roiled the state's politics -- and Hispanic voters, in particular.
According to Barreto's polling analysis, Obama now leads Arizona's Hispanics 77%-10% over Romney, although he is expected to lose the state, which still has a Republican edge. Republican voters make up 36% of the electorate, compared with 30% for Democrats, while unaffiliated voters are 33%, according to data compiled by Arizona's secretary of State.
Barreto is so certain of Arizona's movement toward battleground territory that he said the Obama campaign might regret passing on the state next week. "I think they are going to look back and think, 'That's a state we could of won,' " he said.
(c) Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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