When Jorge Neri started going to Arizona in 2010, SB1070, the so-called “show me your papers” strident immigration gambit, was on its way to becoming law. While groups began sprouting up to fight it and the anti-immigrant sentiment it represented that was sweeping the state—led by figures like former sheriff Joe Arpaio—the nascent infrastructure in Arizona was in no shape to fuel statewide and national wins for Democrats.
Fast-forward 10 years.
Neri joined Joe Biden‘s campaign as senior advisor late this summer, and sees a very different state. Democrats like Senator Kyrsten Sinema were swept into statewide office amid the 2018 blue wave, and there is now a muscular grassroots operation that is primed to help Biden flip this newly minted battleground state into the Democratic column for the first time since Bill Clinton walloped Bob Dole in 1996.
“I’ve seen how far Arizona has come in general,” Neri told Newsweek. “Cycle after cycle, they got closer, candidates lost then they won, they lost then they won.”
While Hillary Clinton lost to Trump by 3.5 percent in2016, the Real Clear Politics average has Biden ahead by 2.7 percent.
Working with the Center for Community Change in 2010, Neri helped groups and campaigns with on-the-ground training to combat anti-immigrant Republican forces in the state. Later, with foundations doing both political and non-political work, he looked to identify and address gaps within organizations to help them grow their advocacy and electoral capabilities.
Now, in addition to labor groups like the Arizona Education Association, an affiliate of the powerful National Education Association, Neri said that a group like LUCHA Arizona, which sprouted from the SB1070 battle, has become “one of the premiere organizations across the country, which they’ve done in less than ten years.”
While Arizona isn’t exactly where Nevada is in terms of the Culinary Union, which wields political influence through representing gaming and hospitality workers in Las Vegas, their elected leaders have begun to hold the type of sway that former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s oft-cited “Reid machine” does in Nevada, said veteran Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez.
“We had someone statewide marshaling resources and calling for investment,” Ramirez said of Reid. “The elevation of Ruben Gallego and Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona—that makes a big difference.”
The first thing out of Representative Ruben Gallego’s mouth on a phone call with Newsweek was that he was “busy turning Arizona blue” for Biden, but he too traces the building blocks of this moment back to the “show me your papers” fight.
“Ten years ago I was just a protester of SB1070, now I’m the vice chair for BOLD PAC,” he said of his leadership role for the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “I can call big donors for Arizona.”
It’s a journey Gallego and fellow local elected officials often discuss.
“We laugh about it, because we used to sell tamales and burritos to fund activities,” he added. “Now we can call foundations, national donors, and big philanthropists who take our calls and write checks.”
Gallego said Biden will win because more Latinos voted in 2018 than 2016, fertile ground for further growth in a state where 24 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic, and because turnout for this summer’s primary election increased 80 to 90 percent in some largely majority-minority districts.
“If young people are voting in noncompetitive primaries, what will they do in November?” he asked.
The Trump campaign says they’ve done the work as well, contacting nearly 6 million voters in the state, as well as hosting nearly 1,600 MAGA meetups with more than 28,000 attendees. The campaign is counting on those grassroots supporters and their extensive ground game to be difference-makers in 2016, as they were in 2016.
“Arizonans pride themselves in being independent voters who look at the issues head-on, and they know that President Trump is the leader who will keep Arizona safe, secure, and prosperous,” deputy national press secretary Ken Farnaso told Newsweek.
But progressive groups and Democratic candidates have the kind of firepower that hasn’t always been the case in Arizona. The Senate Majority PAC invested $15.7 million to help Mark Kelly, and Priorities USA has invested $12 million through November 3, the Biden-allied super PAC, which is also aiding Kelly, told Newsweek. The investment, paired with transforming demographics, has made the state more hospitable to Democrats.
“It’s a little like the chicken and the egg, what is making the difference, groups and infrastructure, or population change?” asked Democratic lawyer Roy Herrera, who works on national and local campaigns. “It’s a little bit of everything.”
The Latino community in Arizona is young, and newcomers moving into the state don’t know its political history, or nuts and bolts things like how to vote or what the issues are, in a state that routinely sees more than 80 percent of the vote come in by mail.
That fact alone is a boon for Biden, Herrera argues, as the president’s campaign has sputtered since he announced he was positive for COVID-19 and ballots already began arriving to voters on Wednesday.
“The danger they have is that Trump will drag down the entire Republican ticket,” he said, citing recent polling in the legislature he’s seen in the last week and a half that shows a down-ballot shift toward Democrats.
“Votes are being tabulated,” Herrera said, “and if you’re behind right now, Democrats are banking votes, while only 20 percent or less of Republicans are going to vote on Election Day.”
Kristian Ramos, a Latino vote expert who grew up in Arizona, said all the hard work that people on the ground have put in, like that of Mi Familia Vota, a group he works with, is coming to fruition at the end of a difficult decade.
“Some people tried to bury the Latino community in Arizona with SB1070 and Joe Arpaio,” he said, retrofitting a beloved Mexican phrase. “But they didn’t know they were seeds, and they’ve become voters who are going to turn the state blue.”
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