Tucson, Arizona – On Sunday afternoon in Arizona’s second largest city, a small caravan of pick-ups with the flag “Make America Great Again” whizzed past a cinema whose marquee read “Black Lives Matter”.
Earlier in the day, a parade of Trump supporters had driven through the city with flags on their vehicles. “Everyone on board the Trump train,” read one such flag.
The brief moment sums up what the Arizonans will decide on Tuesday when the United States goes to the polls to elect the country’s next president.
The state’s 4.2 million or more voters will either help re-elect President Donald Trump or elect a Democrat for the first time in 24 years. With more than 2.3 million Arizonans having cast their votes early, the state has broken its own records.
Four years ago, Trump defeated his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in Arizona by 3.5 percentage points and received the state’s 11 electoral votes.
President Donald Trump gathers with supporters at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Goodyear, Arizona, United States on October 28, 2020 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]Jim Chilton, an 81-year-old rancher, lives in Arivaca, a small town on the southern Arizona-Mexico border. Several miles of his country touch the U.S.-Mexico border, where Chilton hopes Trump will keep his promise to build a wall.
“I hope Trump wins,” he told Al Jazeera. “We need a border and we absolutely have to have a wall on the border.”
Although Arizona has historically been considered a Republican stronghold, this year the southwestern state has emerged as a battlefield state.
As of Sunday, public opinion polling website FiveThirtyEight estimated that Democrat Joe Biden was a narrow lead over Trump, putting the challenger at 48.7 percent and the incumbent Republican at 45.6 percent.
The last time Arizona voters cast a Democrat was in 1996, when the state elected former President Bill Clinton over Republican candidate Bob Dole by 2.2 percentage points.
Jeremy Duda, a Phoenix-based reporter for the Arizona Mirror newspaper, has been reporting on state politics since 2008. “We’re never really competitive in presidential races,” he said, although Democrats have made significant gains at the state and local levels recently, like during the 2018 midterm elections.
“If [Democrats] Make the profits people think they will make this year. It will be hard to say if this is a really long-term trend, a real change, until we have some unrelated Trump elections, “he told Al Jazeera.
Also a senate race
On Tuesday, the Arizonans will also vote for a seat in the US Senate for which Republican incumbent Martha McSally and her Democratic challenger Mark Kelly will vie. McSally was appointed to this seat after former U.S. Senator John McCain passed away in 2018.
Though the polls went back and forth, several recent polls have brought Kelly to the top. An Emerson College conducted between October 29 and October 31 put Kelly’s support at 50 percent, three percentage points above McSally.
Another poll by Siena College and the New York Times, conducted between October 26 and October 30, gave Kelly a seven point lead.
Democratic challenger Mark Kelly (left) and U.S. Senator Martha McSally (right) prepare for the debate on October 6, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona [File: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool]The Arizonans will also cast their votes for nine seats in the US House of Representatives. On the way to Tuesday’s election, the Arizona Senate had 17 Republicans and 13 Democrats, while the House of Representatives had 31 Republicans and 29 Democrats.
All 30 seats in the Senate and all 60 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs this year. Republicans have been in control of Arizona’s house since the 1960s, but Democrats are now optimistic that they will turn that branch of the state assembly over.
State Representative Charlene Fernandez, the Democratic caucus leader at Arizona House, said her party was “cautiously optimistic” before Tuesday. “Everything is at stake right now,” she told Al Jazeera.
Fernandez stated that the State House has been under Republican control for more than five decades and that Republican and Democratic lawmakers are no longer working together “for the betterment of Arizona.”
“What I am saying right now is that this choice is not only the most important choice in my life, but also in the lives of my children and grandchildren,” she said.
While Arizona’s growing Latino population is a determining factor in the state’s sand shift, longtime GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin believes the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has hurt Trump’s opportunities. “Without the virus and the economic collapse, there is no way Trump will lose,” he told Al Jazeera.
Coughlin has worked with influential Arizona Republicans, including the late Senator McCain and former Governor Jan Brewer. Although Arizona was once a matter of course for Republicans, Coughlin now sees the party losing control of the state.
He expects the Democrats to win at the presidential, governor and statehouse levels. After the elections, however, he expects the situation “to be down to this narrative: how do you rule?”
“Because I don’t think either party has a government narrative right now,” he added.
Late candidate visits
As election day approached, Republicans stepped up their campaigns in the state. Last week, Trump visited Arizona for the seventh time this year and gathered in Bullhead City and Goodyear. The president defended his pandemic response, pledging that “normal life” would be “fully resumed”.
He addressed the crowd in Bullhead City, claiming Biden would be introducing tough new bans. “With Sleepy Joe, there would be no graduation, no weddings, no Thanksgiving – they’re not talking about Thanksgiving already,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence addressed an audience in Flagstaff on Friday, marking his fifth state visit since July.
While Pence said economic recovery and “law and order” were major issues this year, he insisted that the wider choice of voters is “whether America stays America”.
The Arizona GOP contacted by Al Jazeera did not respond to a request for comment.
Biden and his runmate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, first visited Arizona in early October when they pledged to provide economic aid and fight the coronavirus pandemic. Harris returned to Phoenix and Tucson last week.
Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris speaks at a campaign event on October 28, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona [Matt York/AP Photo]”We experienced the worst and greatest disaster of any presidential administration in the history of this country,” Harris said during a car campaign at Pima County Community College in Tucson.
Tyler Cherry, a spokesman for the Arizona Democratic Party, said Arizona has become a “critical state” for anyone who wins the election – and he believes this will be his party.
Cherry cited the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, the economic impact on workers and small businesses, and Republicans’ efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
“The Arizonans deserve a president who, with moral decency and sensible plans, will lead the country to better rebuild our country. Therefore, they will send Joe Biden to the White House,” he told Al Jazeera.
Terry Sayles, a 71-year-old retired teacher who lives in Green Valley, has been elected Republican for decades.
Although he switched party affiliations a little over a decade ago, he says that today’s Republican Party “has nothing to do with what I remember.”
Sayles, who is voting for Biden this year, believes Democrats have a “really good chance” of turning the state around.
“I was horrified that Trump was elected for the first time,” he told Al Jazeera. “In my eyes there is nothing about him that a president should be.”