Crazy Arizona: How A State Went From Swinging In ’08 To Out On A Limb In 2010

April 27, 2010 5:41 a.m.

The incredibly controversial immigration bill signed into law in Arizona last week turns out to be just the latest in a string of super-conservative bills passed by the state legislature this year. From punishing welfare recipients for getting cable to making the state the official sponsor of birther conspiracies, Arizona lawmakers have turned their desert paradise into a bright-red beacon of conservatism and a fantasy island of right-wing dream legislation.

This begs the question: what happened to Arizona? Wasn’t it, briefly, an unlikely swing state trending purple in 2008? Wasn’t it the place where even John McCain’s name on the presidential ballot couldn’t stem the rising tide of Democratic registrations?

We set out to find out where all that hopey changey stuff went in Arizona, and what’s behind its dramatic tilt to the right.The short answer is, it’s complicated. The state may not ever have been as swingy as people thought — despite polls that showed things to be closer, McCain won by 9 in the end. Arizonans are leaving both parties in droves to become independents, though they’re leaving the Democratic side faster. Some Democrats say that’s because people were turned off by the partisan rancor back in Washington; others say the party is sorely missing superstar Gov. Janet Napolitano, who left to become President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security. Republicans say the Democratic surge died with the stimulus, health care and climate debates, which they say turned off Arizona’s right-leaning base to the Democratic message.

And people on both sides say that a conservative activist state government is nothing new for Arizona. People in Arizona like their state legislature leaning to the right. Here are some examples from recent months.

• June 29, 2009: From the annals of desperate measures, the state considers a plan to sell the House and Senate buildings to raise some quick cash. Under the proposed plan, the House and Senate would lease the buildings over a number of years before buying them back again. Though not actually a piece of legislation, the state’s plan was so bizarre that it prompted The Daily Show team to run a segment on it.

• September 30, 2009: The state passes a law allowing those with concealed weapons permits to bring their guns into bars and restaurants. The law stipulates that any establishment with a sign prohibiting guns is off-limits for those packing heat, though it also provides plenty of loopholes to keep toters from having to disarm too frequently.

• February 9, 2010: State Rep. Frank Antenori (R) introduces legislation, co-sponsored by twelve other House members, to cut off welfare funding to any recipients who spend money on cigarettes, alcohol, cable TV packages, a car, or anything else he deems of “the niceties of life.” Antenori said of his proposed legislation: “If you’re basically hungry and can’t afford to feed yourself, then I don’t think you should be able to afford to buy cigarettes.”

• March, 2010: Arizona votes to repeal KidsCare, a health insurance program for poor children. Not only did the repeal cut health care for about 38,000 kids, but it also may have violated a provision in the recently passed health care reform bill that requires states to maintain its previous standards of eligibility. The move thus jeopardes the billions of dollars the state receives in Medicaid funding from the federal government.

• April 7, 2010: Arizona’s Attorney General, Democrat Terry Goddard, refused to join the lawsuit to repeal health care reform that was brought by a number of other state AGs, so Gov. Jan Brewer is on the lookout for other ways. The conservative-backed Goldwater Institute helpfully offered to bring the suit, and Brewer is reportedly considering the offer.

• April 15, 2010: The Arizona House approves a bill to strengthen abortion requirements, following its passage in the Senate. If signed into law by the governor, the bill would require abortion providers to report on the individual abortions they perform. Though the names of the women would remain confidential, the bill would also require statistics on how many times courts bypassed parental consent laws, among other things.

• April 20, 2010: A bill that would require presidential candidates to prove their citizenship before appearing on Arizona’s ballot wins initial approval from the Arizona state House. The bill still needs final approval from the House and state Senate before it gets sent to Gov. Brewer, but if it passes it would require President Obama to present his birth certificate if he hopes to get on the Arizona ballot in 2012.

All of this leads us to the latest piece of conservative legislation, the immigration law, which has been described as creating a police state for immigrants. The law itself makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant in Arizona, and requires law enforcement officials to demand papers from anyone they suspect to be in the country illegally.

Democrats are unsure how to proceed.

Democrats familiar with the state’s politics who spoke off the record said they expect a majority of Arizonans support the new immigration law, making it unlikely that Democrats will run in Arizona on a plan to reverse it. When it comes to this issue, they say, the majority of the Arizona electorate is as conservative as they come.

And on the record, other Democrats say they don’t know yet about public support. Asked about a new Rasmussen poll that shows 70% of Arizonans approve of the new law, state Democratic party spokesperson Jennifer Johnson said the party is concerned about Rasmussen’s methods, and is waiting for other polling before it can say where the public stands on the law.

“Our message is, this bill is a sham and doesn’t actually do anything to solve any of the problems [with violence on the border],” she said. “We believe this bill is purely posturing in an election year.”

The party is still deciding how to position itself on repealing the bill, but Johnson stressed that if Napolitano or likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry Goddard were in office, they would have vetoed the bill passed by the legislature.

Johnson said that Democrats can still win in Arizona, but the landscape suggests Arizona’s voters are less interested in the party than they once were. Registration rolls are just about evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and independents, but the latter is the only group that’s growing while the partisan groups shrink. (Democrats point out that non-white registrations are on the rise, a demographic that the party says it can motivate to vote Democratic thanks to the state’s ultra-conservative state agenda.)

“Right now, it’s a struggle for both parties,” Johnson said. “People are fed up with the partisan back and forth and it’s hard to know who to believe.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Munger says voters in Arizona know who not to believe, and they’re done flirting with the Democratic party.

“People are in revolt at the massive expansion of government at the federal level,” he said. “They’re also concerned about budget on the state and local level, and Democrats have been calling for raising taxes.”

The immigration bill, which Munger said he said he would have signed “five minutes after it was sent to me” if he was governor, is an example of the common sense solutions Republicans are offering to woo support from voters who might have swung toward the Democrats in the past.

“This is a horrific situation,” Munger said of border crossings Republicans say put Arizonans at risk. “The federal government wouldn’t do the job, so we stepped up.”

Munger, a conservative lawyer from Tuscon, said voters in Arizona may be independent, but the idea that they’re a swing Democratic base is far from the truth.

“There’s a very independent streak that exists in Arizona largely because we are a state of newcomers,” he said. Munger says that “like the Americans that headed west,” people move to Arizona today to seek (or protect) their fortune.

“People came here because they wanted to get away from big government,” he said.

Update: This post has been changed.

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