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In Arizona and Nevada, Democrats’ missteps and bad luck could set them back for years

Republicans are gaining the upper hand in 2 states key to Democrats’ future.

An illustration shows maps of Nevada and Arizona on blue pieces of paper. Amanda Northrop/Vox

For years, Democrats, and some political experts, believed the increasing diversity of the Sun Belt states might change the country’s political dynamics. The idea was simple: changing demographics meant Democrats were destined to win. Pandemic migration only fueled this belief: The fastest-growing cities in the country between 2020 and 2021 were located in the South and West, opening new battlegrounds for both political parties, but especially for Democrats.

But a combination of bad luck and Democrats’ strategic mistakes may set back the building of a new blue wall in the Southwest. High inflation, the prospects of a recession, volatile energy prices, and weak messaging on crime and immigration have opened up cracks in constituencies needed to sustain Democratic growth in the region. And this year, it hasn’t helped that dull Democratic candidates have had to go up against GOP media darlings. Or that insufficient outreach and voter turnout efforts might leave plenty of voters at home.

That’s left the party with tough midterm battles across the Sun Belt, particularly in Arizona and Nevada, two states that stand to deliver a wake-up call for Democrats as they hope to cement their nascent power in the region. In those two Southwestern states, scattershot economic and social messaging has also made it harder for voters to discern just what Democratic candidates stand for.

They will be integral to a Democratic victory in the 2024 presidential election, and both have Senate seats up for reelection that year, when Democrats will be defending twice as many seats as Republicans. Their populations comprise a swath of working-class voters, Latino voters, white suburban voters, moderates, and independents — the kind of “swing voters” who could give one party or the other a stronger hold on power. The states are growing quickly, and stand to gain additional Electoral College and House seats over the next 10 years. And because of a terrible midterm year, Democrats may be setting themselves up for failure right now.

On top of that, several Republicans who stand to win statewide offices in Arizona and Nevada if a red wave does materialize this year are vocal election deniers — including Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and Mark Finchem, who’s running for secretary of state — making the prospects for free, fair, and competitive elections in 2024 much less certain.

“Chaos. Total chaos,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is running for reelection in the most Democratic seat in Arizona, told me about that scenario. “People would look down on Arizona, if we have election deniers like Mark Finchem trying to change votes and things of that nature. It would send us back into a very bad area.”

The changing Southwestern electorate

Though Democrats managed to flip back the Rust Belt states that Donald Trump won in 2016 by the slimmest of margins in 2020, demographic and political trends suggest those states will become harder for Democrats to win — and tight statewide races in the region further emphasize this. Their party’s future lies in the Sun Belt, where a majority of the country will live by the end of the current decade.

Driving that growth is the migration of college-educated Americans to cities in the region with growing white-collar professions, like tech and finance, and the growth of communities of color, especially Latinos in the Southwest. Two places in particular, Phoenix and Las Vegas, and their surrounding counties of Maricopa and Clark, were among the fastest-growing metropolitan centers in the country, and stand to grow even more in coming decades.

The states they anchor, Arizona and Nevada, feature similar racial and class dynamics: majority-white states with booming Latino, mostly Mexican American, communities that used to be solidly Democratic constituencies. Those Latino populations skew younger and working-class, and will grow more influential as the portion of non-Hispanic white Americans without a college degree declines, William Frey, a senior fellow and demographer at the Brookings Institution, told me.

Frey told me his analysis of population growth in those two states shows that over the last 10 years, Hispanic and Latino youth have fueled population growth to the point that in the youngest cohort of eligible voters (ages 18 to 29), Latinos make up a plurality of voters in Arizona, and nearly match the share of white voters in Nevada. In fact, in Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, nonwhite minorities make up half or more of the population ages 18 to 64. Nonwhite Americans also make up the majority of Americans not yet of voting age in those states.

That changing demographic makeup translates into greater political power for those voters, and for their states. Across the Southwest, Colorado and Texas gained congressional seats this year, and though Arizona was expected to gain a seat as well (it didn’t), if population trends hold, it and Nevada each stand to gain a seat after the next census.

Because of the strong support minority voters have given Democrats over the past two decades in midterm and presidential election years, many pundits, politicians, and journalists assumed this more diverse electorate would naturally gravitate toward voting Democratic. Those assumptions are proving to be incorrect. It’s Nevada and Arizona that have seen Democrats struggle to cement or regain support and enthusiasm among the voters who delivered them victories in 2020: Latinos, independents, suburban residents, and college-educated voters.

Not coincidentally, four of the fiercest political battles this midterm year are unfolding in both places: Contests for Senate and governor that could affect how effective President Joe Biden can be in the second half of his presidency, and how free and fair elections are in two years, are being fought in these deserts.

Most polling in these states shows Democrats underwater or tied with Republicans due to the toxic state of inflation and affordability — it’s no surprise that this is the case when both the Vegas and Phoenix metropolitan areas are experiencing affordable housing crises, some of the highest gas prices in the country, and spikes in homelessness. Add to that low enthusiasm from base voters and weak responses to GOP attacks on crime and immigration, and you get a recipe for massive Republican gains in these states.

This year’s midterms could be an inflection point

Arizona and Nevada hold promise and peril for Democrats. Both have sent multiple Democratic senators to Congress in the past six years; Nevada has voted for a Democratic president since Barack Obama’s first election; Arizona voted for a Democratic president for the first time since 1996 in 2020.

But 2022 is showing just how tenuous that grasp is. Statewide races have tightened in both states in the closing weeks. Though it’s trended blue in recent cycles, Nevada has always been a toss-up state, and though in-state pundits and analysts know that, national Democrats are refamiliarizing themselves with that fact in the final weeks of the campaign season.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic senator most at risk of losing her seat this year, is in a statistical tie with Republican candidate Adam Laxalt. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, meanwhile, has fared a bit worse: Though he beat Laxalt, a solidly Trumpy, right-wing candidate, in 2018, he’s facing a more conventional conservative candidate this year, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo. Lombardo has led in most polls since the summer. Both Laxalt and Lombardo seem to be overperforming in their support among Latinos and voters under 45.

Trump made inroads among Latino voters in the state when he ran for reelection, especially among those Latinos most concerned with the state of the economy. And in poll after poll, the economy — especially the state of inflation and the cost of living — is again the primary issue on voters’ minds. Pandemic shutdowns hurt Nevada’s economy particularly badly, closing the state to tourism, travel, and conferences. The state’s recovery has been slow yet steady — but housing affordability, high gas prices, and relative spikes in crime have eroded trust and goodwill toward incumbents.

Biden’s victory in Arizona, meanwhile, was due in large part to moderate, independent, and college-educated white voters turned off by Trump, GOP strategist Mike Madrid told me. “You would not have won Arizona unless you had a 9 percent shift of Republicans from Trump to Biden, even with the Latino vote,” he said.

With Trump off the ballot, the state isn’t yet at a place where Democrats can count on it being solidly Democratic. While Mark Kelly ran ahead of Biden in 2020 to secure a partial term in the Senate, the Cook Political Report pushed his race back into the toss-up column this week. Recent polling shows Kelly tied with the far-right election denier Blake Masters, though he still comes across as more likable according to just about every kind of voter you ask. Still, Republicans seem to be resigning themselves to voting for Masters despite his string of scandals, gaffes, and poor campaigning.

The opposite is true in the state’s governor race, which could be decisive in giving Masters, (and Finchem, another election conspiracy theorist running for secretary of state) the lift needed to win. Much has been written about Kari Lake, the charismatic and media-savvy election denier running for governor. What hasn’t gotten enough attention is just how well she seems to be doing with younger voters, college-educated voters, and especially Latino voters (due in large part to her economic and border security messaging).

A Data for Progress poll released this week showed Lake receiving the support of over 43 percent of Latinos polled — a high-water mark for a Republican statewide candidate. Her opponent, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, was garnering 57 percent of Latino voters in that poll, a much weaker level of support than Democrats have registered in the past. Finchem, meanwhile, has been leading Democrat Adrian Fontes in the contest for Arizona secretary of state for much of the summer and fall.

Democratic losses in these other statewide races could largely be pinned on the state of the economy, low enthusiasm for candidates, and frustration with incumbents in a midterm year — but would also signal deeper problems in connecting with the coalition of voters Democrats need to secure to be competitive in future elections.

Democrats face a lot of problems in the Sun Belt

My conversations with voters in both states had similar themes of frustration with the status quo, disengagement from federal politics, and general antipathy to incumbents they perceived as not doing much to try to control rising health care, housing, and energy costs or offset economic pain — despite tangible actions by Democrats in power to address many of those challenges.

That presents a messaging and unity problem on the part of Democrats: No one seems to be running on a strong economic message. Cortez Masto in Nevada is one exception, talking about stimulus checks, small-business support during the pandemic, and the Inflation Reduction Act’s offsetting of prescription drug costs and health insurance premiums. But getting voters to understand those achievements is an uphill battle when some of those benefits have been long forgotten or won’t take effect until next year.

And messaging on social issues has been disjointed: Despite Arizona actually having pre-Roe laws now on the books limiting access to abortion, candidates in the state aren’t running as vocally on abortion rights as they are in Nevada, where the debate is more muddled because of the state’s constitutional protection of abortion access. Meanwhile, no Democrat seems to have a solid response on crime and immigration, two other social issues that Republicans have been able to use to make inroads with the coalition of voters Democrats need to win. And in both states, running on protecting democracy and voting rights isn’t resonating with folks beyond the Democratic base.

All that makes it difficult for voters to understand what Democrats are for. And that’s a particular problem in Arizona and Nevada because independents make up a plurality of registered voters in both states. If Democrats can’t convince these independents to vote for them, or at least lean toward the party regularly, winning statewide will become increasingly difficult.

There’s concern among Democrats that a secretary of state win by Republican Jim Marchant, who has spent much of the past two years complaining about the 2020 election, sowing doubt in future elections in rural parts of Nevada, and advocating for a return to hand-counting ballots (and has been leading his Democratic opponent), could lead to election disruption in that state as well.

All of that adds up to a variety of problems for Democrats should Republicans win in 2022: It would mean a serious setback in motivation, enthusiasm, and optimism that Democrats can win again in Arizona, and, potentially, election reforms that favor the GOP.

Gallego still holds that the Southwest is the future for Democrats — “This is probably one of the worst environments that Democrats are running in, even worse than in 2014, and the fact that we’re still keeping it tight in Arizona, that is a very good sign.” But losses this year would set up serious obstacles for the next cycle.

Election deniers in 2022 could foreshadow worse problems in 2024

So far, most signs are pointing to a better Republican year than was expected this summer, when Democrats managed to couple anger at the end of Roe v. Wade with improving inflation reports, dropping gas prices, and a spate of legislative achievements. That optimism faded this fall, and the question of the midterms will be just how close contests are in battlegrounds. If Democrats manage to turn out enough of their base and keep Republican margins tight with those swing voters they need to win future elections, those results may signal better chances of winning statewide in 2024.

At the moment, two Senate seats and at least five competitive House races will again be on the ballot in Arizona and Nevada in two years: Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Jacky Rosen will be up for reelection in those states, respectively, and Democrats will be on more defensive footing. The 2022 midterms provided Democrats with a more favorable Senate map than they’ll have in 2024, since Republicans are defending more seats than Democrats. But in 2024, Democrats will be defending 23 seats; Republicans only have 10 seats to worry about — eight in solid Republican states, and the other two in Texas and Florida.

That sets up the possibility of an even worse year for Democrats, where Republicans could win the presidency and potentially a filibuster-proof Senate majority — while holding the House.

That Democrats in Nevada and Arizona are fighting the competition to a draw in an extremely difficult year for the incumbent political party in some ways speaks of the promise ahead. But the next two weeks will prove pivotal to longer-term success in the Southwest, and improving their odds in the next election.

To have any hope of doing so, Democrats will need some economic luck (something largely out of their control), better and earlier outreach to the communities they need to add to their base, and a more convincing pitch to those voters at the local level. Winning by bigger margins will be imperative as the fairness of elections in those states comes into question with conspiracy-minded officers running those contests. All that is Democrats’ best-case strategy, assuming they hold back a red wave this year. And that bet is risky.