After 4 Years As America's Craziest State, Arizona Tries Out Moderation

Just months after making headlines for its radical immigration law and wacky politicians, the Grand Canyon State just might be turning purple.

Democratic nominee Richard Carmona has narrowed the race for U.S. Senate in Arizona. (Associated Press)

TEMPE, Arizona -- At first blush, alt-rockers Jimmy Eat World may seem like an odd group to warm up a crowd of 5,000 for Bill Clinton. But Clinton will stump for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard Carmona Wednesday night at a university campus near Phoenix, and like everything else in Carmona's tightly disciplined Senate race, the choice is carefully calculated -- in this case, to attract young voters who might be turned off by what they view as Arizona's four-year foray into extremism.

The Clinton visit is an indicator of the viability of Carmona's campaign. The surprisingly close Senate race is one of several signs that the Grand Canyon State is self-correcting, veering away from zealotry, favoring moderate politicians and policies, and gradually turning purple. And while prognosticators still expect Arizona to go red for Romney, a slow but steady political transformation is occurring on the local level statewide.

Many Arizonans have been embarrassed by immigration laws that have deeply offended the state's Hispanics, now about 30 percent of the population. Voters are upset that the Republican statehouse slashed funding for Arizona's public schools by about 18 percent since 2008, passed laws allowing concealed weapons just about everywhere -- including bars -- and meddled in women's health by cutting off funding to health-care providers in the state Medicaid system who provided abortion services.

The four-year reign of extremism has also celebrated Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigration raids, even in a time of rapidly declining illegal immigration, and created a cadre of copycat immigration hawks. Even Senator John McCain, who once favored sensible immigration reform, distributed a campaign video expressing an urgency to build the "dang fence" in order to win a tough 2010 primary battle. But -- in another sign Arizona is moving to the center -- no one's built the dang fence. A Tea Party-backed state law that permitted construction of a border fence with private funding has failed to attract many donors. The wall remains unbuilt, according to The Arizona Republic, largely because only 10 percent of the money needed to build the first mile has been donated.

One major factor in the swing is those pesky independents, who are growing by leaps and bounds in the voter-registration rolls. In the fall of 2008, the Arizona Secretary of State reported about 759,000 registered independent voters; four years later the state has a little more than 1 million independent voters, comprising about one-third of the electorate. "Our continued growth of independent voters shows a disgust with politics as usual and a desire to move to the center," says David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

He cites two propositions on the November ballot that may nudge the state to the center. One "open primary" measure circumvents partisan primaries by listing all candidates -- independents, Republicans, and Democrats -- on the same ballot, a move Berman says encourages voters who don't belong to either major party to participate in primary elections. Another proposition attempts to fund schools via a one-cent permanent sales tax, guaranteeing about $1 billion for schools each year. The measure belies voter distrust in a statehouse that has severely reduced school funding.

Yet another clue Arizona's ticking to the center: "Illegal immigration isn't working for the right wing any more," says Berman. Carmona favors comprehensive immigration reform that includes some amnesty for some undocumented immigrants who already live here. His opponent Jeff Flake, a respected six-term conservative Republican congressman best known for his battles to end earmark spending, once pushed hard for similar reform. But Flake backed off and began voicing the conservative Republican mantra of "secure the borders first."

Once, Flake seemed to have an easy path to the Senate seat, which is being vacated by retiring Republican Jon Kyl. But Carmona's strategy, which banks on Arizona's extremism fatigue by pegging Flake as a right-wing extremist while portraying himself as a moderate, seems to be closing the gap. Flake's lead over Carmona has shrunk to an average of less than three points.

Even Arizona's right-wing border hawk sheriffs, statewide icons just a few years ago, have lost their luster.

Flake pegs Carmona as Obama's handpicked lackey. "We have a better message on economy and jobs," Flake says. He agrees earlier "caustic" rhetoric may have blurred that Republican message on occasion, but he remains convinced he'll win, because he says voters don't think of him as an extremist but as an "independent Arizona voice."

Carmona, on the other hand, maintains he's got the support of moderate Republicans who've quit the flock. They tell him, he says, "This is not the Republican party I belonged to. It's been hijacked."

But in a state where Republicans (about 1.1 million voters) and independents (about 1 million voters) outnumber Democrats (about 935,000 voters), Carmona needs to cobble together votes of Hispanics, Native Americans, veterans, cops, union members, and moderates of all stripes. He's got the resume to recruit them -- he's a Latino, disabled Vietnam vet, trauma surgeon, and former deputy sheriff. As U.S. surgeon general during the George W. Bush Administration, he says, he advocated for every woman's right to access to complete health care, including all "reproductive health care options."

Presented by

Terry Greene Sterling is an author, journalist, and writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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