What Arizona Can Tell Us About the Fault Lines in American Politics

The state has a way of predicting the schisms to come.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer listens to US President Barack Obama speak to the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House February 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The governors are in DC for their winter meeting.  (National Journal)

PHOENIX — Arizona hasn't produced many competitive elections lately, but it retains a knack for crystallizing the most volatile fault lines in American politics.

In 2010, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's signing of the stringent anti-immigration measure known as SB 1070 dramatized the colliding worldviews of a Democratic coalition centered on younger minorities and a GOP coalition revolving around older whites — what I've called the clash between the brown and the gray.

Now the firestorm over SB 1062, the legislation that would have made it easier to deny service to gays, has highlighted the strain within the Republican coalition between managers and populists: economically focused business interests, and religious conservatives and tea-party activists most energized by social issues and immigration.

Since the GOP took unified control of the governorship and both legislative chambers in 2009, the party's populist wing has moved forcefully, if often haphazardly. Arizona's social conservatives have passed a law banning abortion after 20 weeks (later blocked by the courts); the 2010 "show your papers" law aimed at identifying and detaining illegal immigrants (also mostly overturned); stringent new voting restrictions (which the Legislature recently repealed amid public pressure); and the law Brewer vetoed last month that would have expanded legal protection for business owners who denied services to gays or others on religious grounds. Days after Brewer's veto, state House Republicans defiantly voted to authorize surprise inspections at abortion clinics.

The Arizona business community has chafed at some of this (especially the immigration law). But Republicans have maintained the managers' loyalty with an aggressive small-government agenda of lower taxes, less regulation, and tort reform.

With the "religious liberty" bill, this entente, at least temporarily, collapsed.

Reflecting the influence of social conservatives, all but three Republicans in the Legislature initially backed it. But activists like Angela Hughey, cofounder of One Community, a gay-rights group, have made enormous inroads in recent years at organizing business leaders, particularly around Phoenix, behind their cause.

Arizona has no statewide law prohibiting discrimination against gays, but since February 2013 more than 850 businesses, employing some 400,000 people, have signed her group's "Unity Pledge" promising such protection in their own workplaces. Business leaders then revolted against the religious-liberty bill, with the state's growing high-technology sector most ardently warning it would undermine recruitment. Now activists are mulling a legislative push for a statewide nondiscrimination bill in 2015 and a same-sex-marriage ballot initiative in 2016 — each of which would divide the GOP's managerial and populist wings. "This issue is not going away," Hughey insists.

Local business leaders are also resisting populist conservatives trying to derail the Common Core educational standards. But Democrats are correctly dubious that the business establishment will ever fully abandon a GOP coalition delivering the small-government agenda it prefers.

Glenn Hamer, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, captures the cross-pressures when he says Republicans "absolutely" risk losing the state through their views on immigration and social issues and that the movement toward equal protection for gays (including same-sex marriage) is "unstoppable." But one breath later, he declares that the GOP majority has "done a fantastic job" on the chamber's core economic concerns.

The more realistic question for Democrats is whether social issues will draw more white-collar "knowledge" workers to candidates like 2014 gubernatorial nominee Fred DuVal, who unabashedly supports gay marriage and a statewide nondiscrimination statute. Such movement among socially liberal college-educated whites (especially women) has helped tilt Colorado, Virginia, and other previously red states toward Democrats since 2004. But in Arizona, those upscale (and younger) whites have remained solidly Republican.

Capturing more of those well-educated whites was half of the Democratic formula that flipped Colorado and Virginia; the other was increased minority turnout. Arizona provides Democrats an unsurpassed opportunity on that front. While whites make up about four-fifths of Arizona's seniors and three-fourths of residents over 45, minorities represent most of the under-45 population and nearly three-fifths of those below 18. Yet Democrats have consistently failed to mobilize that community: One recent analysis found that only 40 percent of Arizona's eligible Latinos voted in 2012.

After Arizona's tax revenues plummeted with the housing market collapse, Brewer backed a temporary 1-cent sales-tax increase to limit spending cuts. But even so, since 2008, the GOP majority's commitment to squeezing government has produced the nation's third-largest reduction in per-student K-12 spending; the largest percentage reduction in per-student support for public higher education; and the biggest public tuition hikes. No other choices capture as starkly the contrasting priorities of a ruling GOP coalition that still receives almost all of its votes from whites (many older, rural, and exurban) and a minority population that now represents the clear majority of students in Arizona's public schools.

The state's near-term political balance will be determined mostly by whether Republicans can maintain the allegiance of both the managers and the populists. But Arizona's long-term economic and social future will be set much more by whether it can forge greater common cause between its brown and gray.