The red wave expected to sweep across America on Nov. 8 was also predicted to knock down a blue wall, albeit rickety and possibly more definably purple than blue, around the states of Nevada and Arizona. But, as we all so lamentably know, that political force never materialized.
The two intermountain states, erstwhile conservative bastions, have been trending purple for a number of election cycles, and the Republicans were thought to fortify their tenuous position and hopefully push the Desert Southwest back from the brink of liberal reliability. In addition to the seemingly bankable conservative bullet points — the economy, inflation, foreign policy, a porous border, et al. — Las Vegas and Phoenix are in the midst of an affordable-housing crisis; homelessness abounds in both cities; and both towns sport the highest gas prices anywhere outside of California. Things looked good for conservatives on the evening of Nov. 7.
But then Nov. 8 happened, and whatever red torrent that began in Florida was sucked dry by a parched Southwest desert floor.
In the Silver State, Democrats held a very vulnerable U.S. Senate seat, with Catherine Cortez Masto narrowly downing Adam Laxalt after polls, right up to Election Day, had Laxalt winning, in some polls by 5 or 6 points. The Democrats also fortified their state legislative power in both houses, maintained their congressional advantage at three seats to one, and picked up all statewide offices of importance apart from the governorship.
In the Copper State, the overall results were more ambiguous but also more disheartening, as Republicans polled consistently ahead in some races and, at a minimum, even in others. Mark Kelly defended his U.S. Senate seat from Blake Masters by a solid 5 points, thus marking the third consecutive cycle where a Democrat has defeated a Republican for a Senate seat. In the race for the open governor’s seat, Katie Hobbs took down the charismatic, rising Republican star Kari Lake as well, albeit by a mere 17,000 votes, and will be the first Democrat governor since Janet Napolitano was reelected in 2006. Statewide offices, apart from treasurer, also went left, but Republicans retained ever-slim majorities in both houses of the legislature — by one vote in each — and flipped the U.S. congressional delegation from 5–4 Democrat to 6–3 Republican.
All in all, both states, while currently swinging like a saloon door between red and blue, provided deeply disappointing results that could augur further decimation of what was once a reliably Republican region of the country.
Four decades ago, one could stand at the Kansas–Colorado border looking west and see nothing but a crimson political horizon with bright red skies spanning all the way to the Pacific shore. The West was Republican country, especially in presidential elections.
The Coast went first, with Washington and Oregon sliding into Democrat hands in 1988, in which they’ve remained ever since, followed by California in 1992, also ever since, and joined that same year by New Mexico, which, with the exception of a brief post–9/11 conservative revanche in 2004, has never departed the Democrat column.
Between 2004 and 2006, Colorado threw off its carmine ski parka and turned reliably blue, compliments of what has been termed the “Colorado model” or “Colorado plan.” In the former election, Democrats gained control of both state legislative bodies, for the first time in 44 years. In 2006, they got the governor’s mansion. Since 2007, apart from two years when Republicans controlled the state House (2011–2012) and four years when they ran the Colorado Senate (2015–2018), the Democrats have enjoyed a trifecta (governorship and both houses of the legislature). Both U.S. senators are now Democrats, and the delegation to the U.S. House stands at 5–3 Democrats (provided Lauren Boebert hangs on in Colo.-3).
The Colorado model came about via gaining big-money donors, targeting races, and, as Fred Barnes described in a 2008 piece in the Weekly Standard, creating “a vast infrastructure of liberal organizations that produces an anti-Republican, anti-conservative echo chamber in politics and the media.”
Although this model has not translated in toto to other Western states, parts of it have proved a winning hand in Nevada and Arizona. One aspect, the conscious winnowing out of primary challengers and the consensual anointing of one candidate, was deftly employed in Arizona in both of the high-profile midterm races, the Kelly–Masters senatorial race and the Lake–Hobbs gubernatorial race. Masters and Lake drained their coffers fighting off primary foes while Kelly and Hobbs skated into the general with their campaign pockets bulging. Hit ads targeting Masters and Lake seemed to be on a television loop for weeks before anything defending the Republicans found airtime. The banking of early ballots built an insurmountable lead for Democrats that could not be recouped even by Masters conclusively besting Kelly in their single debate and by fallout from Hobbs’ refusal to debate Lake and her overall valley-girl presentation.
Nevada has its own model, one built by Harry Reid and reliant upon the allegiance of the state’s powerful service-sector unions, which supply labor for the casino trade, and an intimate connection with Latino workers, who constitute a great many casino workers. For success, the model requires massive registration of first-time voters, aggressive get-out-the-vote tactics, and pervasive door-to-door canvassing, an approach that must pay dividends in Clark County, home to 73 percent of the state’s population, and to a lesser extent Washoe County, with Reno as its population center, sufficient to offset huge Republican advantage in the Rurals, as Nevada’s 15 other counties are collectively termed. Since 2016, this pattern has prevailed.
Both Arizona and Nevada — and, in particular, Phoenix and Las Vegas — are the destination of waves of new liberal-leaning residents, college-educated whites drawn to industries like tech and finance, many from over the border in California. In addition, a burgeoning Hispanic influx, primarily from Mexico and traditionally Democrat, has been flooding both states for at least a decade. This latter group trends younger and working class. Writes Christian Paz in Vox:
[Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution] 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.
Based on the 2022 election returns and demographic trends, one might think that both Southwest states are far closer to being solid blue than they are to being toss-ups.
However, the 2022 midterm debacle may have been a one-off in the two desert states.
In Arizona, Republicans still enjoy a statistical edge over Democrats in registration of 4 percent (34.67 percent to 30.66 percent), with independents clocking in at about the same (33.89 percent). For anecdotal evidence, the state is not turning irrevocably left; observe how both Kelly and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema are acting as moderate Democrats (as much as that oxymoronic phrase is possible): Sinema (the new Arizona “maverick”?) famously aligned with Sen. Joe Manchin to temporarily halt the Democrat congressional spending spree and has joined Kelly in recently expressing “deep concerns” about the projected lifting of Title 42 on the southern border. And Nevada, for all its recent leftward tilt, is actually trending right: According to the New York Times, Democrat party registration has fallen about 6 percent in the last six years (from 39.4 percent in 2016 to 33.6 percent last February).
Any advantage in registration, though, was killed in this cycle by an unlikely force — the endorsement of the party’s putative leader, former President Donald Trump. Considered an effective chief executive who accomplished much of what party loyalists considered unachievable otherwise during his four-year term, Trump, since losing to President Joe Biden in 2020, has dragged down the very candidates he has endorsed. His obsession with a corrupt 2020 election — however valid his plaint may be — proved a boon to his endorsed candidates in the primaries but was a substantial encumbrance in the general election, especially with independents. This phenomenon didn’t seem to hurt Republicans in reliably red states, but it dealt them a death blow in swing states, including those in the desert.
Questioning the results of the 2020 election — pejoratively termed “election denial” by the Left and its adjutant media — was a political force of such puissance that it subsumed the glaring economic and border-security inadequacies that Republicans had intended to ride to victory.
And it played a huge role in Nevada and Arizona. In a nutshell: Candidates that embraced Trump and election denial lost. Those that downplayed election denial, even if endorsed by Trump, won.
In Nevada, Laxalt; the Republican attorney general candidate, Sigal Chattah; and their secretary of state choice, Jim Marchant, all went down to defeat: All made the 2020 election prominent in their campaigns. Gov.-elect Joe Lombardo also received a Trumpian nod, but he did not play the toady to the former president and his causes and managed to “survive” the Trump endorsement.
In Arizona, many voters split their tickets, putting into office a Republican treasurer and U.S. House candidates who avoided Trump and the 2020 election but denying office to all four statewide aspirants who made Trump and the 2020 election the centerpiece of their campaigns. Lake, one of the most attractive candidates in the entire midterms, narrowly went down to defeat because of this. Unforced errors, like bad-mouthing state icon John McCain, à la Trump himself, also damaged the former television anchorwoman.
The 2020 election was anathema as a midterm issue, a campaign killer. Never again can Republicans push the stolen election motif. Even Trump, in his Nov. 15 announcement that he was seeking another White House term, seemed to understand this, as he steered clear of the rhetoric that shaped the losing Republican message in the midterms. Said Ryan Girdusky, on The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show: “But if you bring up, at this point — in anything close to a suburban district and you bring up the fact that the 2020 election was stolen — you’re going to lose. It’s just the case, you’re going to lose. That is it. It drives college-educated white voters away and there are more of them than there are of minorities.”
The other salient campaign issue was abortion, as many single women, troubled by the Dobbs decision of June that overturned Roe v. Wade, blotted the “D” circles on their ballots. Many Republican campaign watchers were surprised by the potency of this issue.
That is the bad news. The good news is that the effect of these issues is temporary — or, could be temporary.
By 2024, the Dobbs decision will be a couple of years in the rear-view mirror; many states will have instituted their own abortion policies, thus removing the issue from the national political agenda; and Lindsey Graham will have hopefully offered no new advice on federal abortion laws, undercutting one of the chief conservative arguments for overturning Dobbs in the first place, to wit: to turn the decision back to the states.
If someone other than Trump wins the Republican nomination, it should be easy for candidates to put election stealing behind them and be successful in 2024.
If Trump does win the Republican nomination, debouching Trumpian obsessions will be more difficult. But if he can focus on America in his campaign, its bright future and his patriotic plans for its renewal, rather than making everything about himself, both he and Republican candidates hurt by election denial in this cycle can leave that fatal issue behind and hopefully move forward with a positive agenda.
And keep the Desert Southwest in political play.