In the low desert valleys of Arizona's Pinal County, the cotton fields seem to stretch forever. Pinal is traditionally one of the nation's top 10 cotton-producing counties. It is also a large grower of wheat, melons, potatoes, and chili peppers. Each year, ranchers raise more than 30,000 sheep and 240,000 head of cattle.
The county is the agricultural heart of Arizona because of two resources in short supply elsewhere in the state. The first is water: The Gila River gathers runoff from the mountains of New Mexico and flows west, right through the middle of Pinal. The county's farmers tap most of it, reducing the Gila to a trickle as it nears Phoenix. More surprisingly, the second resource is land. Only about 15 percent of Arizona's 118,000 square miles is privately owned, with the rest taken up by national and state reserves, military bases, and Indian reservations.
In the county, large tracts of private land and the water to irrigate it have made Pinal a better place to farm. These advantages are also crucial to Pinal's newest bumper crop: subdivisions. Pinal is the fastest-growing county in the nation, according to the latest Census Bureau numbers. In the 12 months through July 2006, Pinal's population surged 16.6 percent, and growth has barely slowed in the past year, according to Stan Barnes, a former state legislator who grew up there. Despite the subprime-mortgage crisis, thousands of new homes are slated for development, he said, to feed the demand from Tucson, to the south, and Phoenix, to the north. The snowmelt that now fattens cantaloupes and honeydews will soon be watering lawns and football fields.
In 2004, Pinal County and other fast-growing exurbs were a large part of the reason that President Bush won a second term. Bush captured an astounding 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the United States. Although many were in states not in contention -- California, Georgia, and Texas, for example -- a good number were in states vital to his victory, such as Florida.
But the political landscape is changing in Pinal County and beyond. Arizona is in play for Democrats in 2008, part of a shift in previously safe Republican states that is redrawing the electoral map and reordering the campaign plans of presidential candidates in both major parties. In the Mountain West, Arizona isn't the only fast-growing state now up for grabs. So is Colorado. And two neighboring states that were already closely divided -- Nevada and New Mexico -- will benefit from the extra attention that Democrats will pay their region.
Bigger Than Ohio
In 2000, Bush won Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada and lost New Mexico by a razor-thin margin. Four years later, he carried all four states. Flip Arizona and Colorado into the Democrats' column in 2004, and John Kerry would be president today. If Democrats grab any three of the four in 2008, they can more or less erase a potential loss in Ohio with its 20 electoral votes. With all four they can more than counter Florida's 27 electoral votes. And add to the mix the 13 electoral votes in Virginia, where local races and demographic trends are moving in the Democrats' direction.
The prime battlegrounds of 2000 and 2004 -- Florida and Ohio -- will undoubtedly be hard-fought yet again. But the shifts in the Mountain states and Virginia open new fronts in the red-blue conflict, offering fresh opportunities to Democrats, who've been pushed toward the coasts since the 1980s, and new challenges to Republicans, who've dominated these states for 10 to 20 years. In the new battlegrounds the factors driving change reflect broader developments for the parties nationwide, including the struggles of the GOP, which is being dragged down by an unpopular president and his unpopular war.
Like much of rural Arizona, Pinal County has always had a lot of conservative Democrats who voted Democratic only in local races, not statewide and national contests. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Pinal 42,469 to 40,877, while Republicans retain a strong advantage statewide, 1.02 million to 873,000. Republicans actually gained a few thousand voters on Democrats in Pinal in the past year, but the real story, as it is throughout Arizona, is the rise of independents. Fifteen years ago, roughly 10 percent of registered voters were independents; now that number is approaching 30 percent. And more than half of the county's new voters are independents.
This shift is even starker statewide. Since the 2006 election, Republicans have gained 10,000 registered voters and Democrats have added 19,000, while the number of independents has jumped 51,000. Independents' share of the electorate has doubled since 1996 to about 28 percent. Using the yardstick of registrations since last fall, as many as two-thirds of Arizona's new legal residents are independents. Maria Weeg, the state Democratic Party's executive director, said that these independents are the prime reason Arizona is tipping toward her party. "These people are not tied to the parties, and they are not very ideological," she contended. "They are interested in practical solutions to problems."
The new voters' pragmatism reminds most politicos in Arizona of the state's wildly popular Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano. Even Republican operatives concede that Napolitano's moderate and nonideological style of governing has made her the dominant political force in a state whose U.S. Senate seats are held by Republicans. "People like her. They respect her. And she represents what most [Arizonans] want to see in a leader right now," said Kevin DeMenna, a GOP political consultant.
After squeaking by former Rep. Matt Salmon in 2002 in her first race for governor, Napolitano was re-elected in November with 63 percent of the vote. She hasn't endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate and won't for a while, but political operatives on both sides expect her to be a huge asset in the state to the Democratic nominee. Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant, said that Napolitano's domination of the middle has led many Arizona independents to identify with the Democratic Party.
The only political figure to rival Napolitano in Arizona is Sen. John McCain. If McCain were to revive his struggling campaign and capture the GOP presidential nomination, he would be favored to carry his home state. Otherwise, Napolitano will be the more important force there, and Democrats will keep believing in a blue Arizona.
The governor's appeal to independents -- and even to some Republicans -- is epitomized by her handling of the top political issue in Arizona, immigration. On the one hand, Napolitano has been an outspoken advocate of tough measures to crack down on illegal immigration, and her successful demands for more federal help in patrolling the border were popular with Arizonans. But she has rejected some of the harsher proposals directed at illegal immigrants who are already in the state and has insisted that law enforcement alone will not solve the nation's immigration problems.
Likewise, DeMenna said, the GOP's difficulties in Arizona are epitomized by the party's divisions over immigration. Conservatives who have recently gained leadership roles in the state party and top posts in the Legislature spearheaded a ballot initiative to deny welfare benefits and other services to illegal immigrants. Although it passed in 2004 with 56 percent of the vote, many Republicans opposed the initiative, and it helped to splinter the state party.
Barry Dill, a consultant and adviser to Napolitano, said that the "disarray" of the previously unified GOP greatly enhances the Democrats' 2008 chances: "A very conservative wing of the [Republican] Party has taken over, and they are just too extreme for most people in Arizona." DeMenna, who considers himself a conservative, said he has fought the GOP's rightward drift and contends that "morale in the party is worse" than it has been in decades. Conversely, Republicans said they have never seen Arizona Democrats so organized and doing so well with candidate recruitment and fundraising.
Dill notes that Goldwater Republicans "were interested in strong defense, smaller government, and were libertarian on social issues." That mix long kept the party in power. But once very socially conservative Republicans gained control of the party, its popularity waned. "I think you're seeing this play out elsewhere," he said. George W. Bush carried Arizona by 11 points in 2004 and 6 points in 2000. Bill Clinton had won it by 3 points in 1996, though, and a Democrat could win it again if 2008 turns out to be another big Democratic year.
Moderates Take a Hike
The factors boosting Democratic hopes in Arizona, with its 10 electoral votes, are doing much the same in Colorado, with its nine. Bush won Colorado by 9 percentage points in 2000 but by just 5 in 2004. During the last big year for national Democrats -- 1996 -- Bill Clinton lost the state by 1 point. But that occurred before a demographic shift similar to the one in Arizona brought in independents and Democrats from California and the East Coast. Likewise, immigration has divided Colorado Republicans, with such hard-liners as Rep. Tom Tancredo alienating many moderates and pushing independents toward the Democrats.
In Colorado, the GOP's more conservative wing oversaw the party's domination of state government in the mid-1990s, and it pushed hard-line stands on abortion and gay marriage, as well as restrictions on the government's growth. The Colorado GOP first split over taxes, with then-Gov. Bill Owens joining forces with Democrats in 2005 to repeal provisions of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights law that forced refunds of taxes that he said were needed for legally mandated increases in entitlement programs. Owens, an original champion of the strict tax law, provoked bitter opposition from more-conservative Republicans.
And, as in Arizona, immigration has further divided the party. Although Colorado Republicans still maintain a sizable lead in registered voters, Democrats captured both chambers of the Legislature in 2004. Voters also replaced a Republican U.S. senator with moderate Democrat Ken Salazar that year. Two years later, Democrat Bill Ritter won the governorship. Democrats have high hopes of another Senate pickup in 2008 when Republican Wayne Allard retires.
In Arizona, Democrats gained ground in both legislative chambers in 2006. Even Republican operatives predict more Democratic pickups there next year. Democrats say that one or both chambers could change hands. And 2008 could be a watershed year for the Arizona delegation in the U.S. House. Heading into the 2006 midterms, Republicans held a 6-2 advantage, but Democrats picked up two seats that year and are optimistic that they will gain another in 2008, giving them a majority for the first time since 1964.
Rep. Rick Renzi, whose 1st District wraps around the eastern side of the Phoenix metro area, is retiring amid a fundraising and fraud investigation that has demoralized Republicans and encouraged Democrats. The district is largely rural but includes Pinal County and other fast-growing areas. Democrats hold a registration advantage of 40 percent to 33 percent. Weeg, the Democratic Party executive director, said that four well-known Democrats are already vying for the open seat. GOP consultant Rose predicts that the general election contest will be "competitive."
New Opinions in the Old Dominion
Meanwhile, across the country in Virginia, a popular moderate helped to unify the state Democratic Party and make it more attractive to independents -- just as in Arizona. Mark Warner, the commonwealth's governor from 2002 to 2006, will be back on the ballot in 2008, running to succeed retiring Republican Sen. John Warner. Mark Warner's decision to join the Senate race has Democrats rejoicing; they hope that his candidacy will boost voter turnout and give their presidential nominee a shot at carrying the state.
Because Virginia has no party registration, it is difficult to gauge the relative strength of the parties. The trend, however, is clear based on election results: Virginia is a mostly Republican state that is moving toward the Democrats. This phenomenon began with Mark Warner's gubernatorial win in 2001 and continued with the election of another Democratic governor in 2005 and a Democratic U.S. senator in 2006.
In 2000, Bush carried Virginia 53 percent to 44 percent, even though a Southerner, Al Gore, headed the Democratic ticket.
In 2004, Bush defeated John Kerry by 8 points, but this time the Democratic nominee was a New Englander who fared worse than Gore in much of the South. Behind the presidential vote were gains in Democratic numbers that showed a shifting electorate.
At first glance, demographics would still seem to favor Virginia Republicans in 2008. The state's fastest-growing areas are traditional Republican strongholds. In Loudoun, one of the fastest-growing counties in America since 2000, Bush's margin of victory was wide in 2000 and 2004. The same is true for Prince William County, southwest of Washington.
But Democrats are benefiting from population growth in the increasingly Democratic strongholds of the close-in suburbs of Washington and the cities of Richmond, Norfolk, and Newport News. Even though these areas aren't among the fastest-growing in the state, they are expanding and are producing many more Democratic votes. In those three cities, as well as in Alexandria and in Arlington and Fairfax counties, the Democratic majorities were much larger in 2004 than in 2000. In fact, Fairfax County swung from a Republican majority of less than 2 percentage points in the 2000 presidential contest to a Democratic majority of a bit more than 7 points in 2004.
In only four years, the number of Democratic voters increased 18 percent in Newport News and 27 percent in Arlington County. In Arlington, Bush added 1,000 Republican votes, while the Democratic nominee gained 14,000. In Fairfax County, whose population is about three times the size of Arlington's, the number of Democratic votes rose 22 percent in four years. Bush was able to add 15,000 votes there, but Democrats picked up 34,000. In these six cities and counties alone, Democrats added 75,000 votes, a third of their gains statewide.
The Democratic boost is a result of the party's success in wooing moderates, says Richmond Mayor Douglas Wilder. He is a moderate who as the state's first elected African-American governor supported the death penalty and, to balance Virginia's budget, cuts in education spending. Wilder says that Mark Warner and other Democrats have successfully appealed to the large number of Virginia moderates willing to back a Democrat who hews to fairly conservative positions on crime and fiscal matters. "Growth in Northern Virginia and in the cities is a big factor, yes, but the Republicans are not doing well nationally, and that affects things in Virginia," Wilder said.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia and a well-known commentator, said independents and loosely affiliated Republican voters, many of whom had voted for Bush two years before, drove the Democrats' 2006 surge in Virginia: "It was the same thing you saw all over the country. There was unhappiness about the war, a general feeling, with the scandals, that Republicans had let people down." In Virginia, the re-election bid of GOP Sen. George Allen failed after he was reported to have repeatedly made racist remarks.
Democrats clearly have the momentum in Virginia, Sabato says, but much will depend on who heads their national ticket. He predicts that Hillary Rodham Clinton would have a tough time winning the state but might be helped if the GOP picked Rudy Giuliani, whose views on abortion and gay rights could alienate conservatives. In Sabato's opinion, Barack Obama would be the strongest Democratic nominee in Virginia and would run especially well in Northern Virginia. Wilder won more than 60 percent of Northern Virginia's vote when he ran for governor in 1990.
In Arizona, Republicans say that Clinton would have a difficult time winning their state. "A lot of Republicans are looking at a Hillary Clinton nomination as one thing that could really help revive the party," Rose said. Yet polls indicate that Clinton would be quite competitive, except perhaps against Giuliani. A Cronkite-Eight poll in August by Arizona State University showed Clinton trailing the former New York City mayor, 49 percent to 37 percent. But she was in a statistical tie with Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and even Arizona's own John McCain. Bruce Merrill, the poll's director, says that Arizonans' warm feelings toward Bill Clinton, who in 1996 became the first Democratic presidential nominee since Harry Truman to carry the state, would boost his wife's candidacy. "He remains very popular here."
Of course, plenty of things could happen in the next 14 months to change the lineup of battleground states and knock Arizona, Colorado, and Virginia off the 2008 list. The Iraq war could recede -- or further explode -- as an issue. Likewise, economic problems could emerge as a dominant issue, something that might favor either Democrats or Republicans, depending on which side presented a more persuasive recovery plan. For now, Democrats are competitive in more places than they've been since the start of Bill Clinton's second term. And the electoral map is looking bluer than it has in more than a decade.