On Wednesday Sep 23, the front page of the Arizona Republic carried a headline that would have shocked its readers just five years ago: “McCain endorses Biden”.
Not John McCain, the famed Republican senator who served the state for 31 years and revelled in frustrating President Donald Trump until his death by cancer in 2018. Instead, it was his widow Cindy McCain who urged her fellow Republicans not to fear crossing party lines.
“I think it’s a stab in the back, and I think it is an embarrassment,” says Lana Dorazio, an outreach coordinator for the anti-lockdown Great State Alliance. She is meeting friends outside a megachurch near Arizona’s capital, Phoenix, where the President’s second son Eric Trump has just graced an evangelical rally in person.
“I don’t know why she would choose this, other than she must have some ulterior motives,” Ms Dorazio continues. “She’s a Republican no more.”
It is a sign of the deep fractures that have been driven through the Arizona GOP by Mr Trump’s tenure. But it is also a sign of how quickly this most reliable of red states – the home of legendary arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, which has voted Republican in all but one election since 1952 – is shifting blueward, making it a genuine battleground for 2020.
“The joke in Arizona was, if a Democrat carries Arizona, he doesn’t need Arizona,” says Dr Mike O’Neil, a veteran Phoenix pollster. “That’s not true this year. Arizona has a really viable possibility of being the state that puts a Democrat over the top.”
An all-American contest
Take Arizona’s closely-watched Senate race. In the red corner: Martha McSally, the US Air Force’s first female combat pilot, who successfully sued the Bush administration for her right to eschew traditional women’s robes while stationed in Saudi Arabia.
In the blue corner: Mike Kelly, a former naval aviator and astronaut who piloted the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final mission. His wife, Gabrielle Giffords, was grievously hurt in an assassination attempt in 2011, leading the pair to found their own gun control group.
A more all-American contest one could not hope for – which is so far to the Democrats’ advantage. Current modelling tips Mr Kelly as 77 per cent likely to win, while Mr Biden leads Mr Trump in general polls by an average of around 5 points.
Flipping the Senate, which the GOP holds 53-47, could make or break the next president, hobbling Mr Trump’s plans or backstopping Mr Biden’s. That is particularly true of its power to fill the Supreme Court – now made more urgent for both sides by the death of justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
According to Dr O’Neil, Arizona’s blue shift is decades in the making. As well as a growing Hispanic population, it has seen massive internal migration by young families from coastal states who bring their liberal politics with them.
That has slowly swung its political balance away from the deep red wilderness and towards the sun-baked sprawl of the Phoenix metro area, which now casts more than half of all Arizona’s votes.
Now the process is being accelerated by two new factors. The first, argues Dr O’Neil, is Arizona’s new bipartisan electoral boundaries, replacing a highly gerrymandered map that made Democrat victories “almost impossible”.
The second is Mr Trump himself, who has alienated many affluent independents and Republicans, especially women, putting previously safe areas into play.
Battle for the suburbs
A microcosm of this drama is playing out in Gilbert, a quiet, majority-white suburb east of Phoenix whose pristine front lawns bristle with Trump 2020 signs as well as sprinklers.
Zach Fuller, a 27-year-old electrical engineer and father of two, says the President has been a “very polarising figure” and is impressed by Mr Kelly’s military credentials. Still, he is sticking with Mrs McSally, whom he has met, and Mr Trump, whom he credits for the booming pre-Covid local economy that lured him here from Idaho, as well as a strong stance against abortion.
Another lawn sign just round the corner belongs to Zach’s mother, Amber, a 52-year-old loan processor who moved here six years ago. In 2016, she was disturbed by Mr Trump’s “abrasive” and “brash” behaviour. Today, though, she believes that only someone with those qualities could have pursued and defended his agenda.
“Do you want a doctor that knows what he’s doing but does not have proper bedside manner? Or do you want the doctor that speaks kindly to you that doesn’t know what he’s doing?” she says.
She has little time for the likes of Cindy McCain, saying: “I don’t know how you can sell what you believe in for a mess of kind pottage. People that vote for Biden are selling their birthright of freedom – if they even want that.”‘
One neighbour who would beg to differ is Dan Barker, 67, a retired judge and former Rhodes Scholar. As a committed member of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, he has voted Republican all his adult life – excepting one dalliance with Jimmy Carter in 1976 (nobody’s perfect) – and says he would like nothing more than to do so again.
But he could never bring himself to back Mr Trump, and now he and his wife have founded a pro-Biden fundraising group called “Arizona Republicans Who Believe In Treating Others With Respect”. Their kitchen table is piled with “Republicans for Biden” signs, which they have installed all over Gilbert.
“This is not the Republican Party that I grew up in,” says Mr Barker. “We’ve always had rifts and divisions in our society, but Trump’s approach is to magnify and expand them to increase his own power… we’ve seen four years of Trump; I don’t think our country can handle another four.”
Although Mr Barker and Mr Fuller are still friends, not everyone has been so tolerant. Hundreds of the Biden signs have disappeared or been vandalised, and Mr Barker says many of his supporters are afraid to go public because they fear “payback” in the form of letter campaigns, lost business or social ostracism.
Trump sallies forth while Biden stays indoors
One potential spoiler for Democrats is the Trump campaign’s embrace of in-person campaigning. Despite pleas from local columnists, Mr Biden is yet to visit Arizona, and almost all of his canvassing and outreach events are virtual. An event featuring Jill Biden, Mr Biden’s wife, was held in Tucson but broadcast remotely.
By contrast, Mr Trump has already visited the state five times, and his campaign runs a jam-packed schedule of physical meet-ups and voter registration drives.
His supporters do not seem fazed. Guests at the megachurch event were made to sign a waiver acknowledging the risk of infection and releasing Mr Trump from liability “for any illness or injury”, and few wore masks.
“The people who are coming to events like this aren’t worried about it,” says Lana Dorazio. “Of course we care about every human being and every human life. But we believe the science shows that it’s completely unnecessarily, and our freedom to wear what we want is more important.
“People need each other, they need to hug, they need to be close to each other. Our kids are suffering because they’re being told not to get close… it’s inhumane.”
Timon Harper, 53, adds that Mr Biden’s online campaigning “makes you wonder what he’s hiding”, saying that voters need to be able to observe and listen to politicians in a setting where they cannot control everything.
Yet not all Democrats are staying indoors. CASE Action, a pro-Biden group affiliated with the Unite Here trade union, has recruited about 170 laid-off hotel and restaurant workers to doggedly canvass across the Phoenix, registering Hispanic voters and convincing suburban Republicans to defect.
“These people are not going to vote if we don’t come and knock on their door,” says director of communications Rachel Sulkes as she walks between houses in a heavily Latino area of Maryvale.
Devastated by the virus
Maryvale was one of America’s first planned communities, laid down after the Second World War for returning GIs. Today it is poorer and mostly Hispanic, scarred by decades of official neglect and gang violence.
This neighbourhood could be a mirror image of Gilbert: they have the same winding street plans, similar bungalos and front yards, and everyone seems to drive a pick-up truck.
But there are no lawn signs here, and some houses are dilapidated, and the trucks look more like the ones driven by the Hispanic labourers who work on Gilbert’s gardens and pipes during the day, who say they cannot speak to journalists for fear of being punished.
Although Arizonans of every kind have suffered from coronavirus, research suggests that Latinos are about three times more likely to die from it than white people of the same age. “Some of the top zip codes in Arizona for Covid are right here,” says Ms Sulkes.
Accordingly, canvassers must wear face masks under clear face shields, practising strict social distancing and taking regular temperature checks. They cannot accept the bottles of ice-cold water that Phoenix residents habitually offer to anyone traipsing around in the desert heat.
“We can’t have the interactions with voters that we had last year,” says Ana Espinoza, 46, a seasoned union activist who was laid off from both her hospitality jobs in Los Angeles. “They would invite us in, like ‘oh, come in, it’s too hot! Have this, have that!'”
Instead she tries to build rapport with people hidden behind metal door grilles, or standing far back in the shadows of their hallways. Often she finds that the residents on her list are now gone, sold up or moved out because they could not pay their mortgage or rent.
She, too, says she preferred the old Republican Party: after being brought to the US illegally at the age of nine, it was Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty which allowed her to gain residency and, 11 years ago, citizenship. “Yes, he f—ed up on unions,” she says. “But you know what? At least he gave us that opportunity.”
Why is she out here, despite the risks? “My mom is going to need social security soon, and when I get older I want to use mine. I want my kids to tell my grandkids, ‘you have all these great things because your grandma was out there defending our rights. And your grandma walked during 2020, which was the worst year ever.'”