With Abortion and the Border, Arizona Becomes a 2024 Political Hothouse

To see the battle lines over Arizona’s political future, head to a patch of dirt along the Carefree Highway on the edge of Phoenix, where the state’s big ambitions and bitter grievances are separated by a wire fence.

On one side, a silvery new microchip factory is sprouting from the desert, part of a $50 billion technology investment by the Biden administration expected to create tens of thousands of jobs and make Arizona a new tech powerhouse. New hires from across the country and abroad are snapping up just-built Spanish-tiled houses nearby, and schools are already adding semiconductor trainings.

But on the other side of the fence, roadside vendors are doing brisk business opposing President Biden. Each morning, they hoist Confederate flags and lay out tables of Trump hats and crude banners deriding Mr. Biden. “I don’t give him credit for anything,” said Mike Conley, 73, a transplant from California who sells ammunition from the bed of his pickup.

Arizona feels like a place where nearly all of 2024’s pivotal political clashes are converging. It is a border state bristling with active fault lines on abortion, inflation, immigration and election conspiracies, where vast demographic changes have shifted Arizona from reliably Republican and seldom contested in national politics to a desert hothouse. Everything is up for grabs.

“The word chaos certainly comes to mind right now — on all fronts,” said former Gov. Fife Symington, a Republican who served in the 1990s. “The in-migration, the unparalleled growth has changed so many dynamics. It’s a totally transformed state.”

At the State Capitol, anti-abortion conservatives and abortion-rights supporters have spent weeks locked in a raw struggle over scrapping an 1864 abortion ban that was upheld and revived by the state’s Supreme Court.

The repeal effort advanced last week with bipartisan support, and could pass Arizona’s Republican-controlled State Senate on Wednesday. Even if it does, the 1864 ban has intensified a ballot campaign to add abortion rights to the state’s Constitution, ensuring that abortion will remain at the center of Arizona’s politics through November.

In the deserts south of Tucson, more migrants are crossing so far this fiscal year than in any other section of the 2,000-mile southern border, an influx that has strained border towns and revived calls for tougher border security, even among some moderates and Latino voters.

Across Phoenix, consumers struggled with the highest rate of inflation in the country earlier in Mr. Biden’s term, largely because of soaring housing prices. Price increases have cooled, but many voters are still sour on the economy despite Arizona’s booming growth and low unemployment rate.

On top of all this, Arizona’s new attorney general, Kris Mayes, a Democrat, last week filed criminal charges of conspiracy and fraud against allies of former President Donald J. Trump in connection with efforts to subvert his 2020 election loss in Arizona.

“You can’t keep track of who’s going to jail and who isn’t,” said former Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who served from 2009 to 2015. “Life out here is very confusing.”

Arizona’s population has grown to roughly 7.4 million, double what it was in 1990. The state’s evolution has been propelled, in part, by growing numbers of Latino voters who now make up one in three Arizonans. It has also been shaped by moderate newcomers from California and beyond who shed their partisan registrations like winter coats when they hit Arizona and join the 34 percent of voters not formally aligned with any party.

Sharon Harper, a real estate executive who is a Republican and was close friends with Senator John McCain, said the increasingly moderate electorate that showed up to reject Trump-affiliated candidates in the past three major elections wanted stability — “not this firebrand kind of stuff.”

At the same time, Arizona Republicans, long accustomed to dominating the Legislature and statewide offices, have veered sharply to the right — and voters roundly rejected them in favor of Democrats in the two most recent Senate elections, the 2020 presidential race and the 2022 governor’s race.

“The Republican Party is just the gift that keeps on giving,” said former Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who was in office in the early 2000s. “They are really controlled by the far right and election deniers — and boy did that help in 2022, and I suspect it’s going to help this fall as well.”

Or maybe not. Mr. Trump has held an edge in recent public polls of Arizonans, and 53 percent of voters called the economy “poor” in a New York Times/Siena poll of swing states conducted late last year. And Republicans are hoping that voters will turn out to vent their anger about immigration and the cost of living, not to punish Republicans for abortion restrictions.

Mike McCreary, 33, a plumber who moved to Arizona from Ohio a decade ago, said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama four years before that. But over the weekend, he stopped along the side of the Carefree Highway to buy a hat and cheer on the Trump vendors.

“You make so much money, and it’s still not enough,” he said.

And Arizona’s far-right, anti-government streak goes back decades and can still sway elections.In rural Arizona, moderate Republicans have failed in their efforts to unseat far-right politicians like Representative Paul Gosar.

Registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats by 6 percentage points in the state, an advantage that has grown slightly over the past two years. Far-right candidates “have absolutely proven they can win primaries,” said Mike Noble, founder of the Phoenix polling firm Noble Predictive Insights.

“But in a general election,” he added, “they have yet to crack the code.”

Arizona’s growth and economy have been fueled since statehood by federal money, doled out in the form of military bases, enormous reservoirs and a 330-mile canal from the Colorado River. Now, billions of dollars for battery plants, green-energy production and computer chips are flowing across the Valley of the Sun.

Arizona’s fate in November is likely to hinge on Maricopa County, Arizona’s center of political gravity and home to Phoenix and 60 percent of the population.

“The county is changing dramatically from what it was 10 or 20 years ago,” said Chuck Coughlin, a political consultant in Phoenix who worked for Mr. McCain. “The tech industry explosion in the state has attracted a lot of higher-wage jobs, people with more education, more money and connected more with the global economy.”

Many of those newcomers lean Democratic. “They’re winning inside the 202 Loop that surrounds metro Phoenix,” Mr. Coughlin said, using another name for the South Mountain Freeway. “Most of what’s inside that loop is purple, if not blue.”

Eli Cox, 25, a middle-school math teacher in Phoenix, voted libertarian in the 2020 presidential election, but he said the stakes in Arizona were too high this year to spend his vote on a long shot. He said he would vote for Mr. Biden.

He was shaken after his sister called him in tears to share the news that the 1864 abortion ban had been upheld, and said he was worried a second Trump presidency would bring mass deportations and foreign conflicts.

“That’s scary,” he said. “I feel like we’re going backwards. Instead of the conversation being about how we give more freedom to people, it’s ‘How can we take their freedoms away?’”

Triana Herrera, 20, an aspiring medical assistant in Phoenix, said she planned to vote this year for the first time in the hopes of reuniting her family split apart by America’s immigration laws. Her father was deported to Mexico when she was 3 years old, and she does not hear the plight of her family and others like it mentioned in immigration debates that focus on the border wall, drug smuggling, human trafficking and stopping migrants.

“I want to bring my parents here so they can have a better life,” she said.

But some voters say they cannot bring themselves to vote this year, no matter the stakes. Natasha John, who is Navajo, spent months raising money and rallying to support people in Gaza, recognizing what she says are common threads in what Indigenous Americans and Palestinians have faced.

She said she cared deeply about preserving abortion rights and laws that protect Indigenous parents’ rights. But she said that the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s military actions in Gaza had so alienated her that she would not vote in November. “Why feed into that system?” she said.

Alberto Rios, the state’s poet laureate and director of the Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, grew up in the Mexican border town of Nogales. He said that few newcomers — including those who end up running for office — understood the vast complexity of the state.

Take a recent scene he saw at the Nogales border crossing. A crowd of boys milled next to a towering wall meant to stop illegal immigration, topped by huge arrays of lights. As the sun set, the lights sprang to life — “whomp, whomp, whomp, whomp,” he said — and the boys cheered.

Then they began shooting basketballs toward a hoop they had attached to the border wall.

Rowan Moore Gerety contributed reporting, and Susan Beachy contributed research.

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