Democrats made historic inroads. But it’s a deeply divided place, and some say a “blood bath” is on the horizon in 2022.
PHOENIX — In the moonlight, dozens of people hollered and embraced, dropping the rules of social distancing as they celebrated a win after a long year: hundreds of thousands of Latino voters registered, calls made and doors knocked amid a pandemic that had devastated their communities. Though it would be days before the final result in Arizona was clear, the people working to shore up Latino support for Democrats in the state were already convinced that they helped shape history. They had come through the crucible of a pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment and a decade later, flipped the state and delivered wins.
“Tonight we claim victory because we showed up,” said Stephanie Maldonado, the political director for Lucha, a civil rights group that helped coordinate efforts for Democrats.
Four days later, when the state was still uncalled but Joseph R. Biden Jr. had been declared the winner nationally, protesters who supported the president showed up at the state capitol. They waved Trump flags, some depicting the president as a Rambo-like figure, and many carried rifles and military-style guns of their own. The several hundred people gathered in the blazing sun were convinced, without evidence, that the election had been stolen from President Trump, and they were there to express their distrust — in the news media, in the electoral process, in almost any political figure other than Mr. Trump.
The two scenes — young Latinos celebrating victory, angry protesters refusing to concede defeat — are emblematic of the deep divide in Arizona. Though Mr. Biden won the state, making him only the second Democrat presidential candidate to do so since 1948, he did so with the thinnest of margins, receiving roughly 11,000 votes or 0.3 percentage points more than Mr. Trump.
And while there are examples of significant change, with the state sending two Democrats to the Senate for the first time in decades, it is far too early to declare the state blue. Instead, officials from both parties agree, the election was clearly a referendum on Mr. Trump, the most divisive president in recent history.
“It’s certainly not blue, and I’m not even sure it’s purple, it’s magenta, or the lightest shade of red,” said Mike Noble, the chief pollster at OH Predictive Insights, a nonpartisan research group based in Phoenix. “If there was such a Democratic surge, we would have seen in down ballot, but you didn’t see that impact.”
Instead, Democrats fell short of their goal of flipping several seats in the state legislature, which could have given them control of either chamber. And much like Krysten Sinema did in 2018, Mark Kelly won his Senate race by portraying himself as a centrist and holding up John McCain as an exemplary leader.
But Democrats and progressives in the state say they still see the election as a vindication of the decades-long effort to push Arizona to the left. They won several labor-backed ballot measures, including one that raised taxes to send more money to public schools. Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Kelly won with a coalition of white women, young and new Latino voters, as well as suburban moderates who have been repelled by the president’s actions.
“Arizona from a policy perspective is going to be really complicated, but I don’t think the public is going to fall in line with the current Republican leadership,” said Ian Danley, a longtime liberal organizer and executive director of Arizona Wins, which coordinated the work of more than two dozen organizations involved in voter outreach. Like other activists in the state, Mr. Danley credits local groups more than the state or national Democratic Party. “Here we offer a kind of model, but we’re not Democrats, we don’t walk around with a Democratic flag or even a candidate. Ultimately, voters don’t always connect the issues with the party, that’s a disconnection that has to be fixed.”
Niles Harris, a Democratic consultant in Arizona, said that Republicans have the potential to sweep state offices and the Senate seat Democrats won in this year’s special election. The last two elections show that path to victory for Democrats in the state includes avoiding issues such as taxes and border security, maintaining a financial advantage and offering a tailored message to Latinos that goes beyond immigration and the border, Mr. Harris said.
“If anyone thinks that 2022 isn’t potentially a blood bath, they’re out of their minds,” he added. (Because Mr. Kelly won in a special election, he is already up for re-election in two years.)
Mr. Biden’s win in Arizona was partly a testament to his strength as a moderate Democrat and partly a testament to the president’s weakness, but Glenn Hamer, president and chief executive of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, doesn’t see Arizona’s purple status as a one-off episode for a unique election. Instead, he expects Arizona to become highly competitive for both parties and a top destination for any future presidential candidate.
“We are ground zero for being a true swing state at this point,” he said. “Maybe there’s a little Republican tilt, like you start a race a yard ahead of your opponent if you’re a Republican, or maybe a few more, like the five-yard line, but it’s pretty modest at this point.”
Still, Mr. Hamer noted that despite Mr. Trump and Martha McSally’s losses, Republicans won most state offices up for grabs, almost every available office in its most populous county, and held their majorities in the state legislature. In fact, despite losing one seat in the State Senate, the Republican majority will be more conservative, he noted, as several moderate Republican lawmakers were ousted in the primary election.
“Even though it’s the narrowest of margins in both houses, this is as conservative a legislature we’ve had probably since the supermajorities of 2011,” he said.
The election’s results are also showing just how much the state party is tied to Mr. Trump. Kelli Ward, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party, has refused to accept Mr. Trump’s defeat and repeatedly raised the possibility that cheating took place, without evidence, and has received support from two of the state’s congressmen, Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs.
Ms. Ward said in an interview that more lawsuits are on the horizon, and that the president has other options available to him even if his lawsuits continue to fail, though she declined to specify what those could be.
“There are more coming, and you don’t always have to have a lawsuit to get to the bottom of election fraud. There are a lot of irregularities, those are going to continue to come out,” she said.
After Republicans raised baseless accusations of wrongdoing, Katie Hobbs, the Secretary of State and a Democrat, received a stream of death threats. Ms. Hobbs said that her family’s personal information had been made public online and that armed protesters showed up to her house recently chanting “we are watching you.” Far more troubling than that, she said, are the long-term implications of Mr. Trump’s campaign to spread election conspiracies, and the readiness with which some Republicans have jumped on board.
“The harm that is being done to our free and fair elections is going to go far beyond this election,” she said. “What we’re seeing right now with Trump and his supporters is far beyond ‘we lost and we’re not willing to accept that.’ It’s to the point of ‘we’re not willing to accept it because you stole it from us.’ And that’s just absolutely not true.”
At a news conference last week, Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who has carved out a reputation as a moderate, declined to firmly state that he accepted the results of the election.
“There are legal claims that are being challenged in court and everybody on the ballot has certain access, rights and remedies and if they want to push that, they are able,” he said. “Once those are adjudicated and the process plays out, I will accept the results of the election.”
Responding to a question about the security of the vote, Mr. Ducey did not identify anything alarming that he had personally observed.
“In terms of your question, specifically, any widespread fraud or irregularity — that I have not seen. I’ve heard about it, but I’ve not seen it,” he added.
In interviews with dozens of voters before the election, there were a number of indications that the electorate is deeply divided, with many voters saying they did not discuss politics with anyone with whom they did not see eye to eye.
Ed Harris, a retiree and Democrat from Oracle, Ariz., said he didn’t put a sign for Mr. Biden in his yard this year because he didn’t feel safe doing so in his conservative suburb of Tucson.
Most of his neighbors are fellow retirees, he said, and while publicly declaring his political affiliation might strain neighborly relations, he wasn’t worried about them necessarily.
“But the guys running around in pickup trucks with a Trump and American flag on it are scary to me,” he said. “They really do frighten me.”