Once one of the nation’s most Republican states, Arizona has now developed a profile as a crucial swing state, or even a blue-leaning battleground, depending on who you ask.

Early History – The Five ‘Cs’ of Arizona

The Spanish were the first to explore Arizona in 1539, with expeditions started in search of fabled golden cities. Coronado’s 1540 exploration would also start in search of golden cities, but he would be the first European to view the Grand Canyon. A few Spanish missions were started in southern Arizona and northern Sonora. Most of Arizona was governed by the Province of Las California until 1804, when those parts of Arizona became Alta California under Mexican control. After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the U.S. now controlled most of Arizona, then lumped in with the New Mexico Territory. President James Buchanan (D-PA) then secured the rest of the territory with the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. The Territory of Arizona was established in 1863.

Much of Arizona’s population began to grow in 1849 due to the California Gold Rush, as miners passing through were attracted to the area for gold and later, silver and copper. Cattle ranchers and farmers were among others who populated the state early on, but were usually met with many clashes from the natives. Arizona also played a small role in the Civil War, hosting a few battles that helped the Confederacy gain control of the Southwest for a short period of time.

Mormons were also a catalyst for growth in Arizona, as many flocked to the desert west in search of isolation for their belief system.
Arizona would then become defined by the so-called “Five ‘Cs:’” copper, cattle, cotton, citrus, and climate. Arizona has the largest amounts of copper deposits in the United States and second in the world, just behind deposits in the central Andes Mountains of South America. Arizona regularly accounts for about 60% of total U.S. copper mining.

Cattle ranching became a big industry after the Civil War. Texans brought their cattle across the desert, allowing millions of Americans to be fed from Arizona alone. However, overstocking, homesteading, and drought led to cattle ranching parching the land and seeing a minimized role in Arizona’s fledgling economy.

Cotton, namely Pima Cotton, became a cash crop for Arizonans around the turn of the century. Citrus farming was made possible with irrigation, bringing oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes to the region. Finally, climate became a huge boon to the state’s economy, especially with ranching and citrus farming in mind. Arizona’s climate is unique in that about three hundred days of the year are sunny, with just about eight inches of rainfall per year for the entire state.

Railroads and tourism tied the entire state together by the turn of the century. Republicans tried to enter Arizona into the Union as part of New Mexico in order to retain control of the Senate. Arizona Progressives favored their own state constitution with provisions for direct election of U.S. Senators, women’s suffrage, and other initiatives. Arizona was admitted as the forty-eighth state on February 14, 1912, making it the final state to be admitted to the contiguous lower-48.

Twentieth Century Politics –

Arizona’s economy became revolutionized by World War II. Along with various New Deal programs, Arizona became the prime location for military bases. Clear skies, good weather, unoccupied land, railroad connections, cheap labor, and low taxes made it a perfect place for the military to set up shop. Its close proximity to aviation industries of nearby California and the Great Plains allowed the state to retain its profile among military and private firms after the war.

The Hoover Dam also became a landmark project for the state. Situated on the Arizona-Nevada border, the Hoover Dam was constructed between 1931 and 1936, allowing an economic booster shot into the state during the Great Depression. The dam sits on the Colorado River and scheduled water usage for the arid desert regions of the Southwest.

Air conditioning is what turned the tide for Arizona’s population. What was once an attractive stopover for miners set on California, Arizona quickly became a destination itself. Warm winters and low cost of living made the state particularly attractive to older residents, a demographic that would insulate Arizona’s political status as Republican-leaning for most of the Twentieth Century. Real estate entrepreneurs descended on the unoccupied land to build gated retirement communities.

With urban areas sprouting up Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona saw its citrus and cotton industries dwindle. Not only did land become in demand for development, but water became more expensive.

Arizona first participated in the 1912 election and voted for Woodrow Wilson (D-NJ) over a fractious Republican Party. Warren Harding (R-OH) would become the first Republican to carry Arizona in 1920, due to inflation and souring on Wilson’s foreign policy regarding WWI. Republicans would carry Arizona in all elections of the 1920s until Franklin Roosevelt (D-NY) would win landslide victories in the state in all four of his elections, with 1936 being the best showing for any presidential candidate in the state’s history.

Harry Truman (D-MO) would win Arizona in 1948 and until 2020, would be the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry Phoenix’s Maricopa County.

The 1952 election of Dwight Eisenhower (R-KS) would kickstart the state’s long flirtation with the GOP. An older, rural state built on Spanish-Mexican family values, Democrats would have trouble coming within ten points of Arizona for decades.

In 1964, Arizona was one of just six states to back native-son Senator Barry Goldwater (R) over Lyndon Johnson (D-TX), with the other five being Deep Southern states. Goldwater’s iconic status in the state, along with his unique amalgam of political views at the time, allowed him to narrowly retain this state. Arizona would then develop one of the longest Republican voting streaks in the nation, backing the GOP in every election from 1952 until 1992, and then again from 2000 to 2016.

The 1980s saw the beginning of Arizona’s political alignment to what it is today. Northeastern Apache County, which is heavily Navajo, would begin voting Democratic in 1984, while heavily-unionized Greenlee County would start to see slips in its margins by the 1990s. Indicative of union households shifting to the GOP, Greenlee County backed Democrats in every election from 1912 until 1996. Since 2000, it has backed every Republican nominee.

Geography – The Copper State

  1. Grand Canyon Region – The northern third of the state. Includes the Grand Canyon and the cities of Flagstaff, Kayenta, Page, and Kingman. Mostly tourist mountain towns, the Navajo Nation, Las Vegas exurbs. Democratic-leaning.
  2. Sky Island Region – Mountainous southeastern corner of the state, home to unionized Greenlee County, the heavily-transient city of Tucson, and the border county of Cochise County. This area has been home to prime swing districts in the U.S. House. Republican at face value, more competitive down ballot.
  3. Sonoran Region – The central mountains of the state extending from the Mexico border north towards Prescott. Includes Sedona, Phoenix, and the Phoenix suburbs. Tucson’s Pima County is heavily Democratic, while Phoenix’s Maricopa County was once Republican territory. As the area becomes more populated, younger, and more diverse, it continues to drift leftward.
  4. Western Desert Region – The western third of the state from the Mexico border extending to the Las Vegas exurbs. Contains Yuma and small rural towns. Staunchly Republican.

Current Political Leanings – A Quick Turnover

Arizona last voted for a Democrat in 1996, when Baby Boomer Bill Clinton (D-AR) was able to win over voters of his own generation in the laid-back state of Arizona. Joe Biden (D-DE) ended the GOP winning streak with a surprise win in 2020.

However, Democrats’ recent success in Arizona has been as quick as it has been solid. In 2018, Democrats won a Senate seat for the first time in thirty years with Kyrsten Sinema, now an Independent. They also flipped several statewide offices, one House district, and several seats in the state legislature. In 2020, they won the presidential race and the other Senate seat, making it the first time Democrats have simultaneously held both Arizona Senate seats since 1953. In 2022, Democrats won the governor’s mansion for the first time since 2006.
The problem for Republicans: Maricopa County went Democratic in all of those elections.

On top of that, Arizona has one of the closest divided legislatures in the country. Republicans hold both chambers, but with a narrow 16-14 majority in the State Senate and a 31-29 majority in the State House, they barely have any sway against a Democratic governor.

Part of the GOP’s recent string of failures in Arizona has to do with demographics. The state is becoming younger, more populated, more educated, and more diverse. As the suburbs continue to lean leftward, Republicans need to get back in the driver’s seat in Phoenix if they want to remain relevant in the state going forward.

The other problem for the GOP is the state party. Fractious and ambiguous in their vision for the future, they’ve left many voters with no better choices than a party that has consistently lost in the state for decades. And these are voters who are just now learning what it’s like to live in a swing state.

With a marquee Senate race, competitive House districts, and eleven crucial electoral votes on the line in 2024, Arizona will be squarely in the eye of the hurricane this November.

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Matt Meduri has served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Messenger Papers since August 2023. He is the author of the America the Beautiful, Civics 101, and This Week Today columns. Matt graduated from St. Joseph's University, Patchogue, in 2022, with a degree in Human Resources and worked for his family's IT business for three years. He's also a musician and composer with his sights set on the film industry. Matt has traveled all around the U.S. and enjoys cooking, photography, and a good cup of coffee.