PHOENIX — According to the conventional wisdom after last year's presidential election, Barack Obama's victory proved that a number of once reliably red states — Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, among them — were turning blue, perhaps permanently. Even here in Arizona, Obama gave Republican favorite son John McCain a run for his money, and the 2008 election handed a majority of the state's congressional districts to Democrats. The home of Barry Goldwater might not have been truly blue, but it was shading purple.
That was then. Now, with Democrats pushing an agenda of stimulus, cap and trade, and healthcare reform, all opposed by majorities of Republicans and independents, we might be seeing the re-reddening of Arizona — or, rather, the re-emergence of the state that has always been.
"I think Arizona has always been a state that can go blue for individuals, but fundamentally, in terms of attitudes, it remains a libertarian/conservative state," says Margaret Kenski, owner of Arizona Opinion, a Republican-oriented polling firm. Kenski says her polling has consistently shown that about 20 percent of Arizonans describe themselves as liberal, while 35 percent call themselves moderate, 23 percent call themselves somewhat conservative, and 22 percent say they are very conservative. The bottom line: "It's always been a moderately conservative state," Kenski says.
But now, Democrats control five of Arizona's eight congressional seats. Three of those five Democrats — Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords — hail from districts that are largely Republican. Kirkpatrick is a freshman, while Mitchell and Giffords were first elected in 2006, meaning they are all products of elections in which voters rejected GOP candidates because of unhappiness with George W. Bush and the GOP majority in Congress. Now, it is Democrats who are likely to bear the burden of voter discontent.
Kirkpatrick, Mitchell and Giffords all voted for the $787 billion stimulus bill. They all voted for the House national healthcare bill. And Giffords voted for cap and trade. Those won't be easy records to defend in 2010.
"We have three districts in the state that should or could be Republican," says one longtime Arizona politico who asked to be nameless. "Conditions for Republican pickups should be the best we've ever had."
All three vulnerable Democrats are viewed as appealing candidates. "Giffords has a lot of money saved up, she has an image as a pleasant person, and she's married to an astronaut," says Kenski. "Her PR machine will say she's a middle-of-the-road Democrat, but if you look at key votes, she goes counter to the way most Arizonans would have voted." Similar things could be said about the records of Kirkpatrick and Mitchell.
And then there's the Obama effect. The polls here show Obama's job-approval rating has dipped below 50 percent, just as it has nationally. It's hard to see how the president can offer much help to Democrats running in majority-Republican districts.
There seems little doubt that if Republicans run attractive, appealing conservative candidates, they could probably win all three races, which would upend the Arizona delegation and make it six to two in favor of the GOP. The problem is finding those good candidates. "The Republican Party in the state is a mess," says the GOP politico. "It's dysfunctional, rudderless, not accomplishing anything, not even doing the basics of getting out the vote and doing voter-registration drives."
Much of that dissolution occurred during years that Republicans were in control and the GOP got lazy. Now, completely out of power, and with Democrats overreaching, Republicans may be getting their act together. "Like the alcoholics say, we've hit bottom," adds the politico. "Or that's what I'd like to believe."
As far as the Senate is concerned, Arizona's delegation is unlikely to change hands any time soon. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl was elected to a third term in 2006. McCain is up for re-election next year, and may face a primary challenge from the right, in the person of J.D. Hayworth, the radio host and former congressman. But assuming McCain survives the primary, he'll likely be re-elected.
In any event, 2010 is shaping up as a year in which Republicans have the chance to win back some of the ground they lost in 2006 and 2008. And it's not just in Arizona. There is real potential for reddening in other Western states, as well, notably Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
The Democrats' hopes of a massive blue wave changing American politics forever may have been just wishful thinking.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington