PHOENIX — Felecia Rotellini’s father, who is 104, was incensed when his family took away his car keys two years ago. He was born in a Wyoming company town that no longer exists because the coal company that owned the town is long gone. The town of Cambria, and elsewhere in Wyoming, had many coal-mining immigrants from Italy, including some relatives of Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary, CIA director and White House chief of staff.
Rotellini’s father’s father was a union organizer at a time when that was a more hazardous occupation than his day job of subsurface mining. He died of black lung disease. The organizer’s granddaughter, an apple that did not fall far from the tree, came by her politics by family transmission. She calls herself “a John Kennedy Democrat.”
Petite in size but large in ambition, as chair of Arizona’s Democratic Party she travels constantly in her effort to deliver the state’s 11 electoral votes to Joe Biden, who currently has a lead of up to eight points over Donald Trump in state polls. This is one of three states (the others are Texas and Georgia) where, for Democrats, tomorrow is always full of promise but is always a day away. In 2020, however, Arizona, which has long been emblematic of Sun Belt conservatism, might be where Democrats do unto Trump what he did unto them in 2016. Then he won by carrying three states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania) that had voted Democratic in at least six consecutive presidential elections. Arizona voted for President Truman in 1948. The next year, a harbinger of its conservative-libertarian future, 40-year-old Barry Goldwater, was elected to the Phoenix City Council, en route to the U.S. Senate in 1953 and the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Arizona was the only state to vote Republican in all 11 elections 1952-1992.
It voted for Bill Clinton in 1996, but since then has remained in the Republican fold. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried it by 9.1 percentage points. But in 2016, Trump won 24 of his 30 states by larger margins than the 3.6 percentage points by which he defeated Hillary Clinton (48.7% to 45.1%) in Arizona.
Under its current master, who holds it on a short leash, the Republican Party has difficulties in suburbs, where education levels are high and women . Phoenix, the nation’s fifth-largest city, has suburbs that are cities: Tempe is larger than Providence, Rhode Island, Scottsdale is larger than Salt Lake City, Mesa is larger than St. Louis, Glendale is larger than Des Moines. Phoenix and its suburbs are in Maricopa County, where Hillary Clinton came within 45,000 votes of defeating Trump, and which in 2016 cast 60% of Arizona’s votes. Another 18% come from another two of the state’s 15 counties, Pima (Tucson) and Coconino (Flagstaff).
In 2018, Arizona Democrats won a 5-4 majority in the U.S. House delegation and elected a Democratic U.S. Senator, Kyrsten Sinema. This year the Democratic candidate, former astronaut Mark Kelly, is favored to defeat Sen. Martha McSally. She lost to Sinema but was appointed to the Senate after the death of John McCain. The last time Arizona had two Democratic senators was 1952, when television sets were still novelties.
Rotellini had the misfortune to run for state attorney general in two dreadful years for Democrats, 2010 (during the tea party backlash against George W. Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program — TARP, Obamacare and other grievances) and 2014 (the midterm election during the second term of a president from her party). As she toils to turn Arizona blue, Trump is being helpful.
In his exuberant disregard of constitutional niceties, he “repurposed” (Washington’s preferred euphemism for nullifying Congress’ power of the purse) $30 million appropriated for construction at Arizona’s U.S. Army Fort Huachuca to spend on his $18 billion border wall, which a majority of Arizonans oppose.
Speaking of walls, this year Trump will have to spend time and money to hold Arizona, another increasingly loose brick in the red wall that has protected Republicans’ increasingly narrow path to 270 electoral votes. Two other such bricks are Texas and Georgia. Stay tuned.