Democrats and the Obama campaign continue to insist Arizona is on the list of potential Obama pickups in November. Republicans continue to insist that idea is lunacy.
But Republicans are now hedging on earlier assertions that the Grand Canyon State is a pipe dream for Democrats. The Republican National Committee told TPM Wednesday that they consider Arizona in the same category as Missouri and Indiana — states that seem safely red, but can’t be ignored. Republicans have an emergency battle plan ready to go just in case things in Arizona start going the way Democrats hope they will.
“We’ve worked with the state party there to put together a victory plan,” said RNC communications director Kirsten Kukowski. “If something does turn, and we need to start putting resources there, we are ready to do so. But there are absolutely no plans to put resources into Arizona right now.”
Democrats have said for months that Arizona offers Obama a chance to pick up some new electoral college votes in November. The state’s SB 1070 immigration law, they reason, has polarized and activated the state’s fast-rising Latino population to turn out and support Obama, whose administration challenged the law in federal court.
In a web video sent to supporters Wednesday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina reiterated the campaign’s commitment to Arizona. Key to Democrats’ strategy, Messina says, will be voter registration.
“If 2008 taught us anything, it’s that we can’t count on anyone’s old map, even ours. We need new ways to put every state into play,” he says. “That’s why we hired new staff in Arizona this April. It wasn’t a swing state last time around, but if we can help register the hundreds of thousands of eligible voters who missed out in 2008, we can put it on the table this November.”
The Obama campaign already has a handful of field offices up and running in Arizona, and the state continually comes up in conversations with Democrats about the 2012 map, though campaign staffers readily admit it will be an “uphill climb.”
Publicly, national Republicans have been unfazed by suggestions that Arizona is within reach for Democrats.
“The Obama team is setting up a mirage that somehow Arizona is going to be an Obama state or in play,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters in April. “It’s a Republican state, it’s a red state.”
Despite SB 1070, or perhaps because of it, Priebus didn’t put Arizona on the list of states to which the RNC is dispatching Latino outreach directors to work full time. Instead, the RNC is focusing its Latino outreach on Florida, Colorado and states that border Arizona like New Mexico and Nevada. Latino voters are key to the Democratic strategy in the state, and for now the Democrats have them all to themselves.
Kukowski said Republicans believe Obama is trying to lure Romney into pouring resources into Arizona that could be used in actual swing states. But the GOP has ignored other seemingly “safe” states before, at its peril. As Molly Ball noted earlier this month, Obama’s win in Virginia in 2008 surprised and embarrassed Republicans, who refused to invest money in a state they believed to be firmly in their corner. Meanwhile, Obama built a sophisticated ground game there that allowed him to flip the state.
The commonwealth had never seen such a blitz, from the 75 Campaign for Change field offices that dotted every corner of Virginia’s vast geography to the $25 million in Obama television ads. It wasn’t just a matter of the Republicans’ limited financial resources — John McCain’s campaign spent less than $8 million on ads in the state — it was that the GOP was fatally slow to wake up to the previously unthinkable prospect of losing the upper bound of the Confederacy.
Kukowski said the GOP won’t get played again.
“We can’t be caught off guard like we were in 2008 when all of a sudden [Obama operatives] were leaving Michigan and Wisconsin to go to Indiana. And nobody expected Indiana to ever be on the map and we were caught flat-footed,” she said. “We can’t do that. This is too serious of a business. So we’re going to be looking at [Arizona] and we’re going to be ready.”
Republicans on the ground generally agree with the national GOP’s strategy. Jason Rose, an Arizona GOP consultant who advised Mitt Romney in Arizona in 2008 and is a Romney supporter this time around, said the chances Obama wins there are remote — but he said that Republicans should probably keep an eye out.
“I think it’s a fair question to ask, ‘Is Arizona going to be the new North Carolina? The new Virginia? The new Colorado?’ That’s possible, but for next cycle, not this cycle,” Rose said. He pointed to Arizona’s Mormon population and what he said was support for SB 1070 among many voters in the state as signs the electorate just isn’t ready to flip.
“What’s going to be the lightning bolt that allows Obama to have 1996 all over again?” Rose said, referring to Bill Clinton’s win over Bob Dole in Arizona that year. Rose said he doesn’t see one.
Rose said polling will be a critical barometer.
“You look at that 6 percent to 10 percent [polling lead] range,” he said. “If you start dropping below that, yeah, you start saying, ‘hey, what’s going on here?”
Polling of Arizona has so far been sparse, but the TPM Poll Average shows Romney ahead by a margin of 47.7 percent to 43.4 percent. The RNC declined to say whether there’s a polling range it might use to indicate whether to take the emergency plan out of its back pocket.
“It’s too far out at this point to put a number on it,” Kukowski said. “It’s May. It’s too early.”