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When I saw that CNN’s Jeff Zeleny was in Arizona covering the senators there, I was a little confused. The next election is more than a year away. Plus, Arizona is currently home to the most distracting and strange sideshow in politics — an audit of 2020 votes forced by Republicans in the state and run by a company called Cyber Ninjas with ties to allies of former President Donald Trump.
I reached out to Jeff to ask about his trip and what he’s learning about Arizona and the country.
WHAT MATTERS: Jeff. It’s May of 2021 and the next election isn’t until November of 2022. Why are you in Arizona covering senators?
ZELENY: The Senate has been on a break all week, with senators back in their home states. Two of the most intriguing senators on the Democratic side happen to be from Arizona, so we came out for a few days to explore what voters, business leaders and party officials think about the Biden agenda. Without a single vote to spare, the White House knows that the outlook for President Joe Biden’s ambitions runs straight through Arizona.
In or out on ending the filibuster?
WHAT MATTERS: With Republicans united against Biden’s agenda (stopping the Biden agenda is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s top priority), Democrats are unlikely to get much done this year unless they all agree to change or work around Senate filibuster rules. Where do Arizona’s senators stand on this key issue?
ZELENY: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who in 2018 became Arizona’s first Democrat to win a Senate seat in three decades, has emerged as the biggest defender of the Senate filibuster rules. She believes the senators should change how they work — negotiate, reach across the aisle, find consensus — rather than changing the rules of the Senate by allowing big items to pass on a simple majority of 51 votes rather than the current 60-vote threshold. This has sparked outrage from progressive activists who helped elect her, who believe she is standing in the way of voting rights, immigration and gun control legislation.
Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat who was elected last fall, has taken a far less concrete stand against changing the Senate rules. He has walked a more careful line, saying he would make a judgment about how it affects his constituents in Arizona.
The GOP side
WHAT MATTERS: Who are the Republicans thinking about getting into the 2022 race? What are we learning in Arizona about how tied the party is to Trump?
ZELENY: Even though he just won last fall, Kelly is up for reelection in 2022. It’s the consequence of being elected in a special election, since he is technically filling the remainder of the term won in 2016 by Sen. John McCain.
Get all that? Anyway, Republicans are still on the hunt for a candidate. Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, has a far higher profile and more robust fundraising than your average freshman senator. All of that, along with turmoil inside the Arizona GOP, has complicated efforts to find a strong candidate to challenge him. But it’s still early — the election isn’t until November 2022.
Some people can’t quit 2020
WHAT MATTERS: The other big political story in Arizona is the circus of an after-the-fact recount, forced by the state’s GOP-led Senate and undertaken by a Florida-based company full of Trump supporters. Do people you talk to on the ground, despite all the evidence to the contrary, believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump?
ZELENY: It’s more of an audit or a review than an actual recount. And even that characterization comes with a string of qualifications and explanations. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, which Biden narrowly won, marking only the second time since 1948 that a Democratic presidential candidate carried Arizona. But the Republican-controlled Arizona Senate is commissioning a review of 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and the sprawling metropolitan area. It feeds into the misinformation campaign that Trump and his allies are leading. Voters we talked to who are loyal followers of Trump say they support the review of the ballots, even with no evidence of fraud. Not all mainstream GOP officials agree, including Mesa Mayor John Giles, who dismissed the ballot drama as “political theater being forced on us by some political extremists.”
American parties are quickly shifting
WHAT MATTERS: Arizona is the home of modern conservatism. Mark Kelly’s US Senate seat was once held by both McCain and Barry Goldwater, both of whom lost general elections as the GOP presidential nominee, in 2008 and 1964. (Fun trivia: I can’t think of another seat held by two losing general-election candidates). Goldwater’s landslide loss represented a major shift in US politics — of the South away from Democrats over civil rights. What’s the shift we’re seeing now, at least in terms of your reporting on the ground there?
ZELENY: It’s a bit early to tell whether any major shifts are underway, but Arizona is a key laboratory for just how progressive the Biden agenda will be. Biden narrowly turned the state blue, but Sinema and Kelly are taking a far more pragmatic approach — rather than a progressive one — as they consider the President’s sweeping ambitious plans. It’s a fascinating test for the appetite for moderate Democratic views in a party that has become considerably more progressive in recent years.
Has Arizona changed for good?
WHAT MATTERS: Some states, like Virginia or Colorado, go from red to blue. Others, like Florida, are perennial battlegrounds. Have the politics of Arizona materially changed or is it likely to be a battleground for years to come?
ZELENY: There’s no doubt that changing demographics in Arizona are fueling a change in the state’s long-running conservative leanings. Younger voters, Latino voters and new voters have helped Democrats win seats here. Yet it’s hardly a blue state. A Republican Party here viewed by many as extreme has allowed moderate Democratic candidates like Sinema, Kelly and even Biden to win. The 2022 midterms will be a fascinating test of whether the state shifts back to red or continues its very incremental shift toward the left. But for now, it is cementing itself in the ranks of being a classic battleground state.