There is feverish activity at the Unite Here headquarters in Phoenix. More than 500 volunteers from many states, especially California, received instructions on Monday for final door-to-door rounds to ensure voter turnout – a key element for a Democratic success.
The union represents millions of hotel and restaurant workers, as Beatriz Topete, campaign coordinator, tells me. Originally from Los Angeles, she has been a union organizer for 25 years, has organized workers in California and Hawaii and has been in the Arizona capital since 2019. “When Trump won,” she says, “I asked to be transferred here, where the battle is raging.”
Arizona is at the forefront of the political contest between Democrats and Republicans, which since the advent of Trumpism has taken on the tones of a final battle for the fate of democracy. Here, for example, during the three weeks of early voting, voters handing in their ballots at polling places in Mesa and Maricopa county had to walk past dragnets of armed people in army gear filming them with cameras. It took numerous court challenges to turn away the “observers,” but this affair confirmed once more that the state is one of the epicenters of intimidation and misinformation on which the Republican campaign has hinged.
The election vigilantes are headed by a group called Clean Elections USA, self-styled advocates of “election integrity” with ties to the MAGA wing of the Republican Party and the deniers who still claim that Biden “stole” the presidency from Trump by fraud.
Arizona is no stranger to this phenomenon. In 2020, the traditionally Republican state delivered a snub to the GOP when Biden prevailed by a margin of 11,000 votes. Then, Trump and his team filed numerous and unsuccessful legal challenges, and the state became a focal point of election conspiracists thanks to pressure from groups like Turning Point USA, a kind of Phoenix-based Trumpist youth front that pushed for the mutation of the party of Barry Goldwater and John McCain – local symbols of traditional conservatism – into proponents of intransigent bigotry. In close coordination with Trump, Turning Point USA promoted laws to suppress the minority and labor vote, achieved the purge of “disloyal” officials and sponsored candidates advocating for the “Big Lie.”
In April 2021, the state legislature, now dominated by extremist Republicans, contracted out yet another “auditing” of votes by outsourcing it to a supposedly “specialized” company called Cyber Ninjas. The re-verification of the ballots lasted many weeks, with no real prospects of finding anything notable but with the function of keeping alive the suspicions of the base, useful for denying the validity of election losses in the future.
The hoax of “extensive fraud” in elections has been the focus point of the campaigns of Trumpist candidates who in Arizona are aiming for a number of offices crucial to the political balance of the next two years. Candidate for governor Kari Lake is a former anchorwoman, a radicalized anti-vaxxer who is still denouncing the “theft” of the 2020 election, and has said that the only outcome she will accept on Tuesday is her own victory. Her program, behind the polished news anchor surface, is a carbon copy of the Trumpist repertoire (border wall, mass deportation of immigrants, abortion ban). Here the Democrats are also defending a crucial Senate seat, that of former astronaut Mark Kelly, who is being challenged by Blake Masters, a young ultraconservative financed by Peter Thiel, former founder of PayPal and one of the reactionary godfathers of Silicon Valley together with Elon Musk.
Like other southwestern Sun Belt states, Arizona depends on an economy based on tourism and service industries and there is a demographic divide between elderly white retirees and a young Hispanic workforce (now 30% of the population), with increasingly divergent conceptions of the American Dream. Like the other swing states, Arizona is a “purple” state that the GOP would like to take back and add to the ranks of secessionist red states like Florida and Texas, radicalized strongholds of post-conservative politics.
Arizona is also the home state of Cesar Chavez, a leader in the 1960s and 1970s of the campesino struggles of day laborers imported from Mexico to work in the farm fields of the Imperial Valley and the California breadbasket. The union left is counting on the same grassroots organizing to hold the line. In 2020, Unite Here’s mobilization was instrumental in snatching a narrow victory. Soon after, the organizers moved on to Georgia, bringing in another unprecedented success in that state: the election of two Democratic senators.
This year, however, it looks like an uphill struggle. “The other side is more organized,” Beatriz Topete tells me. “We have encountered more resistance, some of our people have been threatened with physical violence.”
In recent weeks, the union has sent a steady stream of organizers to Arizona to motivate Democratic voters. “We’ve knocked on half a million doors and talked face-to-face with over 100,000 potential voters,” explains Brendan Walsh, campaign manager in Phoenix County, where more than 60% of the electorate is concentrated. “The crisis of democracy that we are seeing poses a direct threat to our unions. The agenda of the new Republican Party is based on intimidation and suppression. If we want to save democracy, we must start here.”
After the vote two years ago, Phoenix was the scene of demonstrations by Trumpists and militiamen besieging polling places to denounce “fraud.” It’s a script that could easily be repeated, especially if the count goes on for a long time. Arizona, like the rest of the country, is holding its breath.