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Democrats hope to flip Arizona, as GOP shores up defenses

Democrats are hopeful they'll be able to score wins in a state that last elected a Democrat to the White House nearly three decades ago. Arizona polls seem promising, and Democrats succeeded in winning a Senate seat in 2018, but Republicans say they are ready to defend the state.

Recent surveys of the state show Joe Biden, the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee, leading Mr.  Trump among Arizonans. Biden's lead in polling mostly mirrors that of Democrat Mark Kelly, who is looking to unseat Arizona Republican Senator Martha McSally. 

"To win in November, we are building upon our 2018 infrastructure and momentum that elected Democrats up and down the ballot," Felecia Rotellini, Arizona's Democratic Party Chair, told CBS News in a statement. 

But in interviews with GOP strategists and party officials, Republicans insist they remain confident of their chances to defend the state, banking on a surge of enthusiasm unique to the president's supporters and pouring resources into a years-long effort to build out their operation in Arizona.
 
"In 2016, it was vastly different in that we didn't nearly have the infrastructure on the ground in place, as early, as we do now in Arizona. That's a really important point. We are well-organized and well-funded. And really whatever we need to have, we're able to get," Greg Safsten, executive director of Arizona's Republican Party, tells CBS News. 
 
"The RNC understands, and the president understands, that Arizona is a top priority state and the resources are following," adds Safsten. 
 
Arizona awards 11 votes to the electoral college, enough to outweigh Biden losing in a swing state like Wisconsin or Iowa, both battlegrounds that President Trump won in 2016. 
 
In the Senate, Democrats are six seats away from an outright majority in the chamber. Of the candidates seeking to upset a Republican incumbent this cycle, Kelly has outraised every other Senate hopeful in the country.
 
To win in Arizona, Democrats have looked to Kyrsten Sinema's recent Senate win as a template. In 2018, Sinema ran an aggressively centrist campaign to become the first Democrat to win a Senate seat from Arizona since 1988.
 
Sinema won by more than 60,000 votes even in Maricopa County, Arizona's most populous county, where Republicans outnumber Democrats and Trump bested Clinton in 2016 by more than 40,000 votes.
 
FiveThirtyEight found Sinema, during her career in the House, had joined Trump's position in more than 60% of her votes. On the trail Sinema often broke with Democratic leaders; in an interview with Politico she vowed not to support New York Senator Chuck Schumer to lead her party's caucus. 
 
Biden's campaign has boasted of the boost his candidacy could bring to tough down ballot races, compared to his less moderate rivals, though the former vice president has taken several positions to Sinema's left. 
 
For example, his campaign praises the "Green New Deal" as "a crucial framework." Sinema has opposed it, labeling the bill "political games." 
 
In early May, Biden called for Attorney General William Barr to resign. After Barr met in late May with Sinema, who was one of just three Democrats to vote for his confirmation, Sinema merely "urged" the attorney general to "rise above partisanship."
 
Kelly, who endorsed Biden in March, has also sought to mount a centrist bid and has often derided "polarization."
 
The Arizona Republic reported Kelly voted in a GOP primary as recently as 2012. And Kelly has stopped short of supporting the kind of single-payer healthcare proposals several Senate Democrats had flocked to, though such moves have done little to stop his Republican rival from accusing him of the partisanship he has sought to distance himself from.
 
"The choice in November will come down to either supporting candidates who have been in the arena leading to save lives, provide swift economic relief, hold China accountable, and lower prescription drugs costs," McSally's campaign manager Dylan Lefler tells CBS News in a statement, "or candidates who are on the sidelines and just talk while being associated with an extreme left wing agenda out of step with Arizona."
 
An analysis of the 2018 race by left-leaning data firm Catalist Analytics also linked a number of demographic trends to Sinema's victory. Among them, the firm found, Sinema persuaded 2016 third-party voters and boosted turnout among voters of color. 
 
Advocacy group Mi Familia Vota estimates 17% of the state's registered voters are Latino. And after years lagging in third place behind Republicans and independent voters, a recent surge in registered Democratic voters have propelled the party back into second place among Arizonans.
 
"To win in November, we are building upon our 2018 infrastructure and momentum that elected Democrats up and down the ballot," Felecia Rotellini, Arizona's Democratic Party Chair, told CBS News in a statement.
 
State Democrats claim they are now planning their largest ever effort on the ground, with organizers contacting voters — these days virtually, amid the pandemic — for their coordinated campaign Mission for Arizona, led by former top Kelly campaign aide Emma Brown and manned by hundreds of regular volunteers.
 
In addition to several virtual community events, a Biden spokesperson said the campaign is already collaborating with Democrats in Arizona on communications, data, and technology work. Both Arizona Democrats and Biden's campaign declined to make anyone available for an interview on the record. 
 
Mr. Trump's team claims it has more than 30 staff on the ground recruited from Arizona, accusing Democratic campaigns of needing to "parachute staff" in. More than 5,000 Arizonans have been trained through 915 "leadership initiative" events, the campaign says, as it mounts an effort to turn out Republicans in the state.
 
"In Arizona, it was nearly 200,000 individuals that didn't show up in [2018] that voted for Donald Trump," campaign spokesperson Rick Gorka told CBS News. 
 
"A large part of what we are working on in Arizona and any battleground states is to re-engage those voters, to get our people out to the polls. And we believe we can do that. The president motivates voters in a way like nobody else," added Gorka.
 
Republicans recently marked their 1,500th "MAGA Meetup," gatherings which have continued virtually amid the pandemic. The state GOP also boasted of a surge of individual donors around when Trump last visited the state, contrasting their small-dollar fundraising with "more Tom Steyer money" and "this out-of-state dark money stuff."
 
"It's good to know who you have on the bench. It's another thing to get him out on the field. And we do a great job of that, turning out our people with Trump at the top of the ticket," says Safsten.
 
In 2016, most polls in Arizona showed Mr. Trump narrowly leading his Democratic rival in the final months before the November election. 

"We were still cynical, believing the math. We were kind of an emerging battleground but we did not have a full engagement as a battleground state with early investment," says Luis Heredia, who served as political director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 primary bid in the state. Heredia now leads Arizona's largest teachers union.

"I think we were kind of flirted with, as a battleground," added Heredia.

"Now, we have a battleground state status that is real. We would not have had Trump visiting our state today," he said later.
 
While President Trump's three hours in Arizona this week were not billed as a campaign event, Wednesday's trip to Phoenix marked Trump's second visit to the state in under three months.
 
Joe Biden would have made his first appearance of the cycle in Arizona on March 15, for a Democratic presidential debate in Phoenix. But the event was moved to a Washington, D.C., studio over concerns of the COVID-19 outbreak. 
 
"I love Arizona. I have a lot of friends in Arizona. I've had great success over the years in Arizona," the president remarked Wednesday as he departed Phoenix.

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