Cross-Post: How GOP Overreach Put Arizona Back in Play

POSTED: February 22, 8:00 AM ET | By Terry Greene Sterling for Rolling Stone.

The Republican presidential carnival descends on Arizona tonight, with the four remaining contenders for the GOP nod squaring off in Mesa for a high-stakes debate days ahead of the state’s Feb. 28 primary vote. The latest polling has Rick Santorum closing in on Mitt Romney, whose chances weren’t helped over the weekend when his campaign’s Arizona co-chair, the Tea Party-leaning immigration hardliner Sheriff of uber-conservative Pinal County, Paul Babeu, was outed by a Mexican immigrant gay lover he called “Papi.”

The debate promises to be good – if at times disturbing – theater, especially in light of what social media wags swiftly dubbed “Papigate.” Expect Romney and Santorum to pander to their party’s powerful right-wing fringe via thinly veiled immigrant bashing. Arizona, after all, under Tea Party Republican leadership, set the standard for mean-spirited anti-immigrant laws with the notorious SB 1070, which made it a crime for an unauthorized migrant to step on state soil. Arizona is also home to “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” Maricopa County’s ever-popular Joe Arpaio, who brought back voluntary chain gangs, made racial profiling a key law-enforcement tool, and forced inmates to wear pink underwear. (Tellingly, it didn’t hurt him with state Republicans last year when the Justice Department concluded he had fostered in his department “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.”)

But don’t be misled by Wednesday night’s hysterics. Arizona just looks like a hyper-conservative stronghold. Beneath the surface, Democrats believe, the state’s political tectonics are shifting in favor of moderates. And though Barack Obama faces a steep climb here this fall, Democrats are energized as never before and think they have a real shot at turning Arizona blue.

Progressives are buoyed by a cascade of recent political events. Redrawn congressional and state district maps give Arizona Democrats a fighting chance to win five out of nine congressional seats, a U.S. Senate seat, and perhaps five more seats in the GOP-dominated Arizona Senate.  The Latino electorate, deeply angered by the state’s draconian immigration laws, is galvanized. And the most powerful Republican in Arizona just lost a recall election.

Encouraged, the Democratic Party has poured money and research into Arizona in recent months and set in motion a strategy of expanding the electorate by signing up thousands of Hispanics and young voters in registration drives, and courting Independents with moderate Democrat candidates.  And at the top of the Arizona Democratic ticket, running for U.S. Senate (assuming he wins the primary), is Richard Carmona, a former U.S. Surgeon General under George H.W. Bush and a moderate Hispanic.

Carmona will likely battle U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, a Mormon conservative, who currently leads in the polls. But Arizona is unpredictable. The state went blue for Bill Clinton. Barack Obama didn’t spend much money in Arizona in 2008, and was surprised to lose by only eight points to native son John McCain. Arizona’s two most prominent governors were moderate Democrats – Bruce Babbitt and Janet Napolitano. (Had Napolitano not stepped down in 2009 to become President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, she would likely have vetoed SB1070.)  Progressive strategists figure those wins weren’t flukes, but rather a sign that Arizonans vote for candidates, not parties.  And Democrats predict an Arizona victory will signal that the once-conservative American West is actually the nation’s new electoral battleground.