Year of the Woman? In Arizona, It’s Women, Plural, and It’s Both Parties

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Planned Parenthood volunteers standing among pro-gun protesters and others attending the March for Our Lives in Phoenix last month. Credit Deanna Alejandra Dent for The New York Times

PHOENIX — Melinda Merkel Iyer was a stay-at-home mother and political novice when Donald J. Trump was elected president. She didn’t sleep that night. The next day, Ms. Iyer pored over the state legislature’s website, discovered how to track bills, and soon turned her notes on thwarting conservative proposals into a do-it-yourself newsletter.

Five months later, Ms. Iyer was live-tweeting from the statehouse to rouse alarm over a school voucher bill that looked likely to pass. Together with Save Our Schools, an alliance of educators and parents that sprang from a postelection Facebook group, she helped collect more than 100,000 signatures against the bill — forcing the issue to a referendum on the ballot this fall.

“We’re not going to sit back anymore and let policies go through in the middle of the night,” Ms. Iyer said recently at the Arizona Capitol Museum coffee shop. “I never thought I’d be in a place where I’d know the Koch brothers lobbyists by sight — and they’d know me.”

If this is the Year of the Woman in politics, few places are a better showcase than Arizona, where a surge of female activists and candidates is reshaping policy debates and campaign conversations up and down the ballot. In a way, it’s only fitting: Arizona, long an emblem of conservatism, also has a history of shattering stereotypes about women in power. The state leads the nation in electing women as governor — two Democrats and two Republicans — and ties with Vermont for the highest proportion of women in legislatures at 40 percent.

Arizona is a coveted target for Democrats, who hope to flip House seats and the state legislature. Yet party leaders have repeatedly tried and failed to win big here. Hillary Clinton held out hope of carrying Arizona in 2016, but Donald Trump won by more than three percentage points. The state has elected deeply conservative leaders like former Gov. Jan Brewer, and it has been a testing ground for harsh immigration policies later embraced by Mr. Trump. Women are playing leading roles in both parties, with Republicans fielding strong female candidates at all levels — a reminder after Mrs. Clinton’s loss that women do not vote in a bloc.

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The state embodies dynamics seen across the country. Shocked and despairing at Mr. Trump’s election, women on the left concluded they had been complacent and are now diving into politics, many for the first time. Democrats are hoping to capitalize on a growing Hispanic electorate; Republicans are testing whether their close embrace of the president helps or hurts.

Among the state’s marquee races is an all-out fight for the Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, with candidates including Representative Martha McSally, the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot; Kelli Ward, a former state senator and hard-right politician known for her conspiracy theories; and Joe Arpaio, the sheriff whose anti-immigrant stances cost him his job in 2016 on the Republican side. Representative Kyrsten Sinema is running against another woman and several men on the Democratic side. On the state level, January Contreras, a Democrat, is the first Latina to run for state attorney general.

There’s also a #MeToo-inflected special election to replace Representative Trent Franks, who resigned under pressure in a sexual harassment scandal. On April 24, Debbie Lesko, a former state senator who beat 11 Republican male primary challengers as a full-throated Trump supporter, will face off against Hiral Tipirneni, a doctor and political newcomer who trained with Emerge America, one of several groups that recruit Democratic women to run for office.

Still, Arizona remains a state that has not had a Democratic senator since 1995 and where Republicans have the trifecta of governor and both houses of the legislature. Entrenched conservative values will clash this year with a liberal fervor that often plays out at the local level, in grinding, unglamorous work.

This surge of activism is engaging women of all ages and backgrounds, but tensions are already flaring between women on the left and the center about whom to endorse. Advice and training are pouring in from a bevy of national organizations, including Planned Parenthood and Indivisible, another of the “resistance” groups that published a widely downloaded organizing guide.

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Political activists last month in Peoria, Ariz., preparing for a canvassing event before a congressional special election between two women on April 24. Credit Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times
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Jennifer Eisel of Stand Indivisible Arizona passed information about the coming special election to a potential voter last month in Peoria. Credit Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

Women make up a majority of Indivisible’s ranks in Phoenix; they hold weekly protests, canvass for candidates and convene summit meetings, including a visit from the strategists who ran the ground game for the recent Democratic gains in the Virginia state legislature. Julie Golding, a financial analyst, maintains an “AZ Resist” calendar of activities across the state that logs between 30 and 60 events a day.

Democrats continue to hope that they can win votes by increasing turnout among Arizona’s large and growing Hispanic population. Ana Maria Escobedo, an entrepreneur, joined Indivisible determined to rally more Hispanics to register; she is knocking on doors to enlist new voters, and proudly recounted how she and an avid Trump supporter spent all night talking at a wedding so she could rebut him point by point.

Sustaining this momentum is far from assured. “People are angry,” said Kate Fisher, who corrals volunteers for Planned Parenthood. “But to translate that into activists who will be here in November — that’s the challenge.” On top of her day job as an engineer at Arizona State University, Ms. Fisher devotes nights and weekends to juggling schedules for voter registration, inviting volunteers to dinner and guiding them to political organizing tools like the Voter Action Network, a database that tracks voter records and assesses who’s persuadable.

Other women have geared up to run for local offices where Republicans have enjoyed considerable success, with the party controlling 32 state legislatures to Democrats’ 13. Jennifer Jermaine interrupted her maternity leave after the election to post a call on Facebook for a new group she christened Stronger Together Arizona to mobilize community action including voter registration. Within 10 days, she said she had 10,000 members and 1,000 women attended the first meeting on Nov. 20; they in turn spun off Save Our Schools Arizona, which capitalizes on growing anger about education cuts.

“The moms of Arizona got pissed off and decided to do something,” she said. Now she is collecting signatures to appear on the ballot to challenge a Republican state representative.

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Mickey Tucker, left, a founder of Desert Progressives, puts a stamp on a finished card at a postcard party at a Panera Bread last month in Phoenix. Credit Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times
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Ms. Tucker counts finished cards at the postcard party in Phoenix. Credit Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

This influx of newly involved women meshes and sometimes clashes with years of political action by a growing cadre of Hispanics enraged by anti-immigrant policies. Carmen Cornejo, chairwoman of Chicanos Por La Causa and a longtime advocate for the Dreamers, said an early example and playbook for many of today’s mobilization efforts in the Latino community was the recall of the State Senate president, Russell Pearce, in 2011 and the defeat of Mr. Arpaio in 2016.

Several longtime Hispanic advocates welcome the swell of activism, but say that some of the newcomers failed to defer to their experience, heed their strategic advice, or embrace their political priorities.

“They need to trust that women of color can be strategists,” said Alejandra Gomez, co-executive director of Lucha, a local advocacy group. “We know we’re in it for the long haul. We want these women to also be in it for the long haul, not just this fired-up moment.”

Ms. Gomez’s commitment was forged by personal experience. She is a citizen, but her father was not until recently, and the family left California in 1999 as anti-immigrant sentiment swelled, only to encounter it again in Arizona. She, like some other Hispanic activists and progressive groups, has balked at what she sees as a lessening of commitment on immigration issues by Democrats like Ms. Sinema who are trying to woo independents and moderate Republicans. Ms. Cornejo says she hopes young activists will eventually accept a candidate like Ms. Sinema to stave off harsher measures that Republicans endorse; Ms. Gomez once admired her but now says she would not back her. Ms. Sinema’s office declined to comment.

As these tensions play out among Democrats, Republican women are also vying to claim an Arizona heritage that has embraced feisty women stretching back to the state’s frontier and rancher roots.

As a former fighter pilot given to blunt pronouncements, Ms. McSally fits this mold and is most pundits’ bet to oppose Ms. Sinema for Senate. According to a tally of statewide and congressional races kept by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, so far more Democratic women than Republican ones are running for state and congressional seats in Arizona, but Republican women remain formidable in the state.

One early test of Republican strength may be the special election.

Ms. Tipirneni, in an echo of Democratic national strategy, is hoping to carve out support from independents and moderate Republicans through her embrace of health care and opposition to a school voucher plan Ms. Lesko backed.

But Ms. Lesko has several advantages: years in the state legislature; a district where far more Republicans voted in the primary than Democrats; and an electorate she says is majority pro-Trump, even as she has called on the president to address accusations of sexual improprieties. She also says her own history as an abused wife who mustered the courage to leave her first husband more than 25 years ago has resonated with other women.

For her part, Ms. Iyer is relishing her transition from suburban mother to legislative scourge. She posted her first newsletter on Facebook, reaching about 350 friends; now she posts it on a civic engagement site and estimates it reaches about 35,000 people. In the days after the presidential election, she discovered Arizona’s Request to Speak program, which allows a verified voter to register an opinion on a bill and ask to appear before the legislature. At first, she said, she noticed a lawmaker rolling his eyes and others texting under the table as she spoke.

But after the successful Save Our Schools petition drive and her attendance at statewide protests calling for teachers’ raises, she recounted a different attitude: “They know when we sit in their office that there are thousands more like us.”

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