Arizona is at the center of the political universe: From the Politics Desk

Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, we examine how Arizona is now at the center of the political universe. Plus, chief political analyst Chuck Todd explains why it’s getting more difficult for politicians to find the middle.

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2024’s biggest fights are all converging in Arizona

By Alex Tabet, Adam Edelman, Bridget Bowman and Vaughn Hillyard 

The Arizona Supreme Court ruling upholding a 160-year-old, near-total ban on abortion sent a shock through the state — and cemented its place at the center of politics in 2024.

The campaigns: Arizona and its 11 electoral votes will once again be critical in the presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump after just 10,000 votes separated them in the state in 2020. To that point, Vice President Kamala Harris announced a trip Friday to Arizona hours after the state Supreme Court’s abortion decision was announced.

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Voters will decide critical races for the U.S. Senate and House with both chambers closely divided. Republican Kari Lake, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2022, and Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego are already locked in a heated race to replace independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. And GOP Reps. David Schweikert and Juan Ciscomani are bracing for tough battles to hold onto their toss-up districts. (Lake, Schweikert and Ciscomani all condemned the state Supreme Court’s abortion ruling, while Trump said it went too far.)

Republicans are also trying to hold state legislative majorities that could not be thinner: a 31-29 advantage in the state House and a 16-14 seat advantage in the state Senate.

The issues: An amendment enshrining abortion rights in the Arizona constitution will also likely be on the November ballot, putting a stark choice directly before voters. Of the 11 states where abortion could be on the ballot this fall, Arizona is arguably the most competitive. And after the state Supreme Court’s decision on what’s now one of the strictest abortion bans in the country, the ballot measure could potentially drive an influx of otherwise disengaged voters to the polls.  

Plus, there are yearslong fights over election procedures and immigration that are still running hot in the state.

The demographics: This is all occurring against the backdrop of Arizona’s rapidly changing demographics, which highlight many of the major trends buffeting U.S. politics.

Arizona has the largest Latino population share of any core battleground state, according to the Census Bureau; the nation’s biggest battleground county in Maricopa, a former Republican stronghold where more than 2 million people voted in 2020 and Biden narrowly won; increasingly MAGA-fied rural counties racing in the other direction; and the nation’s biggest university by in-person enrollment in Arizona State University.

In short, Arizona will show how different groups are grappling with the most pressing issues in the 2024 election — and could decide the balance of power in Washington next year and beyond. 

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Politicians need the middle to win. It’s getting harder for them to find it.

Analysis by Chuck Todd

It’s not easy leading a political party these days. In a world where the expectation is that political positions are binary, with nuance not allowed, trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all position, be it on Middle East policy or reproductive rights, is quite the challenge.

No longer can someone paper over an actual point of view with the “spirit” of a political position. Biden has long been a supporter of Israel, but that hasn’t bought him much time with a Democratic base that’s growing increasingly skeptical of the Israeli government’s ability to carry out a just war.

And that brings me to Trump’s attempts to soften opposition to him over the rise of restrictive abortion laws around the country.

Ironically, Trump’s controversial position shouldn’t, in theory, be controversial in the GOP. Trump is simply espousing what the party said it supported for decades before the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision: Leave it to the states. But abortion conservatives want to go further with a federal limit. As is now fairly clear, simply returning the decision over reproductive rights to the states wasn’t really the goal of the anti-abortion movement pre-Dobbs. The goal was to roll back access to abortion, in whatever expedient way they could find.

Yet saying that last sentence as directly as I wrote it is unpopular. Had the GOP owned the idea of rolling back access more directly, instead of hiding behind its states-rights position, it would most likely been forced to reckon with its unpopular abortion position sooner.

But here we are, and Trump is learning the hard way that there is no middle ground on abortion inside the GOP, at least not in a post-Dobbs world. The country is quickly dividing into two camps on abortion rights: pro-access and anti-access. Pre-Dobbs, you could argue, there was a middle ground around access to abortion up until viability, which is about 24 weeks. But Dobbs changed the policy boundaries of what was possible, taking away elusive middle ground.

Both candidates would love to avoid talking about Gaza, and Trump would love nothing more than to stop discussing abortion, as well. Ultimately, I view the Dobbs decision as existential — and it’s most likely papering over lots of other divides in this country, because many affected voters view abortion rights as fundamental. And when an issue is fundamental for the way people live, they’ll vote on it over and above many other issues.

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🗞️ Today’s top stories

  • 👀 Flying south: As he faces threats to his job from his right flank, House Speaker Mike Johnson will travel to Mar-a-Lago on Friday to discuss “election integrity” with Trump. Read more →
  • ☑️ Veepstakes: Independent presidential candidate Cornel West announced that Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at the California State University, Los Angeles, will be his running mate. Read more →
  • 3️⃣ Third-party threats: Trump’s allies are discussing ways to elevate third-party candidates like West, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jill Stein to hurt Biden in key battleground states, The New York Times reports. Read more →
  • 💸 Team of rivals: Ron DeSantis told donors and supporters at a private retreat that he plans to help raise money for Trump’s campaign, though it remains unclear if the former president’s team wants the Florida governor’s help. Read more →
  • ⚖️ Sentencing: Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, was sentenced to five months in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of perjury last month in his testimony during the former president’s civil fraud trial. Read more →
  • ⬇️ ‘On life support’: Senate Republicans are inching closer toward sinking a child tax credit bill that passed the House earlier this year on an overwhelming bipartisan vote. Read more →
  • 📱 Influencer-in-chief: Biden’s recent battleground state tour focused on smaller, more intimate events rather than big rallies. The goal was not to draw big crowds, but to create digital content to reach disengaged voters who have soured on his presidency. Read more →

That’s all from The Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at politicsnewsletter@nbcuni.com

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