David Garcia isn’t playing it safe this election cycle.
“This year is about making a statement. That’s what’s going to win,” the Democratic gubernatorial candidate said at a July 10 debate.
In other words: Go bold or go home.
Capitalizing on fired up Democrats and a growing national trend of leftist momentum, Garcia is running a bold, progressive campaign for governor.
But Garcia’s recent calls to overhaul the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency may have been a step too far, and the resistance he has received could be a sign that unapologetic progressivism won’t play well in Arizona this election cycle.
In the midst of a three-way Democratic primary for governor, Garcia has emerged as one of the more left-leaning candidates. He is running to the left of Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, and Garcia’s liberalism is topped only by Kelly Fryer, a Democrat in the periphery of the race.
Garcia is pushing to completely undo the embattled immigration and customs agency in favor of a new immigration system. While Garcia has been careful not to use the words “abolish” and “ICE” in the same sentence when discussing his policy stance, his ultimate goal is a “top-to-bottom” overhaul of ICE in favor of something that looks completely different.
In a sense, it’s #AbolishICE lite.
“It is ultimately about getting to an immigration system that matches our values, and to me, that is a system that obviously has security but it allows the entrance, the legal entrance, of folks into the United States,” Garcia said.
Arizona’s governor has no power to tear down, replace or alter the federal agency.
Garcia’s campaign argues that the difference between his views and the national abolish ICE movement is that Garcia is calling for some type of immigration-focused agency to replace ICE.
The #AbolishICE movement grew from a Twitter hashtag to a vocal national campaign with the help of a small, but mighty group of national progressive Democrats. The movement gained traction when Democratic heavyweights, such as, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand jumped on board.
Supporters of the #AbolishICE movement are not all on the same page. Some want to do away the federal agency entirely with no replacement. But others like Gillibrand want to tear it down, reimagine immigrations enforcement and build something new to take the place of ICE. Garcia, who has distanced himself from that hashtag, has views in the same vein.
Garcia’s stance also sounds similar to that of his primary opponent Kelly Fryer, who called for ICE to be dismantled in favor of a new immigration solution. Fryer has embraced the abolish ICE movement.
Farley does not support abolishing ICE, though he has called for reforming the federal agency.
Regardless of Garcia’s word choice on ICE, he may as well have drawn a target on his back as soon as the words left his mouth.
Lobbyist Stan Barnes said in the long run, Garcia will regret taking a stance on ICE.
“That is among the greatest gubernatorial candidate blunders I have seen in my 30 years,” he said. “Gov. [Doug] Ducey is going to make him own those words.”
Ducey and outside groups have already come out swinging against Garcia and Fryer for their comments on ICE.
The day after Garcia called for dramatic changes at the immigrations agency, Ducey published an opinion piece in USA Today calling the #AbolishICE movement “wrong and reckless.” Ducey did not mention Garcia in the op-ed, nor did he call him out when he criticized calls to abolish ICE on a local radio show this week.
Ducey is keeping the hot-button issue in the public eye by holding a telephone town hall meeting on border security and his anti-abolish ICE stance, and sending a letter to Arizona’s congressional delegation regarding abolish ICE legislation .
The Republican Governors Association started running ads the week of July 16 against Garcia and Fryer, pegging them as “radicals” for wanting to upend ICE. The ad targeting Garcia does not mince words, and lambastes him for calling to abolish ICE.
Garcia said in a video posted on social media the ads are a distraction from Ducey’s failure to invest in K-12 education.
“Ducey can distract all he wants, but the truth is kids are in cages and our schools are falling apart. … Ducey, I’m coming for you,” he said.
This week, national political observers said the RGA’s ad buys for Ducey — the most recent ads and those coinciding with the “Red for Ed” strike — could signal the governor may face a tougher re-election battle than originally thought.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics moved the Arizona governor’s race from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican” with pundits speculating Ducey could face a dogfight this fall.
A new poll from Data Orbital could also spell trouble for Garcia.
Arizonans overwhelmingly oppose abolishing ICE, according to the poll that shows only 17 percent of the 550 likely voters surveyed support collapsing the federal agency. According to the poll, 64 percent of people oppose abolishing ICE and 19 percent were undecided.
The call to abolish ICE is wildly unpopular among Republicans, but it’s not exactly popular with Arizona Democrats either. More Democrats — 39 percent — oppose abolishing ICE than the 35 percent of Democratic respondents that support calls to cut the federal agency.
As a border state, Arizona has always leaned right on immigration, said Data Orbital President George Khalaf.
“If this is an issue that he [Garcia] is going to choose to run on, I think it’s going to be a mistake,” Khalaf said.
Calling Garcia an “extreme” candidate, Ducey’s campaign spokesman Patrick Ptak said Garcia is trying to nuance his unpopular position now that he has seen voters’ strong opposition to abolishing ICE.
“First it was free college and health care without a plan to pay for it,” Ptak said in a text message. “Now it’s abolishing ICE. This is just another example that David Garcia is the most extreme candidate for governor Arizona has ever seen. His consistent pandering to the radical Left would put the safety and security of every Arizonan at risk, not to mention bankrupt our state.”
Garcia’s nuanced take on ICE shows the fine line he is toeing as a progressive candidate running for statewide office in a center-right state that has shown little love for far-left liberals.
Typically, only moderate Democrats win higher office in Arizona, Khalaf said, citing U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and former Gov. Janet Napolitano. Sinema, who is now seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake, has carved out a centrist niche for herself, and is running as a moderate, just like Napolitano did in 2002.
Now, Sinema is a bellwether of Democratic success to the point that Khalaf views her as a litmus test for Arizona Democrats.
“If she’s not calling for it, I think there’s a reason why other Democrats aren’t calling for it,” Khalaf said. Sinema has spoken out against calls to abolish ICE.
Nationally, the Democratic Party is still reeling from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in a New York congressional district over establishment Democrat Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent. Ocasio-Cortez ran boldly to the left of her opponent and won, popularizing calls to abolish ICE in the process.
But Arizona doesn’t share the same political landscape as more liberal states like New York and California, Khalaf said.
In 2014, Fred DuVal lost the governor’s race to Ducey. The nail in the coffin for DuVal was when he said he opposed Arizona’s parental-consent law for a minor receiving an abortion, Khalaf said. Duval’s response was caught on tape, and he started tanking in the polls as the video gained traction, Khalaf said.
“It’s Arizona,” Khalaf said. “You can’t go too far to the left on sensitive issues like abortion and immigration.”
Running a left-leaning campaign could be a winning strategy for Garcia in the primary, but it may not give him adequate time to pivot to attract a wider base of support before the general election, Khalaf said.
Speaking more generally, Arizona Democratic Party Chairwoman Felecia Rotellini said Arizona voters are growing more open to embracing progressive values. The people moving into retirement communities in places like Sun City were teenagers in the 1960s so they understand the need for access to affordable health insurance, bettering public education and protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, she said.
The Republican agenda in Arizona is out of touch, she said, citing the special election in congressional district eight. Debbie Lesko won the seat in April by only five points — in a district President Donald Trump won by 21 points in 2016 — which gave Democrats newfound hope this election cycle.
“That is a story about change, and a shifting that’s happening amongst voters who have become awake to the fact that the Republican agenda and policies for the last two decades have failed us,” she said.
Immigration is sure to be a hot topic in Arizona this election cycle, and Democrats are hoping the hot-button issue could be a motivating factor to get Latino voters to the polls.
But it’s not clear if taking a position on ICE resonates with Latinos, who have long shied away from Arizona politics.
For non-Latinos, immigration issues are often just viewed as political rhetoric, said Joseph Garcia, director of Arizona State University’s Latino Public Policy Center, and who is of no relation to David Garcia. But Latinos view legislation dealing with deportations or separating immigrant families at the border as a personal affront, he said.
Immigration issues could absolutely be the key to driving up Latino voter participation this fall, Garcia said.
“When politics becomes personal, in that it affects you personally, individually and directly, that often serves as a motivating factor to go out and vote,” he said.
As for calls to replace or abolish ICE, Garcia couldn’t say if that is an issue motivating Latino voters. There’s obviously anger and frustration associated with the agency, but calling for an agency overhaul may not be as successful a strategy as speaking out against family separations at the border — a policy that was pretty much universally criticized, he said.
Civic engagement group One Arizona, which was formed after the fight over controversial SB 1070, is working to register new Latino voters ahead of the upcoming elections.
The group has registered about 50,000 new voters so far this year, said Montserrat Arredondo, One Arizona’s executive director.
Immigration issues come up when talking to voters, but even months after the “Red for Ed” teachers strike, education is the top issue for most Latino voters One Arizona has talked to, Arredondo said.
“The candidates that are talking about education and the candidates that are talking about keeping families together are speaking to what we’re hearing from the community,” she said.