MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Arizona and Georgia are two states that were Republican strongholds for years. That is until big recent wins for Democrats, including in the U.S. Senate. A senator from each state is up for reelection next year. Both are Democrats, but they're using two different strategies for holding on to those seats and keeping the Democratic majority. WABE's Emma Hurt and KJZZ's Ben Giles explore the case.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock spent a recent tour of the state championing President Biden's massive infrastructure plan. He stopped at Blue Bird in middle Georgia, a leader in electric school bus manufacturing.
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RAPHAEL WARNOCK: Look at that bus. What year is that?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 1948 - that's the first all-American we built here in Fort Valley.
HURT: Warnock thinks the federal government needs to step in and bolster clean energy like it did with the federal highway system, and he doesn't shy away from the idea of raising taxes on corporations to pay for it.
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WARNOCK: None of us would be here enjoying any of this kind of prosperity without those kinds of federal investments. And so we're just asking for the corporate community, as part of the American family, to do your part; pay your fair share.
HURT: This is a dramatic change for Georgia, which has had Republican senators for nearly two decades. But to Jeremy Halbert-Harris, a Democratic strategist who worked on the Senate runoff campaigns, it makes perfect sense.
JEREMY HALBERT-HARRIS: We delivered the Senate majority by running close and delivering the message of the president and delivering on what we exactly said we were doing.
HURT: By talking about clean energy and championing Biden's agenda, he says, Warnock is doing what Georgians elected him to do.
BEN GILES, BYLINE: Outside a semiconductor factory in Chandler, Ariz., Senator Mark Kelly doesn't mention Biden's infrastructure plan. He's focused on jobs and COVID relief. When he has mentioned Biden, Kelly has criticized the president's handling of the Arizona-Mexico border.
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MARK KELLY: We've got a problem, and the federal government has failed on this issue for decades now. Washington has to do better. I think Arizonans are fed up, so I'm just going to call it like I see it.
GILES: Progressive advocate Emily Kirkland worries Kelly is being swept up in a GOP border narrative focused on security not immigration reform. Instead, Kirkland wants to hear Kelly talk about the Biden agenda - infrastructure, clean energy, expanded access to child care.
EMILY KIRKLAND: The thing that voters are ultimately going to care about most is, what can he deliver? What can he point to in 2022 and say, this is how I made your life better?
GILES: But Kelly's positions reflect his campaign promises to the state's diverse electorate. One-third of Arizona voters are independent. A centrist streak has provided Democrats here with a winning formula.
HURT: Meanwhile, in Georgia, Democrats have a different formula. Their strategy has moved to the left with their base. Congresswoman Nikema Williams is also chair of the state party.
NIKEMA WILLIAMS: What I heard in my time leading up to my running for chair is that people would be very upset and say, well, if I can't tell the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans on the ballot, then why do I even need to bother in turning out to vote?
HURT: She says today's party is focused on energizing voters, targeting marginalized communities directly rather than trying to be, quote, "Republican light." Stefan Turkheimer is a Democratic strategist from Georgia who has also worked in Arizona.
STEFAN TURKHEIMER: The theory of Georgia Democrats isn't about persuading the middle right now. It's about motivating the base. So the idea is you're not trying to get Catholics to convert to Baptists. You're trying to get Baptists to go to church.
HURT: That's why, he says, you see Georgia's senators campaigning on and talking about progressive issues.
GILES: Arizona progressives see what's happening in Georgia and hope Kelly will follow suit. But Kirk Adams, a former state House speaker and Republican strategist, says appealing to Arizona's progressive base alone won't get Kelly reelected.
KIRK ADAMS: Statewide elections in Arizona are decided by, in the industry, what are termed soft Democrats, soft Republicans and independents. They are not going to be bound by the views and the opinions of the activists in either party.
GILES: Another progressive advocate, Alejandra Gomez, is aware of that political reality but says Arizona's progressive base can't be taken for granted.
ALEJANDRA GOMEZ: While you can't have a resounding victory just with the vote of Black, Indigenous people of color and the Latinx community, you can't win an election at a statewide level without the vote of Black, Indigenous people of color and Latinx community.
GILES: Gomez says those voters need bold structural reforms, like federal voting legislation, even if that means setting aside the filibuster, a topic Kelly has long dodged.
HURT: Senator Warnock, on the other hand, hasn't been afraid to say the filibuster may need to go to pass federal voting legislation.
From WABE in Atlanta, I'm Emma Hurt.
GILES: And from KJZZ in Phoenix, I'm Ben Giles.
KELLY: And we're going to bring in one more voice now to talk through what we just heard - NPR congressional editor Deirdre Walsh.
DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: So two different states, two pretty different approaches by Democrats. What is your takeaway from what we just heard?
WALSH: Well, it's not just Warnock and Kelly who Emma and Ben were talking about. It's their Democratic colleagues in the Senate. Jon Ossoff in Georgia has taken the progressive tact, while Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona is more of a centrist. So this whole story is more about who's up for reelection, but it's about the direction of the Democratic Party. And the tension between those two wings are going to have policy implication for Biden's agenda. He needs support from both progressives and centrists. Politically, Republicans want to exploit this. They see Arizona and Georgia as their best chances to flip Senate seats since both were previously held by Republicans. And we just need to remember they only need to net gain one seat next fall to retake the majority.
KELLY: Now, there's a big unknown in both races. In Arizona and Georgia, we don't yet know who the Republican opponents will be. How might that affect the race?
WALSH: Right, it's the big X-factor. But Democrats are banking on messy Republican primaries in both states. Those contests are expected to be about which candidates are most closely identified with Trump. I talked to former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who's a sharp critic of Trump's, and he said the transformation of the Republican Party is going to be a big factor.
JEFF FLAKE: It's a shift in tone, a shift in some policy. The Republican Party has gone really far to the right, and it is very difficult for a traditional conservative to be elected in Arizona right now.
WALSH: Senate GOP strategists insist there's plenty of time to sort out who their candidates are going to be. And right now they're spending time trying to define these Democrats. One Republican stressed that both Warnock and Kelly are now going to have voting records, and Republican candidates are going to argue that they are reliably Democratic votes for what they view as an overreaching Washington agenda that may not be so popular next fall.
KELLY: What about Warnock and Kelly themselves? Have we gotten any indication yet - I know we're still nearly a year and a half out - but what they plan to campaign on in 2022?
WALSH: Right now Democrats are focusing on the Biden and the Democratic response to the pandemic. They think senators can point to the money that they delivered to their constituents and remind voters in their states that Republicans were mostly against that kind of aid. But Republicans believe that the voters will eventually get sticker shock over the trillions of federal spending that could turn off independents and Republicans. But 18 months is a lifetime in politics, so it's unclear what issues will resonate next fall.
KELLY: NPR congressional editor Deirdre Walsh, thank you.
WALSH: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE DIXON AND MICHEL STEIN'S "KIDS")
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