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Phoenix to host Democratic presidential debate on March 15

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 3 days ago Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Ronald J. Hansen, The Republic | azcentral.com
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Phoenix has been selected to host a Democratic presidential debate on Sunday, March 15, two days before voting ends in Arizona’s primary election, The Arizona Republic has confirmed.

The selection by the Democratic National Committee, which will be made public later Friday, underscores the state’s importance as a presidential battleground and the efforts by Democrats to carry a state in November they have won only once since 1952.

On Monday, DNC Chairman Tom Perez is scheduled to be in Phoenix with Arizona Democratic Party Chairwoman Felecia Rotellini and several state lawmakers to discuss President Donald Trump's proposed budget. It's another sign of how committed the national party is to competing in Arizona.  

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The debate next month will be sponsored by CNN and Univision and is in partnership with CHC Bold, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The location of the debate in Phoenix was not immediately confirmed. Other details, such as the format, moderators or the criteria for participation, were not yet available. 

The number of candidates also will be in flux, depending on how the Democratic field looks after the March 3 "Super Tuesday" primaries that feature 14 states, including California and Texas.

"I personally want to thank Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, members of Congress Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for their assistance throughout the selection process," Perez said. "Arizonans can’t ask for better local and national advocates.

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"Arizona is a battleground state and it's clear Democrats can win here at every level of the ballot. After historic Democratic victories in 2018, we're putting the Republicans on defense in the Grand Canyon State. This debate will showcase our Democratic presidential candidates, highlight Trump's record of broken promises and make it clear that Democrats are fighting to give Arizonans a better future."

Push for debate began in early 2019

For more than a year, Arizona Democrats have been vying behind the scenes to bring a presidential debate to metro Phoenix. They have pitched the state as a showcase for the party’s diversity and its return to competitiveness nationally. 

Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 2020. © Patrick Semansky/AP Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 2020.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz. was a driving force behind keeping Phoenix in the top tier of cities under consideration by party leaders. The effort began in earnest in January 2019 after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat in 30 years to win a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. 

In 2018, Sinema defeated Republican Martha McSally, who later was appointed to the state’s other Senate seat and faces election this year. 

While Gallego and others sought the debate for months, the effort was complicated by other considerations, such as the traditional primary schedule, which features states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as a Wednesday debate in Las Vegas ahead of Nevada’s caucus three days later.

Also, Arizona’s primary, technically called a presidential preference election, ends the same night as primaries in Florida, Illinois and Ohio, states with more population and significant electoral clout of their own.

Democrats held a debate in Los Angeles in December that some feared may have cost the West its best chance to host another debate, but advocates here continued to press their case. 

Because most Arizona voters cast their ballots by mail, the Phoenix debate likely will have little impact on the final results. But it also will come at a time when any candidates still in the running will be making an intense push to get the upper hand on delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination.

"I am extremely excited the Democratic Party is going to have their first debate post-Super Tuesday in Arizona. We've been working at this for quite a while," Gallego said. "More importantly, I think it's going to be a debate that's reflective of where this country is going. It's a recognition that we are a swing state. We're going to the state that basically decides this election."

Last fall, Rotellini told The Arizona Republic that party representatives had in-person meetings with Perez about the possibility of hosting a debate in Arizona. 

At the time, Kate Gallego was pitching to the DNC the state’s rapid growth and ethnic diversity.

"We are diverse in every sense of the word, and our political landscape is shifting," she told The Republic last year. "We are ready and eager to host a presidential debate in Phoenix, and I have been in contact with the DNC encouraging them to choose our city."

'Arizona is an important battleground'

Perez visited the state last summer in an effort to help push voter registration and party organization and has a personal history with the state.

About a decade ago, Perez worked as the assistant U.S. Attorney for Civil Rights in the Obama administration and was involved in the civil rights investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office during Joe Arpaio’s tenure. 

Perez touted the success Democrats made in Arizona during the 2018 elections during a July 2019 interview with The Republic’s political podcast, "The Gaggle."

"Arizona is an important battleground," he said. "Look at what’s happening across the state. We have a huge presidential election and we have another pick-up opportunity in the United States Senate. Not only that, we have opportunities in the statehouse. In the House all we need are two seats to flip the House, a few more to flip the Senate."

"When I look at Arizona, I see opportunity up and down the ballot."

President Donald Trump won Arizona in 2016 by 3.5 percentage points over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. 

Democrats are revving up efforts to turn out more left-leaning voters in hopes of closing that margin. They are eyeing the hundreds of thousands of Arizona transplants, young Latinos and disaffected nonvoters. 

Previous national debates in 2012, 2004

Arizona last hosted a presidential debate in February 2012, when four Republican candidates gathered in Mesa. That debate included Mitt Romney, who went on to win the GOP nomination, as well as Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. 

Before that, Arizona State University in Tempe hosted an October 2004 general election debate between President George W. Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry. 

Reach the reporters at yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com and ronald.hansen@arizonarepublic.com. Follow them on Twitter @yvonnewingett and @ronaldjhansen.

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Subscribe to our free political podcast, The Gaggle.

This article originally appeared on The Republic | azcentral.com: Phoenix to host Democratic presidential debate on March 15

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