Tapping the farm vote in Arizona’s key U.S. Senate race

Water emerges as a top issue for desert farmers, but voters remain lukewarm about environmental concerns

Arizona Democratic senator Mark Kelly stands on the left with Republican challenger Blake Masters on the right.

Arizona native Chelsea McGuire grew up on a farm in Pinal County. Her family sold the farm in 2000 for financial reasons, but she remains close to the agricultural community. As the Arizona Farm Bureau’s director of governmental relations, she lobbies on behalf of farmers to ensure their access to the resources they need to feed the state.

The state’s agricultural community brings more than $23 billion every year. The farmers tend to cattle and hogs, and grow crops like lettuce, cantaloupes and lemons, pecans and dates. But they also grow cotton and cattle-fodder like alfalfa, which consume a significant portion of Arizona’s allotted water in the middle of the desert.

McGuire said the farming community is politically minded because their livelihood depends on the management of natural resources.

“Farmers and ranchers are not one-issue voters and they are not one-party voters either,” McGuire said. “We are able to put our labels aside and say, ‘Agriculture is a critical industry. Food production is something the country needs.’ How can we work together on both sides of the aisle to make sure our industry is empowered and has the tools that it needs to do that?”

The decades-long drought in the southwestern United States is becoming a significant issue for Arizona’s agricultural community, which uses about 70% of available freshwater allotted to the state. “What the drought is actually doing is putting more pressure on the politicians that our farmers are interacting with to become literate on these issues, because water has always been a huge issue,” McGuire said.

“But it’s never been that, oh well, water is the only thing I’m going to vote on,” she said. “Do I think that we’re going to have folks that are changing how they vote because of the drought? No.”

A poll conducted by the Beacon Project on behalf of the Environmental Voter Project found likely voters in Arizona identified inflation, abortion rights and the economy as their top three issues. Environmental issues ranked sixth highest priority, with only 5% of likely voters listing them as a top priority. When asked to identify their top long-term priorities, inflation and the economy topped the list, with environmental lagging behind.

Both major candidates running for the Senate election in Arizona have stated that water issues are a major priority for Arizona, but have different approaches to solving the problem. Mark Kelly, the incumbent Democratic Arizona senator, said he wants to reduce the state’s water usage to conserve water while Blake Masters, a Trump-endorsed Republican nominee who was an election denier before winning the primary, has repeatedly said he wants to fight other states to increase Arizona’s water allocation.

Arizona is a key battleground state this midterm election. The Senate race between Kelly and Masters will play a large role in determining which party controls the Senate for the next two years. If elected, Masters will join hundreds of climate deniers in Congress who refuse to take action on environmental issues.

But as the drought worsens, the need for political action to ensure access to essential resources like water becomes urgent. According to a report by the World Bank, water scarcity is linked to a 10% increase in global migrations.

Dr. Benjamin Cook, a drought researcher at Columbia University, said that droughts in the American West are a natural phenomena. “The difference is that this drought is happening in a world that’s much warmer because of climate change,” he said. “That is having an amplifying effect on the drought.”

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of Sierra Club, said the environmental organization wants the government to etch a more sustainable course of action. “How can we live within our means relative to water here in the Southwest, instead of always looking for the next place we can try to get water, which has really been the focus of a number of entities and the governor, particularly, in Arizona,” she said.

Bahr said that the agricultural community needs to be more efficient in their water use. “We can insist… that we are not growing all of this alfalfa and cotton in the desert. It is ridiculous, it is ludicrous to think that is sustainable. It is just not,” she said.

Candidates’ views on the drought

In the first and only Senate debate, Kelly said, “[The drought] is a major issue. This is the worst drought that this part of the planet has seen in the past thousand years and it’s been going on 22 years.”

Kelly urged immediate action to solve the water crisis. “I got money from Washington to help farmers keep water up in Lake Mead,” he said. “That’s just a stopgap measure. We can’t do this all on our own.”

Kelly called on the other states reliant on the Colorado River to step up and take action, especially California. On August 16, 2022, the United States Interior Department announced federal water cuts for key basin states, reducing Arizona’s allotment by more than a fifth. Nevada and Mexico also endured water cuts, but the plan spared California, entitled to the largest share of water out of all states.

Four agencies in California promised to cut water use by about a tenth, but no formal plans have been announced.

The Sierra Club endorsed Kelly in 2020 and again in 2022. “This prolonged drought is partly attributable to climate change. We need to do something and that is something Sen. Kelly is willing to do,” Bahr said. “He supported the Inflation Reduction Act which has a number of measures in it that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and begin to put us on a path for the reductions we need.”

In August 2022, Sens. Kelly, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada secured a $4 billion drought reduction package as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. The provisions will support water conservation and drought mitigation in the states affected by the drought, and includes $12.5 million to assist tribes affected by drought.

Bahr also said that addressing climate change in the short term will not bring more water to Arizona, so allocations must be cut.

“It can begin to ensure that it doesn’t get worse and worse,” she said. “We can’t change the fact that there is not enough water in the Colorado river for all the straws that are in it, but we can change how we’re using water and what we’re allocating it for.”

Marc Victor, the independent candidate in the race, said the agricultural community in the desert should not allocated high amounts of water. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said during the debate. “We can import our agriculture, we can get it from places where they can more efficiently produce these goods.”

“By and large, the agricultural community here in Arizona has been looking for ways to keep moving forward with business as usual,” Bahr said. “They don’t want to change. They just want somebody to, the taxpayers to pay for more water, whether it’s expensive desalination or some other mechanism to bring water from outside the state.”

Masters has emphasized the lack of mandatory cuts in California instead of suggesting ideas to reduce water use in Arizona. “Guess how much California had to cut? Zero. Guess what Mark Kelly did about it? Nothing,” he said during the debate. “We need someone in here with sharp elbows who is going to fight for our water.”

Masters has called for the renegotiation of the Colorado River Compact and the use of technology to fight the water crisis. “Why is California even putting its straw into the Colorado River?” he said. “That water should be Arizona’s.” He said California should draw water from desalination plants powered by nuclear reactors, and believes the private industry needs to have a bigger role in the water crisis.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 set water allotments for all the basin states that received water from the river. California got almost 60% of the lower basin water budget, while Arizona received about 37%.

“The problem is that those allocations were based on a period of very, very wet conditions in the region,” Cook said. “Now, though, you still have the same people who need their water needs met. But now we’re 20-plus years into a pretty significant drought event. And this is having really big impacts on water resource availability.”

Dangerous lack of climate action

Blake Masters has repeatedly questioned the validity of climate change in interviews. When asked what the role of climate change was in the politics of Arizona in an interview for The Hill, Masters said, “We gotta figure out if the Earth has been warming up and why and how much is caused by humans. I think people are open. The problem is they feel like they’ve been lied to, so much and so often by the expert class. Not just on climate change, but on everything.”

However, scientists’ verdict on climate change remains consistent for the past 30 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment report last year, with thousands of scientists concluding that human activities caused rapid climate change and global warming.

According to polls, Masters trailed incumbent Mark Kelly during a significant part of the campaign period. In September, the GOP yanked more than $10 million in advertising funding from Arizona, suggesting the party did not consider the Senate seat winnable.

However, in early October, the National Republican Senatorial Committee recommitted to backing Masters, with recent polls showing the Senate race tightening. According to a New York Times/Siena College Poll last week, more likely voters in Arizona prefer Kelly over Masters, but also prefer Republican control of the Senate.

Environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters spent more than $100 million altogether in 2022 to elect candidates who put climate issues first, yet polls show environmental issues are not a top priority for voters. Voters remain disinterested in climate issues for many reasons, but unless the government solves the climate crisis, migration due to lack of water could become a scary reality in Arizona.

Bahr said, “Politicians talk about how expensive it is going to be to address climate change, but they leave out the part about how expensive it already is to deal with the impact of climate change and how much more expensive it will get.”