“Keep this stuff away from me, bro,” David Garcia said he took a big bite of banana bread brought to his Phoenix campaign headquarters by a staffer’s girlfriend. “To me, this is dessert.”
It was breakfast time, and the Democratic candidate for governor of Arizona needed all the fuel he could get.
With five days to go before early ballots hit mailboxes, Garcia keeps a packed schedule. He recently made stops in Kingman, Lake Havasu, and Bullhead City. On Friday, he had events in Sedona and Camp Verde and had trips planned to Tucson and Willcox.
In 2014, Garcia lost a race for superintendent by 15,000 votes. The lesson for him: Every vote counts — even in rural areas not known for strong Democratic support.
"There’s more of a rally feel when you’re down in Tucson. In Kingman, these are folks who are a little more, 'head down and get to work,'” Garcia said during a 40-minute interview in his campaign manager’s office. "It’s less red and blue, and more about values. The big one up there is public education."
A spate of recent polls — published by NBC, Fox News, and the Arizona Republic — show Garcia trailing Ducey by double digits. The Democrat said he’s not worried. He believes the polls underestimate the number of new voters, who he’s counting on to vault him into office.
Garcia pointed to Democratic turnout in the primary election, which exceeded expectations, and Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s primary win despite polls at the time that suggested he had no shot at victory.
“Gillum saw on the ground much of what we see right now with our teams. The best data is face-to-face,” Garcia said, adding that his campaign and supporting organizations have “thousands” of volunteers knocking on doors in his favor.
Unlike Garcia, current polls put Gillum in a dead heat with Republican Ron DeSantis for the general election in Florida.
On top of his lead in the polls, Ducey has also out-raised and outspent Garcia by a significant margin. The governor raised more than $4 million to Garcia’s $1 million. That’s not including support from outside groups.
Ducey has the backing of the GOP machine, including more than $6 million spent on his campaign from the Republican Governors Association. Garcia has not enjoyed similar support from his corner. That’s put him on the defensive since the beginning.
The Ducey camp is relentless. It seems every day the governor’s team comes up with a new line of attack to flood social media and email inboxes with the anti-Garcia message du jour, no matter how frivolous or misleading. It’s hard to keep up.
On Thursday, Ducey’s team harped on a sentence in a Republic article in which Garcia states that he would have a conversation with Arizona State University about the future of his teaching job should he win election. Ducey’s team interpreted that to mean that Garcia is "unwilling to commit to being a full-time governor if elected.”
Never mind that the article focused on debunking a claim by Ducey supporters that Garcia’s teaching salary is extraordinary for his workload. The article also didn’t imply that its authors asked Garcia whether he would expect to teach while serving as governor.
Garcia clarified in his interview with Phoenix New Times that he would want to talk about the possibility of going on a leave of absence with ASU. "I think it’s in the university’s best interest to maintain a teaching slot for somebody who is a former governor, and I love to teach,” he said.
Others attacks carry more weight. On Friday, for instance, the conservative news site PJMedia.com revealed that a Garcia donor and local attorney, Sal Rivera, was arrested last week on suspicion of sexual assault. The site cried hypocrisy, since Garcia has been a vocal supporter of the #BelieveSurvivors movement against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
In a statement after our interview, a spokesperson for Garcia said donations made by Rivera have been returned.
And then there are the ads. Slots paid for by the Republican Governor’s Association featured a white family saying Garcia, whose face is darkened, would put the state in danger. Critics, including Garcia himself, said the ad was bigoted.
Ducey defended the ads in a debate, calling them public service announcements and countered allegations of racism by noting that he has the support of some Latino officials.
Garcia, who would be Arizona's first Latino governor in four decades, thinks ads like those can be effective because they contribute to a sense of cynicism among the electorate and suppress turnout. "They create a sense of lack of enthusiasm,” he said.
It’s no secret that turnout is the key for Garcia to win.
He recently received nods of support from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, two progressives with national platforms. Sanders might come to town to stump for Garcia and help pump up Arizona's Democratic voters.
Sanders and Garcia raise similar themes — the 1 percent getting tax cuts while middle class and lower income Americans get left behind. The playbook has been effective in other parts of the country, like New York and Florida. Garcia believes he’ll tap into a similar vein in red Arizona.
“When ask folks, ‘What do you think is encouraging?’ It’s ‘New, new new.’ New people. New activity. New energy does not vote for the same politics,” he said.