On a Wednesday morning in July, David Garcia stepped off his campaign’s yellow school bus to meet Democratic voters in Payson, a 16,000-person town about 90 miles northeast of Phoenix. It was a typically scorching hot Arizona summer day, but dozens of Rim Country Democrats had nonetheless gathered to hear Garcia’s pitch. It’s not every day, after all, that a Democratic candidate — and a gubernatorial one at that — holds a meet-and-greet in a deep red, rural town like Payson.

Garcia’s road trip, like his school bus — wrapped in purple campaign signs and retrofitted with solar panels to power small workstations and kitchen appliances inside — is emblematic of the road he’s traveling, quite literally, to the governor’s mansion. His plan of attack is twofold: Reach out to voters in rural parts of the state that Democratic candidates have traditionally overlooked, and focus on education. The No. 1 issue facing Arizona is simultaneously Garcia’s area of expertise and the Achilles’ heel of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who is running for re-election.

In Payson, which is about 93 percent white, Garcia pitched greater teacher pay and full investment in public schools, building on the demands of a teachers strike that rocked the state in April. He told his 50-person audience that education would be the reason Arizona turns blue this year, but he also introduced other parts of his platform: an in-state public option as a stepping stone to universal health care; free college; and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Did you hear me beat up on Republicans today?” Garcia asked. “No,” the crowd responded. “Did you hear me talk about us and them?” he followed. “No,” the crowd assured.

“You are not going to hear that from me, and let me tell you why,” he continued. “When you walk away from here, I want you to walk away with a set of values. A value about the importance of immigration, a value about public education — because I don’t care what party you’re in. If you share those values, I want you to be welcome to mark my name on that ballot, because when we do this approach — this ‘us and them’ approach — we turn people off.”

A fourth-generation Arizonan, Garcia was born and raised in a working-class family in Mesa. His father worked in construction as a commercial painter, and his family did not have health insurance until his mom got a job at an electronics factory. Garcia enlisted in the military after high school, and he attended Arizona State University with help from the GI Bill, becoming the first in his family to go to college. He eventually went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Chicago, and he’s been teaching classes like statistics and research methods at Arizona State University for the last 12 years. He has also worked on policy at the Arizona Department of Education and with the state Senate Education Committee.

In 2014, Garcia, who is the director of the Arizona Education Policy Initiative, ran for state superintendent of public instruction but lost by a single percentage point to Republican Diane Douglas. “I was sick and tired of what the legislature was doing to public schools in Arizona,” Garcia told me about his first run for office. “Having been there,” he said, referring to his work in the state Senate, “I understand it’s a very specific concerted effort to cut public education to the bone, criticize it for not improving, and then turning to privatization as the option.”

His loss was a victory of sorts: He came closer than any other Democrat that year to winning a statewide election. This year, he may just have what it takes to cross the finish line.

Garcia appears to be the Democratic front-runner ahead of the August 28 primary election, holding, in recent polls, a nearly 24-point lead against state Sen. Steve Farley and former minister Kelly Fryer, with nearly half of voters undecided. (Farley is leading the pack in fundraising.) The question then, is whether Garcia can overcome Ducey, who is all but guaranteed to be the GOP nominee, to become the state’s first Democratic governor in 10 years.

Aside from the factors that may lead to a nationwide blue wave in November, there are reasons to believe Arizona, where Republicans have held a governing trifecta since 2009, may finally turn blue this year. Despite the new education budget bill giving teachers the first of what are expected to be two pay raises and a hike in school funding, thousands of teachers, parents, students, and allies are still seething about the state of public education. And a growing Latino electorate, another historically ignored population that Garcia is also courting, is appalled at the Trump administration’s immigration policies and may be newly motivated to get out the vote. Conservative candidates like Democratic U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who’s relying on her GOP-friendly politics to win the Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake, have been at the center of blue-wave speculation in Arizona. Garcia is setting out to prove that a progressive Mexican-American university professor can be a part of that wave, too.

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 26:  An Arizona teacher holds up a sign in front of the State Capitol during a #REDforED rally on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. Teachers state-wide staged a walkout strike on Thursday in support of better wages and state funding for public schools.  (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

An Arizona teacher holds up a sign in front of the state Capitol during a #RedforEd rally on April 26, 2018, in Phoenix.

Photo: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Decades of fiscal austerity and a privatization push spearheaded by a web of billionaires has strangled Arizona’s public education system to the point of eruption. Arizona teachers, among the lowest paid in the country, took a cue from their colleagues in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, and in April launched their first strike in state history. They demanded higher wages and a return of public education funding to pre-recession levels.

Teachers have taken to social media to post images of decades-old textbooks and decrepit building conditions, and to share stories of having to buy basic classroom supplies with their own paychecks. More than 800 teachers quit their jobs last year alone, while some are turning to teaching opportunities in California and Texas to earn better wages.

With the public education crisis pushed to the forefront of election-year politics, Democrats see a window to oust Ducey, a longtime Koch brothers ally who is widely criticized for failing to adequately respond to the teachers’ demands.

For example, the teachers in March demanded an immediate 20 percent salary increase, but Ducey, who’d given his staff raises of up to 20 percent each over the last 2 1/2 years, counteroffered with just 1 percent. (A 20 percent raise would have brought Arizona teachers’ average pay of $47,403 to just short of the national average of $58,950, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.) Eventually, the governor announced a plan to bump teacher pay 20 percent by 2020, but teachers weren’t satisfied and they voted to stage a walkout. As a result, an estimated 75,000 educators and allies clad in red T-shirts took to the streets under the banner of #RedforEd to send Ducey and state lawmakers a message.

Noah Karvelis, a co-leader of the #RedforEd movement who volunteered with the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, said Arizonans across the board, regardless of political stripes, are focused on education this election year. Schools don’t have enough teachers in the building and end up hiring either uncertified teachers or none at all, he explained. Students don’t have the textbooks they need, and schools lose teachers every year.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for Ducey, said the governor’s plan to increase teacher salaries and spending on textbooks and school repairs speaks for itself. “Despite inheriting a $1 billion deficit in his first year, Governor Ducey has increased education spending by $2.7 billion, increasing per-pupil spending 10%,” Ptak said in a statement. “More needs to be done but educators can’t deposit platitudes, which is all Mr. Garcia has to offer.”

The governor’s race is a referendum of sorts on Ducey’s education record, but come November, Arizonans might have a second chance to vote to improve public education. #RedforEd leaders have so far collected 270,000 signatures to put the Invest in Education Act — an initiative to tax the wealthiest in order to get more funding for public education — on the ballot. It takes only 150,000 signatures to get the initiative on the ballot in Arizona, and official verification of the signatures may not begin until early August.

There aren’t stark differences between the three Democratic candidates in terms of their overall stances on public education: They’re all pushing for the wealthiest Arizonans to pay their fair share of taxes in order to boost education funding. (Arizona has one of the most regressive tax systems in the country.)

Farley is so far the best-funded Democrat, reporting a $340,374 haul at the end of the June 30 reporting period. Garcia, meanwhile, reported raising $302,452 and having $246,359 cash on hand. Ducey’s war chest is significantly larger, with about $4 million raised and $3.5 million cash on hand.

Garcia, for his part, has name recognition on his side, along with endorsements from the Arizona Education Association, Planned Parenthood Arizona, Democracy for America, Arizona AFL-CIO, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and the Working Families Party. A recent poll even shows Garcia with a sliver of a lead over the Republican incumbent in a head-to-head matchup. Forty-two percent of likely voters surveyed by Gravis Marketing favored Garcia, while 41 percent favored Ducey.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at the panel Pathways to Prosperity during the National Governor Association winter meeting on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at the panel Pathways to Prosperity during the National Governor Association winter meeting on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP

In addition to his focus on education, Garcia’s platform includes the stable of progressive policies, like “Medicare for All” and free college, that insurgent candidates are running on across the country. Arizona’s political landscape is typically considered too far right to ever embrace any of those stances; pundits argue that what wins in California or New York doesn’t stand a chance in a state like Arizona, where Republicans still outnumber Democrats in voter registration by about 170,000 people. But Garcia supporters and political observers alike argue that the Democratic front-runner’s focus on education transcends partisanship.

“He doesn’t seem to be outrageously progressive, he doesn’t seem way to the left of anybody in the state, and what’s probably most important is the linkage between Garcia the political candidate and Garcia the educator,” said Thomas Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

Education, Volgy added, is “not a progressive issue. That’s an issue of how human beings treat their children. He’s got a huge, huge pivotal role to play in that. It’s far more important than any one specific progressive position he may take.”

But it isn’t just about the big ideas or how a message plays in a state. Garcia has also sworn off corporate political action committee and lobbyist money, joining a nationwide push by candidates who are ditching big money in favor building their campaign on grassroots organizing. As of July 11, his campaign had received over 18,000 donations, 96 percent of them under $200.

That appeared to be a selling point in Payson, where a meet-and-greet attendee raised his hand to ask Garcia about his position on what is referred to as “dark money” — anonymous spending on political campaigns. “Dark money will be the demise of our democracy if we don’t get a handle on it,” Garcia told the crowd, putting a plug in for “Outlaw Dirty Money,” an initiative activists are trying to get on the ballot that would mandate the disclosure of political donors. “And it’s going to be the demise of our democracy, because if we continue to allow a select few people with unlimited resources to influence our electoral process, we take the power away from the people.”

Garcia makes a case similar to that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off an upset primary victory against New York Rep. Joe Crowley by out-organizing him, even though he outspent her by a 10-1 ratio. Outside money was effective in propping up Ducey, Garcia’s campaign argues, but his weakness as a candidate is reflected in his lack of support within the state. The only strength Ducey has “is a lot, a lot of money and a lot, a lot of dirty, dark money” said Ian Danley, Garcia’s campaign manager. “And that will get you so far.”

Ptak, Ducey’s spokesperson, countered in an email to The Intercept that “Garcia’s current cash on hand isn’t even enough to buy one week of Phoenix broadcast television this fall.”

“So, if there’s anyone who is going to need outside money, it’s him, which is probably why he’s been begging for support from out-of-state billionaires,” Ptak added, ostensibly referring to the fundraiser Garcia held at billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer’s home. “Arizonans clearly aren’t buying into his extreme policies, reflected by his anemic fundraising.”

When Ducey was elected in 2014, outside groups spent $8.2 million to support his campaign; the Koch brothers alone put $1.4 million into the race. Outside groups are jumping into the fray this year as well. Just this month, Politico reported that the Republican Governors Association is going after Garcia and Fryer with a $1 million ad buy for their call to “abolish ICE.”

“No Democratic candidate is going to have that kind of money — just isn’t going to happen,” Garcia told me as we rode his school bus on the way to Eagar, a town in the eastern part of the state with a population of 4,988. “So you need people. We believe that a people-driven campaign can beat this outside money. We believe that a people-driven campaign that is willing to do things, step out, connect with their neighbors, connect with their families, be a motivational campaign, is how you beat this dark money and how you beat this spending. And it’s what our campaign is built to do.”

Though education is at the heart of Garcia’s campaign, he hasn’t shied away from his identity and speaking out about the racial dynamics in the state. Latinos make up an estimated 30 percent of Arizona’s population, but the state has not elected a Latino to a statewide office in over 40 years. “I believe that we need leadership that reflects the people, whatever that is, wherever that is,” Garcia said. “In Georgia, it looks like Stacey Abrams, for example. In Arizona, it looks like a guy named Garcia.” Arizona’s last and only Latino governor, Raúl Héctor Castro, was elected in 1974 and resigned from his post two years into his term to serve as ambassador to Argentina. His daughter Beth Castro has endorsed Garcia in his bid for office.

By galvanizing Latino voters and activating the millennial vote, the campaign contends, it will be able to flip the Republican stronghold. “The Democratic playbook in Arizona has historically been, go to the middle to try to embrace moderates and then in the end — I have literally heard it said this way — going out to young people and people of color to get you over the top,” Garcia said. “That is what the Democrats have tried to do in Arizona forever … and we are flipping that.”

Political operatives may be uncomfortable with the strategy, Garcia said, but “it’s about talking to our folks first and foremost, getting them excited, and then moving toward the traditional Democratic base.”

It seems every election cycle anticipates an awakening of the so-called sleeping giant — the massive chunk of eligible Latino voters who stay home on Election Day  to end Republican reign. Garcia believes the Democratic party’s Latino base has not yet been incited in part because the community has been asked to “play defense over and over and over again.” Almost every call to bring out the Latino vote has been negative, he said, because Latinos have been asked to “vote against [former Sheriff Joe] Arpaio; vote against Russell Pearce; vote against those who implemented 1070; vote against those who got rid of Mexican-American studies in Tucson,” which is a hard approach for voters to get behind. Pearce is a former state senator who was the primary sponsor of SB 1070, a controversial measure targeting undocumented immigrants.

“I believe that you’re going to see a change this time around,” he added. “And I don’t just believe it; we continue to see it in poll after poll and door-knock after door-knock. … For the first time in a long time, we’re going to give the Latino community something to vote for.”

His strategy, he said, is different from a typical Democratic approach of going “to the suburban parts of the state and say ‘hey, I’m not so bad, you can vote for me for a change, the Republicans are knuckleheads’; and then sometime in August, hire a Latino vote outreach person to see if they can get a handful of Latinos to show up.” Latinos voted in unprecedented numbers in 2016, Garcia noted, but there are hundreds of thousands of Latino voters who have yet to be tapped. In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton lost the state by just 91,000 votes, while 600,000 eligible Latino voters did not vote.

The Democratic Party’s tendency to “speak safely to white voters” has backfired, said Marcus Ferrell, a Democratic candidate running in Arizona Legislative District 24, who previously worked as the deputy campaign manager for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. He rejected the notion that Garcia’s or his own focus on identity could alienate white voters like the ones Garcia is reaching out to in rural Arizona.

“The awesome part about being a progressive is, just because I say ‘black and brown’ a lot doesn’t mean that I’m not speaking to white working-class issues,” Ferrell said. “People try to separate those two and it’s not separate. White working-class people want a living wage. White working-class people want their kids to go to a public school and be educated with a quality education.”

Arizona Democratic superintendent of public instruction candidate David Garcia speaks to reporters during an election night party, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Phoenix. Garcia is running against Republican challenger Diane Douglas. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Arizona Democratic superintendent of public instruction candidate David Garcia speaks to reporters during an election night party, Nov. 4, 2014, in Phoenix.

Photo: Matt York/AP

Arizona is notorious for anti-immigrant policies like the “show me your papers” law and Arpaio’s racial profiling of Latinos. For Garcia, running as a Mexican-American candidate in that environment means pretty regular encounters with racism. “In 2014, I heard over and over again, comments like, ‘Were you born here?’ and ‘No way you can win in Arizona with that last name,’” Garcia said. “When I came that close and didn’t win, I heard, ‘It’s because your last name was Garcia.’ We gotta break through that in this state, and I believe that when we do, the state’s going to change for the long haul.”

Things are no different this time around, Garcia said, noting that he still gets questions about whether he was born in the United States. The candidate, who enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 17, said he said tells those who ask that he was not only born in, but has also served, this country. People usually apologize when he tells them that, he said. But “it’s almost as if you need those [military] credentials to show you’re as American as everybody else,” he added. “That’s gotta change.”

Garcia has been particularly vocal on immigration policies. Responding to public outrage over the Trump administration’s family separation policy, he joined the call to abolish ICE in early July. An agency guilty of committing “such historic atrocities” can’t be saved by small-scale reform, as more moderate Democrats have argued, Garcia told me. The call to address abuses by ICE has found renewed urgency under President Donald Trump, “but if you’re from Arizona, this isn’t new at all,” he added.

The rebuke from Republicans interpreting “abolish ICE” as a call for open borders was swift. Ducey penned an op-ed in USA Today calling Garcia’s call to eliminate the agency “wrong and reckless.” Even among Democrats in the state, Garcia is a loner on this issue. Sinema voted to defend ICE on July 18 in a nonbinding measure Republicans appeared to orchestrate in order to embarrass Democrats, who are increasingly calling for elimination of the agency. Farley, Garcia’s primary opponent, said he favors fixing ICE as opposed to getting rid of it.

While it’s the Republicans in the state who harbor the most xenophobic attitudes, Garcia said, even Democrats ask him not to be so expressive about his Mexican roots. He said some people in Democratic circles have told him he speaks too much Spanish, as he did briefly in a campaign video.

To wrap up his musings on anti-Mexican sentiment in the state, he offered an anecdote:

“I was thinking about when was the first time that I remember being exposed to this immigration issue, and it goes all the way back to fifth grade,” Garcia told me. “I could take you to the spot at Lindbergh Elementary School, waiting in the lunch line. I’ll take you to the exact spot. I still remember it as clear as day, when I was talking to Allison. I know her last name, but we’ll keep it off the record for today. But Allison … was in my class, and she told me that we could not be friends because she was a cowgirl and I was a wetback. Fifth grade. I still remember that.”

Top photo: David Garcia on the campaign trails speaks to voters at the Payson Democratic Headquarters in Payson, Arizona, in 2018.