Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer isn't running for reelection this year, but her fingerprints are all over the state's upcoming primary. And from the governor's race down to the state legislature, it's shaping up like a referendum on the term-limited governor.
Nationally, Brewer is best known for her state's controversial 2010 immigration law, SB 1070. But she has a much broader legacy in state policy, one that's under threat from fellow Republicans"”which is why Brewer has played such an active role in Arizona's GOP primaries this summer.
The biggest example: Brewer's recent endorsement of former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith in the hotly contested GOP gubernatorial primary. Along with that, Brewer has backed candidates she calls "responsible, considerate" Republicans in legislative races, many of whom risked their political careers in 2013 by siding with Brewer (and against a majority of the Republican Party) to vote to expand Medicaid coverage.
Brewer has vowed to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the days leading up to the August 26 primary to boost Smith and her other endorsed candidates over the finish line. Her political committee is aptly named: Arizona Legacy PAC.
Thirteen Republican state legislators crossed party lines to side with Brewer's Medicaid plan in 2013, and eight of them are now locked in tough primary fights. Brewer's PAC has already given money to at least five of those legislators; in addition, the governor picked fights with four incumbents who lined up on the other side by backing their primary challengers. Her PAC recently reported over $600,000 in the bank, and she's set out to raise at least $500,000 more in the time that remains to support Smith and company.
Meanwhile, national groups like Americans for Prosperity have sided against some of Brewer's picks, along with tea party figures like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
"What's at stake is the governor's legacy on some of these critical issues," said Matthew Benson, a former senior Brewer aide who now serves as spokesman for the Arizona Business Coalition, a group working in parallel with Brewer's to aid pro-Medicaid expansion Republicans. "Whether you're talking about Medicaid expansion or moving to more stringent academic standards at the state level, we all realize these legislators are in a tenuous position."
As Benson noted, Medicaid isn't the only issue that divides Brewer and her crowd from other Arizona Republicans. The coalition that supported the federally funded health insurance expansion was largely the same as the one that joined Brewer's pushes to enact the Common Core education standards and Proposition 100, a special-election ballot measure that temporarily raised the state sales tax in 2010 to stave off steep cuts to education and health care.
Brewer's actions frequently put her at odds with conservatives in her own party, and her agenda faces threat of dismantlement by candidates who have lined against hers. They have called her supporters "legis-traitors" and accused them of embracing Obamacare. A primary sweep would amplify their voice within the Republican legislative majority, prevent future Brewer priorities from getting through, and maybe even result in the repeal of some of her accomplishments.
Smith is the only GOP candidate for governor who supported the bulk of her legislative agenda, but the pair doesn't get along on everything. Smith opposed SB 1070, for example. But the Brewer endorsement didn't come because they agree on everything"”or even necessarily like each other on a personal level. It's a policy partnership borne of necessity.
"She likes Doug [Ducey]," said Brewer adviser Chuck Coughlin of state Treasurer Doug Ducey, the frontrunner for the GOP gubernatorial nod. But, Coughlin noted, "He's surrounded himself with people who had been vehemently, ideologically opposed to many of her priorities."
"Certainly we sought her endorsement," Ducey campaign spokeswoman Melissa Delaney said. "But we're confident in the coalition we've built."
Smith has gained in recent polls, but Ducey has maintained a lead for some time"”and his coalition is indeed broad. Americans for Prosperity opposed all things Obamacare from the start and is targeting GOP members who voted yes on Medicaid in their primaries, and prominent Arizona figures including former Sen. Jon Kyl, former Gov. Fife Symington, and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio are backing Ducey. Conservative stars like Cruz, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin have also joined Ducey's team.
Brewer doesn't care about the star power on the other side, Coughlin said.
"Ted Cruz only cares about himself," Coughlin said. As for AFP: "They only care about the one percent of people they get their donations from."
Though Medicaid is at the root of this year's primary fights, the child-migrant crisis on the Texas border has once again pushed immigration to the forefront of voter's minds. "Immigration is at the top of the list by a country mile," Benson said. "Every candidate, right, left, and middle, is having to lead with immigration."
The business coalition spokesman said that has distracted from the Medicaid fight in recent months. "And that's not necessarily a bad thing for us," he said.
Of course, for Brewer's legacy to completely stick, she'll need the eventual Republican nominee to win the November election. As Coughlin pointed out, everyone in the field, along with Brewer herself, is a conservative, and they could face a real contest with Democrat Fred DuVal, a former Clinton administration appointee, in the fall.
"It will be a very, very expensive endeavor if that's not Scott," Coughlin said.