Martha McSally’s likely Senate bid in Arizona would give Republicans a five-star recruit for one of their most-vulnerable seats, but it would also leave a gaping hole in a swingy Tucson-based congressional district.
It’s a common dilemma for both parties, as top Senate recruits often emerge from across the Capitol, forcing House strategists to recruit for sometimes highly vulnerable seats. But in this cycle, a vacancy could be particularly consequential, as the House majority hangs in the balance.
Privately, some Republicans in the state say the second-term congresswoman’s exit would be an ideal scenario for House Democrats, who must net 24 seats to take control of the chamber. That’s largely because of a lack of natural GOP successors for McSally, a distinguished Air Force veteran and prolific fundraiser, who unseated a Democratic incumbent in 2014 before handily holding the border district two years later as it backed Hillary Clinton by 5 points.
Part of the problem is a scarcity of Republican elected officials in southern Arizona. Within the bounds of the 2nd District, there are only a handful of Republican state legislators and no GOP members on the Tucson City Council.
“That’s one of the reasons why the bench is thin,” said former Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, who represented much of the district for over two decades. “I think this may be a case where you look for somebody who’s not in any elected office.”
Republicans acknowledge that they likely need a compelling, moderate candidate to keep the seat—especially if Democrats nominate former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who enjoys extensive name recognition after making a 2016 Senate bid and representing a neighboring district that includes the Tucson media market.
Lea Márquez-Peterson, the president and CEO of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has so far attracted the most buzz as potential contender. In an interview, Márquez-Peterson said she was leaning toward a run if the seat is open after being approached by Republicans in Tucson, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C.
Viewed as a moderate Republican, Márquez-Peterson is known for transforming the chamber into an influential Tucson institution, raising its membership from 300 to 1,800. And as a longtime ally of Gov. Doug Ducey, she could benefit from access to his political teams. Her family is also friendly with Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, as well as McSally.
Márquez-Peterson said she would hope to run an economic-focused campaign, and she is supportive of the Republicans’ tax-reform plan.
Democrats, however, could find some nuggets while researching her past. One example: Márquez-Peterson filed for bankruptcy more than a decade ago after racking up millions in debt. In a recent interview, she said that experience strengthened her ability to connect with and advise other small-business owners.
Still, any centrist candidate runs the risk of losing a primary if a rival runs to the right and wins over the base. That’s especially true of the current political climate in Arizona, Republicans noted, pointing to Kelli Ward, a conservative former state senator who lost a primary challenge to McCain last year and was already taking on Flake before he announced his retirement last month.
“A moderate may have an extra hurdle to get over in the primary election, but I think a Trump type of candidate is not likely to win the general election,” Kolbe said.
Yet Márquez-Peterson doesn’t seem to be running away from the president, noting that she attended his transition team meetings and was at the White House for Hispanic Heritage Month.
“The primary certainly will be challenging, but I think we’ve built some connections to the Trump administration also,” she said.
One likely primary competitor is Douglas City Councilman Danny “DJ” Morales, who has said he will run if McSally vacates the seat. Among other potential candidates, state Rep. Todd Clodfelter, whose daughter was a former McSally aide, and Shelley Kais, who ran for the district in 2014, confirmed to National Journal they would consider bids if the seat opens up.
Clodfelter said he spoke with Márquez-Peterson about a potential primary matchup and acknowledged she could likely “raise a whole lot more money than me” but touted his grassroots connections, having spent 45 years in the district.
He said he thought there were few ideological differences between himself and Márquez-Peterson. “Fiscally, I’m a conservative, but socially I’m moderate-to-liberal,” he said. “I have libertarian tendencies.”
Arizona sources also floated as possible contenders two Republicans on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, Steve Christy and Ally Miller, along with state Sen. Gail Griffin and state Rep. Ethan Orr.
Jesse Kelly, who lost in 2010 to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and in the 2012 special election to replace her, now lives in Texas and is unlikely to run, GOP sources said. Former state Sen. Jonathan Paton, who ran in the Republican primary for Giffords’s seat in 2010 and in a northern district in 2012, said he now lives in Scottsdale and would not make another bid.
Former state Sen. Frank Antenori, who ran for the seat when Kolbe retired, also firmly ruled out a run, citing the pressure and time required to raise the kind of money necessary to compete.
“With the attitude of national politics and the way you’ve got to basically prostitute yourself to raise money, it’s not for me,” he said.
Meanwhile, David Gowan, a former state House speaker who ran for the open 1st District seat in 2016, was mentioned as a potential candidate. He lives in the Cochise County side of the district, but sources close to him said his current intention is to run for the state Senate.
McSally’s district, which stretches from Tucson to cover the eastern half of Pima County and all of mountainous Cochise County in the southeastern corner of the state, is among the most competitive in the country. In 2014, McSally won her first term by less than 200 votes, only to have it fall off the map last cycle as Democrats failed to field a top recruit.
Before backing Clinton, the district voted for Mitt Romney by 2 points in 2012 and McCain by a point in 2008.
McSally would have a complicated road in front of her no matter which direction she turns. A Senate campaign would require surviving a potentially bruising primary and could invite the influence and financial resources of Steve Bannon, who intends to make his mark on Republican nominations across the country.
Running for reelection wouldn’t be much easier, as Kirkpatrick—assuming she claims the primary—brings a track record of winning competitive races in swing districts.
“Our campaign is ready for whoever Paul Ryan wants to throw at us,” Kirkpatrick spokesman Rodd McLeod said.
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