Republicans have precious few chances to defeat House incumbents next week, but they think they have a good shot in a rural Arizona seat that has lingered beyond their grasp for multiple cycles.
In Arizona’s 1st District, which takes in the sparsely populated eastern part of the state, the progressive city of Flagstaff, and the large Navajo Nation, Air Force veteran Wendy Rogers hopes her fourth House campaign will be the charm against freshman Democrat Tom O’Halleran.
“It feels like the race is extremely close,” said Republican consultant Stan Barnes, “I offer as evidence that O’Halleran wanted to meet with Trump when he was touring Luke Air Force Base [on Oct. 19]. That surprised me. … One gets the sense on the ground that the race is close.”
Both sides have spent in the district. Early last week House Majority PAC made a $450,000 buy for an ad featuring 2014 comments from Rogers that she wants to “phase out” Social Security, and the Democratc Congressional Campaign Committee spent $213,000 in late September after two other sizable buys.
Rogers has seen little outside help in the general, and the National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund have yet to engage. The Cook Political Report rates the contest as Likely Democratic, one of seven races with Democratic incumbents in that category. However, a number of those races aren’t garnering much attention from the national parties.
A consultant for O’Halleran pointed to those “very damaging” Social Security comments as a reason that GOP outside groups haven’t invested in her, and said House Majority PAC, DCCC, and the campaign have all highlighted them in their ads. The district has an above-average number of Social Security beneficiaries.
Bill Cortese, who managed Andy Tobin’s 2014 race against Ann Kirkpatrick, attributed the lack of Republican outside money to their desire to protect incumbents in a tough landscape.
The candidates are running in what both sides described as their only viable lanes to victory. O’Halleran, who served in the Arizona legislature as a Republican from 2001-2009, is stressing bipartisanship and avoiding criticizing Trump in a district that the president won narrowly; indeed, one of his biggest independent-expenditure backers is No Labels.
In contrast, Rogers has wrapped herself around the president, echoing his rhetoric on immigration and the Democrats in bombastic ads.
Multiple Republicans said GOP enthusiasm outside of Flagstaff and Navajo Nation was stoked by both the Brett Kavanaugh nomination battle and the immigrant caravan moving through Mexico towards the U.S. The district does not border Mexico, going as far south as the northern Tucson suburbs.
She does have concrete reason for optimism. Per Republican consultant Doug Cole, whose firm does polling in the state, early ballots returned as of Tuesday show Republicans with a 5-point advantage compared to his firm’s normal model of Democrats having a 1-point advantage in midterm cycles.
Cole said the Kavanaugh nomination fight and the immigrant caravan, which “couldn’t be better timed for Rogers,” have stoked Republican enthusiasm in the district.
“If she wins you could attribute it to her being unabashedly supportive of Trump and O’Halleran trying to live in two worlds,” said Barnes, noting the delicate dance O’Halleran must do to attract moderates in both parties while keeping the Democratic base happy.
The X factor in the race, one that has arguably tipped House races to Democrats for the past three cycles, is the heavily Democratic Navajo Nation. It routinely accounts for 40 percent of the Democratic votes there and is holding a contested election for its presidency, which former Arizona Democratic Party executive director DJ Quinlan said would boost turnout there.
The district has the highest Native American population of any in the country, at roughly 25 percent. Observers on both sides said Rogers would not be the candidate to break through and improve upon past GOP candidates among that bloc.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Cortese, noting that the last Republican to do well there was former Rep. Rick Renzi a decade ago. Former Coconino County GOP chairman and radio talk-show host Jeff Oravits, who is based in Flagstaff, said Rogers focused heavily on the northern part of the district in the primary to her benefit, which past Republican nominees had not done.
Rogers’s campaign says she’s attended a number of events in the region, including participating in community “Chapter House” meetings and speaking at the Navajo Legislative Council opening session. However, Democrats were confident that O’Halleran’s outreach in Congress and the state legislature had solidified his standing with them.
Quinlan went on to explain the difficulties of campaigning in and polling Navajo Nation, such as their reliance on post-office boxes and prepaid cell phones, as well as the relative lack of cable-TV penetration. “It’s a whole different world,” he said.
The campaign is running an ad on the radio station KTNN, which is a main news source for the region, touching on veterans issues, entitlements, and tribal lands.
Rogers’s close ties to Trump could hurt her there, given the president’s fraught history with the group.
“She spoke to them [at an appearance in October] and said, ‘I want to make the Navajo Nation great again.’ … She’s tone-deaf as far as that goes,” said Quinlan.
In the more urban parts of the district Democratic county chairs were confident O’Halleran’s performance there would outweigh Rogers’s in the rural areas. David Coward, chair of the Pinal County Democratic Party, said, “Tom is all over the place. He’s meeting constituents in a lot of different venues, and I don’t see Rogers doing any of that.”
Referring to the district as a whole, Coconino County Democratic Party chairman Nathan Jones said, “Someone who chooses to run to make it a referendum on the Trump administration does so at their own peril here.”