The Swing Seat at Stake in Arizona Republicans’ Civil War

State House Speaker Andy Tobin wants to unseat Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, but first he has to beat his “underfunded and loud” opponents.

ORACLE, AZ - JULY 15: Adam Kwasman, a Tea Party patriot running for congress (R), has a heated discussion with an anti-immigration activist during a protest along Mt. Lemmon Road in anticipation of buses carrying illegal immigrants on July 15, 2014 in Oracle, Arizona. About 300 protesters lined the road waiting for a busload of illegal immigrants who are to be housed at a facility in Oracle. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
July 17, 2014, 4:14 p.m.

Rep. Ann Kirk­patrick of Ari­zona is con­sidered one of the most vul­ner­able mem­bers in Con­gress this cycle, a Demo­crat in a dis­trict that sup­por­ted Bush, Mc­Cain, and Rom­ney in the last four pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

So when a well-known, re­spec­ted state law­maker — House Speak­er Andy To­bin — entered the race last Oc­to­ber, it seemed Kirk­patrick was in for a fight in her di­verse dis­trict stretch­ing from the out­skirts of Phoenix and Tuc­son to the state’s north­ern and east­ern bor­ders.

To­bin star­ted his cam­paign with a bom­bast­ic tone, harp­ing on Kirk­patrick for op­pos­ing ef­forts to de­fund Obama­care dur­ing the Oc­to­ber gov­ern­ment shut­down, say­ing she’d rather sup­port Pres­id­ent Obama than re­open Grand Canyon Na­tion­al Park.

But roughly half a year later, the cri­ti­cism has shif­ted from Kirk­patrick’s re­cord in Con­gress to To­bin’s re­cord in the state Le­gis­lature, as his pre­vi­ously an­onym­ous primary op­pon­ents star­ted at­tract­ing at­ten­tion, gath­er­ing sup­port based on To­bin’s most con­tro­ver­sial ac­tions as House speak­er.

Loc­al Re­pub­lic­ans say To­bin is still the fa­vor­ite, but that if he loses the nom­in­a­tion to first-term state Rep. Adam Kwas­man or ranch­er Gary Kiehne, Kirk­patrick won’t face much of a chal­lenge. And To­bin’s lead seems tenu­ous, thanks to Ari­zona’s most con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans, said Chuck Cough­lin, a Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant based in Phoenix.

“A third of the Re­pub­lic­an Party re­acts neg­at­ively to any­body with any le­gis­lat­ive ex­per­i­ence,” Cough­lin said.

Play­ing to that por­tion of the party, Kwas­man and Kiehne have turned the fo­cus to To­bin’s short­com­ings as a con­ser­vat­ive while serving as speak­er, and to the fact that To­bin does not live in the dis­trict.

“I’d call him a car­pet­bag­ger, but a car­pet­bag­ger is someone who moves in to run,” Kwas­man quipped in an in­ter­view.

As Kwas­man and Kiehne gath­er sup­port­ers, Re­pub­lic­ans face the very real pro­spect of nom­in­at­ing a can­did­ate who is gaffe-prone, fin­an­cially in­ef­fect­ive, or both. That would ef­fect­ively end the race be­fore it starts, said Stan Barnes, a Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant and former state sen­at­or.

“If Kwas­man wins, the NR­CC will prob­ably score the dis­trict as a loss and may throw some token money at it but won’t really go in,” Barnes said. So far, the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee has re­served $1.95 mil­lion in air­time in the dis­trict in the fall.

Earli­er this week, Kwas­man’s cam­paign hit a low point when he claimed in an in­ter­view to have seen mi­grant chil­dren be­ing bused to Ari­zona, and even re­coun­ted “the fear on their faces” be­fore be­ing in­formed by a re­port­er that the chil­dren he saw were from a loc­al school dis­trict on a bus to a YMCA camp.

Kwas­man has also struggled to raise funds. He raised less than $75,000 in the second quarter of the year, and had only $88,000 cash on hand. To­bin and Kiehne both had far more cash, and Kirk­patrick has about twice as much as all three Re­pub­lic­ans com­bined.

About two weeks be­fore fil­ing his fun­drais­ing re­port, Kwas­man prom­ised “a huge in­crease from last quarter to this quarter.” That was tech­nic­ally true — he raised only $28,000 in the first quarter, which is why his op­pon­ents see money as Kwas­man’s biggest weak­ness if he were to ad­vance to the gen­er­al elec­tion.

“You’ve got to have re­sources, and he doesn’t,” said Chris Baker, a spokes­man for Kiehne’s cam­paign, who de­scribed Kwas­man’s can­did­acy as “un­der­fun­ded and loud.”

Kiehne, mean­while, has had even more un­for­tu­nate quotes that would come back to haunt him in the gen­er­al elec­tion. He claimed in a de­bate that “99 per­cent of [mass shoot­ings] have been by Demo­crats pulling their guns out and shoot­ing people.” He also re­portedly com­pared po­lice of­ficers evac­u­at­ing res­id­ents dur­ing a wild­fire to the Nazi SS in an in­ter­view with The Ari­zona Re­pub­lic.

Kiehne “would be a poster child for Demo­crats if he were able to win” the primary, Cough­lin said.

To­bin, mean­while, has tried to draw at­ten­tion to Kwas­man’s and Kiehne’s mis­takes, al­though this has dir­ec­ted voters’ ire to­ward the Re­pub­lic­an field rather than Kirk­patrick. He called on Kiehne to drop out of the race after his com­ment on shoot­ings, and his cam­paign ac­cused Kwas­man of play­ing in­to lib­er­als’ hands after his em­bar­rass­ing in­ter­view.

To­bin cam­paign man­ager Bill Cortese called Kwas­man a “laugh­ing stock” in a press re­lease, say­ing, “The video is go­ing vir­al, and just like that he has turned this is­sue in­to a joke — just what the left and the lib­er­al me­dia wants.”

If Re­pub­lic­ans fail to field a can­did­ate who can put suf­fi­cient pres­sure on Kirk­patrick, it would spoil what has been a per­fect re­cord for the party so far this cycle in open seats and blue seats. In every po­ten­tial swing-seat race that also has a com­pet­it­ive Re­pub­lic­an primary, the es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates who were seen as be­ing more elect­able have pre­vailed. In New Jer­sey, Tom Ma­cAr­thur pre­ven­ted a Steve Loneg­an can­did­acy that loc­al Re­pub­lic­ans viewed as an im­pend­ing dis­aster; in Iowa, Dav­id Young beat Brad Za­un, whose per­son­al bag­gage had already de­railed a 2010 run; in Vir­gin­ia, Bar­bara Com­stock emerged from a crowded primary as the fa­vor­ite in an in­creas­ingly purple dis­trict; and in New York, the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment sent Lee Zeld­in on to chal­lenge Rep. Tim Bish­op and Elise Stefanik won the nom­in­a­tion in re­tir­ing Rep. Bill Owens’s dis­trict.

Qual­i­fied Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates have put the party in a strong po­s­i­tion na­tion­ally by win­ning tough primar­ies, said NR­CC na­tion­al press sec­ret­ary Daniel Scarpinato.

“Re­pub­lic­ans have the strongest field of chal­lenger can­did­ates we’ve ever seen,” he said in a state­ment. “They ran smart, ag­gress­ive primary cam­paigns and are more than pre­pared to take on the Demo­crats in Novem­ber.”

To­bin is the clear es­tab­lish­ment pick in this race, with en­dorse­ments from Mitt Rom­ney and the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce. But he has been forced to play de­fense on even some minor le­gis­lat­ive is­sues. He made en­emies in 2012 with then-state Sen. Sylvia Al­len and the state’s mil­it­ant wing of bor­der-se­cur­ity en­thu­si­asts when he de­clined to call a vote on a bill Al­len sponsored that would have cre­ated a state-sanc­tioned bor­der mi­li­tia. He has taken cri­ti­cism for sup­port­ing a bill on state edu­ca­tion stand­ards that Kwas­man op­posed be­cause it aligned with Com­mon Core stand­ards. And Kwas­man has faul­ted him for even­tu­ally giv­ing in to Gov. Jan Brew­er’s ef­forts to ex­pand Medi­caid, which To­bin did not ac­tu­ally sup­port.

Kwas­man, mean­while, has es­sen­tially no ob­jec­tion­able votes.

“He hasn’t had to wheel and deal,” said Al­len, who en­dorsed Kwas­man. “To­bin’s totally an es­tab­lish­ment guy. He owes many, many fa­vors.”

To­bin’s one oth­er ma­jor dis­ad­vant­age in the primary is that the en­thu­si­ast­ic con­ser­vat­ives sup­port­ing Kwas­man be­lieve Kirk­patrick is so vul­ner­able that any Re­pub­lic­an could beat her. Kwas­man noted that the dis­trict has many “cop­per Demo­crats” who could sup­port a Re­pub­lic­an. Al­len agreed, say­ing the dis­trict is too con­ser­vat­ive for Kirk­patrick and that the primary should be about con­ser­vat­ism rather than To­bin’s sup­posed elect­ab­il­ity.

“Amer­ica is in a civil war,” she said. “It’s a blood­less civil war, but we’re in a civil war. We’re so di­vided on the is­sues, on our prin­ciples.”

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