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Ariz. Governor Seeks to Avoid Replay of 1st District Debacle

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) and state Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson are working hard behind the scenes to restructure the organization’s approach to Congressional primaries in hopes of quickly settling on a consensus Democratic candidate for the race against freshman Rep. Rick Renzi (R) in the 1st district.

The state party committee is set to consider a resolution crafted by its Primary Election Task Force on April 26 that would greatly expand its ability to play a role in determining the strongest Democratic candidate.

Napolitano “has a great interest in district 1,” said a source close to the governor. One senior leadership aide was more blunt: “Janet Napolitano is hellbent on clearing the primary.”

For his part, Pederson has already met with a number of potential candidates, and several of the top-tier candidates have also met to discuss the race.

Among the potential recommendations being considered by the Task Force are a bolstering of the state party’s ability to sponsor polling and handle some opposition research on the candidates, according to one knowledgeable source.

Paul Hegarty, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, said it is unlikely the state party will get clearance to endorse specific candidates. There is whispering, however, that the party could express a preference for one — or more — candidates.

“We want to find some process to make sure our candidates are fully prepared if they win the primary,” Hegarty explained.

Regardless of the outcome of the state party meeting, Democrats see the seat as one of their best pickup chances in 2004.

“It is a heavily leaning Democratic seat and Renzi eked out his win in the last cycle,” noted Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Kori Bernards.

The sprawling 1st district, which was created by a nonpartisan redistricting panel following the 2000 Census, was one of two new seats the state gained and was drawn to be a tossup between the parties. It encompasses much of northeastern Arizona.

President Bush would have won 51 percent in the district, but registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 35,000, according to the Arizona secretary of state.

Renzi, who did not return calls for comment, defeated venture capitalist George Cordova (D) 49 percent to 46 percent, a defeat that effectively slammed the door on Democrats’ chances of retaking the House.

Democrats blamed their inability to win the seat on the crowded June primary that produced Cordova, a surprise nominee.

Cordova narrowly defeated Apache County Attorney Steve Udall — the cousin of Reps. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) — 22 percent to 20 percent. State Sen. Diane Prescott took 18 percent, and former Clinton administration aide Fred DuVal won 16 percent.

All four are considering another bid in 2004. Pinal County Attorney Robert Carter Olson is also looking at the race on the Democratic side.

Cordova ran particularly strong in the American Indian communities of the district, which had unusually high turnout because of a gaming initiative on the ballot as well as concurrent tribal elections. The district is nearly 23 percent American Indian, according to the 2000 Census.

Cordova’s Mexican-American heritage also helped him in the Hispanic community, which accounts for roughly 15 percent of the district’s population.

Renzi won his party’s nod with 25 percent of the vote, largely as a result of his significant personal donations to the campaign.

Renzi continued to spend freely from his own pocket in the general while Cordova did not. The National Republican Congressional Committee also pummeled Cordova on his alleged failure to pay taxes.

“The real question is which candidate can raise the money,” said a Napolitano source about the ongoing candidate recruitment process. “We don’t want to get into the same situation as last year.”

Renzi made a splash shortly after the election by arguing that the ads run by the NRCC had nearly cost him the election and calling for the ouster of then NRCC Chairman Tom Davis (Va.), who was term-limited out of the post at the end of the 2002 election anyway. Davis is now chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

Renzi has settled in since that incident, posting $209,000 raised in the first three months of 2003. He had $178,000 on hand and carried $547,000 in debts largely owed to himself.

All but $20,000 of his first-quarter contributions came from political action committees, many of whom are affiliated with various House Republican leaders.

Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (Texas) Americans for a Republican Majority PAC gave Renzi $14,550 ($5,000 of which was dedicated to retiring Renzi’s debt), and Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (Ill.) Keep Our Majority PAC pumped $10,000 into Renzi’s campaign coffers. The leadership PACs of NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) donated $5,000 apiece to Renzi.

“Mr. Renzi is doing everything he needs to do to ensure his re-election,” said NRCC Communications Director Carl Forti. “He had a solid fundraising quarter and continues to work hard for the people of Arizona.”

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