Although Republicans are confident that Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl will cruise to re-election in 2006, Democrats maintain high hopes that they can knock off the state’s junior Senator.
Democrats’ hopes hinge on their ability to lure state party Chairman Jim Pederson, a wealthy real estate developer, into the race.
“He’s charismatic. He’s independently wealthy. He draws a contrast to Jon Kyl, who is out of the mainstream,” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
While Singer concedes it will not be an easy race, he says it is definitely a race that Pederson can win.
But Pederson remains coy about whether he’ll run.
“We’re taking a serious look at it,” he said. “Have we made a final decision yet? No.”
Ex-Rep. Sam Coppersmith, himself a former State Democratic Party chairman, said he believes that Pederson is leaning toward making a run.
“I can’t give you a definitive answer,” he said, “but my understanding is that he has a pretty favorable poll number saying he should run.”
A statewide poll conducted in late April by Arizona firm Wright Consulting Services showed Pederson trailing Kyl by almost 30 points, 47 percent to 16 percent. Democrats are not discouraged by the poll, saying the fact Kyl has less than 50 percent of a vote against an unknown candidate is damning.
“Kyl, I suspect, is by and large a cipher to a lot of people,” Coppersmith said. “He doesn’t have a strong personal profile.”
But the National Republican Senatorial Committee points out that a poll from the same time has Kyl up 54 percent to 23 percent over Pederson.
“Recent poll numbers have showed him very high with Hispanics,” said Brian Nick, a spokesman for the NRSC. Kyl’s “excellent/good” rating with the increasingly important voting bloc has held steady at 32 percent for the last year, he said. Only 11 percent rate his performance as “poor,” according to the Behavior Research Center poll.
A Republican familiar with Arizona politics believes that Pederson might face resistance to his candidacy from the Democratic rank and file, who are afraid that no one else is capable of doing the same amount of good for the party as chairman.
“The word is that Peterson has been keeping the party afloat financially,” the operative said, “and that there’s no outlook for donors. The party regulars want him to stay put or they’re up the creek.”
Pressure for Pederson to run is coming from outside consultants, the Republican suggested.
“It’s the consultants who have been all over him to run,” the operative said. “He’s got money to spend, and that’s how they make their living.”
Coppersmith concurs that there may be some structural opposition to a Pederson campaign, but that if he does decide to run he won’t face a serious challenge in the primary.
“There may be people … who don’t want to lose him for the party, and are afraid of who might take his place,” he said. “But is there another candidate who the diehards want to see run? I don’t think so.”
Coppersmith, who ran against Kyl in 1994, feels Kyl is particularly vulnerable this cycle, pointing to Social Security and immigration as two issues that could hurt him.
“Social Security is kind of an interesting issue” because of the number of retirees in the state, Coppersmith said. “Immigration is interesting because … you just don’t know where he comes down on this. He’s kept a very low profile.”
Kyl may just be biding his time, however. He and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) announced last month that by July, they would introduce legislation that would expand enforcement of border laws and grant those in the country illegally temporary worker status, but require them to leave in a certain amount of time.
Meanwhile, Singer said Kyl may be hurt by a floor vote on funding for Humvees in the military. Not only can Kyl’s vote be portrayed as anti-military, he said, but the bill created a number of jobs for his constituents as the plant that makes the vehicles is located in Arizona.
Another wild card in the Senate race is the makeup of the rest of the ticket in 2006. While Kyl had a decided advantage in his first two elections (the Republican Revolution of 1994 and no Democratic opposition in 2000), the governor’s race in 2006 will be a tough one for the GOP.
Wildly popular Democratic incumbent Janet Napolitano is running for re-election, and the Republicans have yet to find a top-tier challenger. While the state leans Republican, any trend in terms of voter turnout in the governor’s race could affect candidates down the ballot.
Former Napolitano campaign manager Mario Diaz said that her impact on the race will be a net positive for whomever the eventual Democratic Senate candidate is.
“I think in general,” Diaz said, “Napolitano will excite the Democratic base and bring moderate Republicans out in higher numbers.” Diaz believes the moderate Republicans will not support Kyl as avidly as conservatives because “his politics do not match their politics.”
Other strategists agreed.
“At this point, Napolitano helps,” Singer said, “because Republicans are having trouble putting together a credible campaign. You’re going to see a scenario where we see a strong ticket with a governor who’s going to run a strong race. It will complement the Senate candidate and make a potent combination.”