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National GOP Hits Arizona Frosh

As they build a case against Democrats representing Republican-leaning House districts, the national GOP campaign committees have been going directly to the source, targeting local media with a barrage of press hits criticizing Democrats’ votes on key issues ranging from organized labor to the Iraq War. Nowhere is this strategy more apparent than in Arizona.

With the Arizona Republican Party in the midst of an internal schism and short on staff, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee have been providing the only organized effort aimed at softening up support for freshman Democratic Reps. Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords, who represent the 5th and 8th districts, respectively.

“There’s very much a local focus, in terms of communications strategy,” said one Republican operative familiar with NRCC strategy. “There are not as many national [press] releases going out. They’re sending rhetorical hits straight into the district.”

The multi-pronged public relations attack being waged by both the NRCC and the RNC involves newspapers in the districts and a heavy dose of local talk radio. The plan is to box in these Democratic Members between their Republican and like-minded independent constituents who voted for them with the expectation that they would govern as moderates, and a liberal base that, with a Democratic majority, expects allegiance to its causes.

Last week, RNC Chairman Mike Duncan appeared on talk radio in Tucson — the 8th district’s main media market — to criticize Democrats generally, and Giffords in particular, for voting in favor of both the Iraq resolution denouncing President Bush’s “surge” plan, and the Employee Free Choice Act, which is supported by organized labor and would eliminate mandatory secret ballots for employee elections on whether to unionize.

“There are a lot of Democrats with constituents not quite as liberal as Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) or the regulars at the DailyKos Web site,” said RNC spokesman Dan Ronayne. “Democrats are running a risk by overly pandering to that crowd.”

Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman Alice McKeon questioned the effectiveness of the Republican effort to discredit Giffords and Mitchell, saying it is evident that the attacks are emanating from Washington, D.C., and not from operatives who understand the Arizona electorate.

McKeon also expects Republicans to suffer from the split within the Arizona Republican Party, which stems in part from one key state GOP activist’s opposition to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the presidential contender’s support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — as well as his advocacy for campaign finance reform.

New state GOP Chairman Randy Pullen, who is staunchly opposed to illegal immigration, won a close vote for party leadership against the more moderate Lisa James on the strength of the backing he received from the anti-McCain activist Rob Haney.

Haney controlled a large number of the state GOP central committee votes needed to win the chairmanship, and he swung most of those votes in favor of Pullen — despite the fact that the state’s entire Republican Congressional delegation supported James.

Subsequently, the entire staff of the Arizona Republican Party declined to work for Pullen and promptly quit. The replacements for key positions were brought in from out of state, including Executive Director Sean McCaffrey, who worked in Oklahoma last cycle, and Communications Director Brett Mecum, who worked in New York.

McCaffrey said it would be a while before a new political director is hired, saying he would perform both jobs for the time being. McKeon said she expects the GOP rift to benefit state Democrats generally — and particularly the re-election campaigns of Giffords and Mitchell.

“The people they’ve hired, they don’t have a strong base of Arizona knowledge,” McKeon said, adding: “Not having unified support is a tough thing to manage, especially when part of that split involves John McCain.”

Arizona proved fruitful in the previous cycle for Democrats.

Mitchell beat incumbent Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) in the 5th district, and Giffords won the 8th district left open by retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) despite the fact that Republicans hold a 16.4-point edge among enrolled voters in the former and a 5.5-point advantage among registered voters in the latter.

For Republicans to put a sizable dent in the Democrats’ 30-seat House majority in 2008, they’re going to have to do it in Republican-friendly seats like these.

Expecting the seats to be targeted heavily, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has named both Giffords and Mitchell to its “Frontline” program, which entitles them to extra financial and operational support as long as they meet certain campaign benchmarks.

Giffords has cut a moderate image attractive to 8th district voters, who re-elected Kolbe for two decades partly because of his centrist politics. Mitchell’s record in the state Legislature suggested that he might be too liberal for the more conservative 5th district, but the well-known and well-liked former mayor of Tempe was a hit with voters nonetheless.

With Mitchell taking a prominent role in the investigations into the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and Giffords working on immigration reform, the DCCC feels both Members are positioning themselves for re-election.

“Reps. Giffords and Mitchell are off to a strong start,” said DCCC spokesman Fernando Cuevas. “Both Members have shown great leadership and we have full confidence in them.”

In the 8th district, Republicans believe they have the antidote to Giffords in state Senate President Tim Bee (R). Arizona has a resign-to-run law, and therefore Republicans don’t expect Bee to make any announcements until early next year, though his entry likely would clear the GOP field.

One Republican operative based in Arizona said Giffords benefited last cycle from her opponent, conservative former state Rep. Randy Graf (R), whose candidacy was based in large part on his opposition to illegal immigration. Graf was seen as too hard-line for the 8th district, and this operative said Bee would bring moderate Republicans and like-minded independents back into the GOP fold.

“A lot of people voted for Giffords over Graf because they viewed his rhetoric on immigration as overheated. That won’t be the case this time,” the Republican insider said.

Because it leans more Republican than the 8th district and is seen as more winnable for the GOP, the 5th district boasts a bevy of potential Republican candidates.

Among them: Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman, who was in Washington earlier this month making the rounds; 2002 gubernatorial nominee, ex-state GOP Chairman and former Rep. Matt Salmon; Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert; public interest lobbyist Jim Ogsbury; and Sean Noble, who is chief of staff to Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.).

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