With Rep. Rick Renzi’s (R-Ariz.) political future still clouded, Democrats in Arizona’s 1st district are jockeying for position in a primary that is shaping up to be both deep and competitive. State Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and state official Steve Owens appear to be particularly attractive to Democratic operatives in Washington, D.C.
Thus far, six individuals are on the radar screen of Arizona Democrats, including former television news reporter Mary Kim Titla — an American Indian who has already launched her campaign — as well as Kirkpatrick, who is poised to receive the backing of EMILY’s List.
Also considering a run are Owens, a former Congressional candidate who now runs the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality; attorney Howard Shanker; former Casa Grande Mayor Bob Mitchell, the brother of Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.); and Winslow Mayor Alan Affeldt, who has already pumped about $150,000 of his own money into the race.
“We have several strong candidates that are looking to bring honesty and integrity back to the representation of the district,” said Fernando Cuevas, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Arizonans want candidates that will represent the interests of their families, and that is what we are going to give them.”
Democratic charges that Renzi was ethically tainted failed to stick during last year’s campaign, and he beat attorney Ellen Simon (D) by 8 points to win re-election with 51 percent of the vote. But after a business connected to Renzi’s family was raided by the FBI in April, his political vulnerability heading into 2008 became readily apparent.
The Congressman stepped down from all of his committee assignments and was dropped from a special fundraising program for vulnerable House GOP incumbents, and Arizona Republicans find themselves circling the wagons.
One Republican operative based in Arizona predicted Renzi would in fact run for re-election. But this individual, noting the uncertainty of federal probes, believes the cloud of two Justice Department investigations into Renzi could remain as major campaigning begins, and expects more than one Republican to challenge the third-term Congressman in the September 2008 primary.
“Renzi is more vulnerable now than he’s been in the past,” the Republican operative said. “Democrats are going to spend a lot of money there and the race will be competitive.”
Of the Republicans mentioned as potential 2008 candidates, former Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett (R) and 2002 1st district primary candidate Sydney Hay would be most likely to challenge Renzi in a primary, speculated the GOP operative, who added that Hay could enter the race with the immediate backing of Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.).
The geographically vast and heavily rural 1st district is a majority Democratic district when it comes to party enrollment, but is conservative. Democrats who lean to the right on social issues have made it favorable territory for Renzi in his three successful races. His ability to connect with the key American Indian voting bloc also has aided his victories.
Even if Renzi did run for re-election, Titla as the Democratic nominee could cut into the Republicans’ recent hold on American Indian voters. The former reporter, an Apache Indian, enters the race with decent name identification, as she spent years on television in the media market — Phoenix — that broadcasts in the district.
Kirkpatrick, meanwhile, could have the inside-track for support from Washington. EMILY’s List, a group that backs Democratic women who favor abortion rights and is a key source of fundraising, has held discussions with her and is high on her candidacy. Other Capitol Hill players also are eying her favorably.
The process for securing an EMILY’s List endorsement is somewhat time consuming, but the organization indicated Monday that Kirkpatrick was in line for its endorsement should she formally enter the race. EMILY’s List Political Director Jonathan Parker said the discussions with Titla have led the group’s leaders to believe she is not going to run as a supporter of abortion rights.
“We are very high on Ann Kirkpatrick,” Parker said. “We’re still talking to [Titla], we haven’t cut off the conversation. But it sounds to us like she’s not running as a pro-choice candidate.”
If that is true, Titla could be positioned to garner the support of the 1st district’s significant population of socially conservative Democrats, many of whom are Mormon. Titla’s campaign could not be reached for comment on Monday.
In the previous cycle in the open Tucson-area 8th district, EMILY’s List chose from two pro-abortion rights female candidates in the Democratic primary, with the one the organization backed, now-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, going on to win the primary and the general election.
Bob Mitchell, the brother of freshman Rep. Harry Mitchell, is another intriguing potential candidate, said one Arizona Democrat.
Like his Congressman brother, Mitchell is a former mayor, ex-city councilman and longtime school teacher. His home base of Casa Grande is located in the southern portion of the district — most candidates, Democrat or Republican, come from the north — and is more likely to lean Democratic than the northern communities of Flagstaff and Prescott.
Casa Grande is situated in Pinal County, which is burgeoning Arizona’s fastest-growing county, and this Democratic operative believes a Mitchell candidacy could be the answer to how Democrats counter the success Republicans have had in the 1st district since Renzi was first elected in 2002.
“This is a huge area that Democrats could do well in,” this Democrat said. “But traditionally, candidates for CD 1 have come from Flagstaff.”
On the Republican side, about a half-dozen individuals continue to contemplate a run. But until Renzi’s legal situation and his 2008 intentions are more clear, the potential GOP candidates probably will keep their powder dry.
Three in particular that Republicans believe could be formidable include Bennett, rancher Steve Pierce and Hay.
Bennett is personally wealthy and would have the backing of the business community. Pierce also would be appealing to business interests and has the ability to pump $500,000 of his own money into the race.
Hay, a leader in an Arizona anti-tax group, also could self-fund to some degree.