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Desert Winds Blow for GOP?

McCain Helps Downballot

Arizona Sen. John McCain’s position as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is buoying GOP Congressional candidates in his home state, who believe that his presence at the top of the ticket gives them the edge against their Democratic opponents in November.

Republicans contend McCain could be worth an extra 5 points on Election Day for Arizona’s downballot GOP candidates, partly by discouraging the Democratic presidential nominee from competing for the state’s eight electoral votes and suppressing the amount of national Democratic money that will be spent there between now and November.

But officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Arizona Democratic Party said Friday that McCain will not affect their respective strategies for picking up House seats in the fall, citing as the primary reason the financial woes of both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Arizona Republican Party.

“I think the impact from the top of the ticket may be negligible,” DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said.

But NRCC spokesman Ken Spain argued that McCain’s positions on key issues will help Republican House candidates running in Arizona draw a sharp contrast between themselves and their Democratic opponents — especially in two GOP-leaning districts held by Democratic freshmen.

“Arizona Democrats couldn’t have asked for a worse scenario than to have to defend their abysmal records of tax hikes, runaway spending and broken borders in a presidential election year in the presumptive nominee’s home state,” Spain said. “For them, the time between now and November will feel like a long, hot walk across the desert.”

Democrats are unwilling to concede that McCain’s position as the GOP presidential nominee makes Arizona less attractive as a battleground in the race for the White House. But even if it did, they argue it would not affect the plans of the DCCC and ADP to protect their incumbents and challenge for two Republican-held open seats.

The Democrats have their eye on the 1st and 3rd districts, being vacated by retiring GOP Reps. Rick Renzi and John Shadegg, respectively. They are defending the 5th and 8th districts, where freshman Democratic Reps. Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords, respectively, are trying to win re-election in Republican-leaning territory. At the behest of 145 of his House GOP colleagues, Shadegg — who announced his retirement just a week ago — was reconsidering his plans as of press time.

The NRCC’s lack of funds — at least at this point — is one reason Democrats are confident about their plans to win seats in Arizona this cycle regardless of any boost McCain provides to downballot GOP candidates. The state Republican Party’s paltry bank account is another.

The NRCC finished 2007 with $5.4 million in the bank, compared with the DCCC’s $35.1 million. The state GOP finished the year with just $2,600 on hand, while the Arizona Democratic Party banked $92,000.

“The NRCC doesn’t have a whole lot of money to bring into the state, so I feel pretty good about our situation,” ADP spokeswoman Maria Weeg said.

One factor working in the GOP’s favor is the presidential election itself, say Republican strategists, particularly in districts held by freshman Members.

Because midterm elections historically draw fewer voters than presidential contests, there are a whole host of Arizonans who did not vote for either Mitchell or Giffords in 2006 but are likely to vote this year. And because the 5th and 8th districts both contain significantly more enrolled Republicans than Democrats, the challengers stand to benefit at the ballot box in November, according to the GOP.

Republicans expect the increased-voter phenomenon to benefit their candidates in the 1st and 3rd districts, even though those seats are open, as the majority of voters who are likely to show up on Election Day are expected to be more sympathetic to McCain than to his Democratic opponent. The 3rd district is considered solid Republican territory, and the 1st has conservative tendencies despite having a majority of registered Democrats.

“Arizona is one state where we need help as Republicans, and McCain will deliver that,” GOP pollster Chris Wilson said. “With him at the top of the ticket, it puts far more in play and gives us 5 to 7 points we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

One Republican operative who focuses on Congressional races noted that President Bush typically has out-performed GOP House candidates in his home state of Texas, even as he tended to underperform them in other states. This operative expects McCain’s performance in House districts to look similar to the day after the 2008 elections.

Democrats aren’t convinced.

They note that McCain garnered less than 50 percent of the vote in his Arizona GOP presidential primary victory earlier this month, and they believe that signals weakness at home with his base. Democrats also point to the high level of enthusiasm among Democratic voters as compared to Republican voters — a fact they say has been borne out in voter turnout statistics and fundraising since the first presidential nominating contest was held Jan. 3 in Iowa.

“You’ve got to remember, [then-Vice President] Al Gore did not win Tennessee [in 2000],” Weeg said. “Arizona is not a done deal. We’re going to force him to fight here.”

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