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O’Halleran keeps running against the odds

Crowded GOP primary to challenge incumbent Blue Dog Democrat

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz.,  marches in the Chamber of Commerce parade in Flagstaff, Ariz., on July 4.
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., marches in the Chamber of Commerce parade in Flagstaff, Ariz., on July 4. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A lot of Democrats might have looked at the new configuration of the sprawling House district in northern and eastern Arizona and decided to retire. Not Tom O’Halleran.

President Joe Biden lost the new 2nd District, which includes Navajo Nation, the pine forests here and the traditionally Republican Prescott area, by 8 percentage points back in 2020, so it is no surprise that O’Halleran is among the most vulnerable House incumbents running this year. Biden narrowly carried his old district in 2020.

“I don’t think that way,” O’Halleran said, with a laugh, when asked before the kickoff of what is perhaps Arizona’s most iconic Fourth of July Parade. “Two-thirds of the district are still mine; it takes into account the tribal lands, all of them. That’s … a main source of support for me. It takes into account cities like Flagstaff and Williams and Winslow and other communities around the Verde Valley-Sedona area, and I’m well known throughout the district.”

O’Halleran, a co-chair of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, pointed out that he previously represented parts of the new congressional district when he served in the state legislature, so he did not have the challenges some of his colleagues are facing in having to introduce himself to new voters.

“Some of the field people are here today, but the underlying issue is this is an election about the kitchen table, and what I have done in my three terms as a congressman, and my history here in Arizona, and if that’s bad, then I wouldn’t probably be running,” O’Halleran said.

After the parade, O’Halleran and his wife, Pat, joined a large table of campaign staffers for a lunch of pizza and pasta and meatballs at local restaurant Fat Olives, where the congressman and campaign manager JoAnna Mendoza thanked aides for knocking on doors, making calls and raising money for the reelection bid.

“I’m also running because I’m not a believer that you put your gym shoes back on to walk out of the gym; you put your gym shoes on to play the game, and going to that game and playing the best you can,” O’Halleran said at the lunch, which CQ Roll Call was invited to attend.

Mendoza noted the importance of a tight-knit campaign staff and the challenges campaigns are having across the country retaining qualified staffers in a tight job market.

“I know everyone here knows it that there’s been hiring shortages across the nation. Campaigns are losing staff left and right,” Mendoza said. “And we’re really blessed to have the team that we have; you know, we’re small but mighty.”

“I think everyone here has a story about why they came to the team and why they want to work for Tom and why they’re helping him get reelected,” she said, before several campaign personnel spoke about just that.

Crowded GOP primary

But the configuration of the new district makes O’Halleran a particularly attractive target, and seven Republicans are competing in the Aug. 2 primary to take him on.

While polling is predictably scarce, the front-runner appears to be state Rep. Walt Blackman, who served more than two decades in the Army. He’s also the first Black Republican elected to serve in Arizona’s legislature, according to state records.

“Our district — this new district — is 80 percent of my legislative district; as you know I’m already a state representative. No. 2, it’s a rural district. We have different problems. We have different issues, so with forestry, roads, water, infrastructure — and we’re talking about internet infrastructure — different problems for the school district,” Blackman said before the parade. “So, the reason why that I chose to run is not just because the numbers look good, it is because those issues were not being addressed by the current seat holder, Tom O’Halleran.”

State Rep. Walt Blackman, a candidate for the 2nd District Republican nomination, speaks at a meeting of the Prescott Valley Republican Women on July 5. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The next day, Blackman was one of three candidates in the field to speak to a luncheon hosted by the Prescott Valley Republican Women, along with former Navy SEAL Eli Crane and Andy Yates, who has a background in foreign policy.

Through March 31, Crane led the field in fundraising, with new disclosures due later this week. His pitch to the conservative audience in a suburban restaurant focused on his ability to build teams.

“If you think for a second that you’re going to go into the swampiest place on Earth, with 435 members, 100 senators and the executive branch, and get something done by yourself, you’re out of your mind,” said Crane. “It’s gonna take people who can humble themselves, build a team, work well with others, and that’s something that I’ve been doing my whole adult life.”

Crane, like Arizona Republicans including Senate candidate Blake Masters, also spoke optimistically about impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and, potentially, Biden, in connection with the administration’s policies at the southern border. Responding to the influx of migrants was a front-and-center topic for Republicans across the board in the Grand Canyon State.

Both Blackman and Crane have expressed the view, despite the evidence presented, that Biden did not actually win the 2020 presidential election, with Crane having pushed for decertification. Yates was the only House candidate at the luncheon to acknowledge that President Donald Trump did not win.

“There’s a lot of folks in the Republican Party that want to look to the future,” Yates said, after saying the election was not stolen. “I think we make the changes that are necessary — and there’s a lot of them — and then we push forward and try to win by such big margins that the Democrats don’t get anywhere close.”

Ron Watkins, a prominent advocate of the QAnon conspiracy theory, is also on the ballot, as is the longtime mayor of Williams, Ariz., John Moore, and Camp Verde business owner and farmer Steven Krystofiak.

A map outlining Arizona’s new 2nd Congressional District lines sits on a table during a meet-and-greet event for Republican candidate Mark DeLuzio in Williams, Ariz., on July 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The seven-candidate field also includes Mark DeLuzio, a businessman with the backing of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was scheduled to hold an event and fundraiser with DeLuzio on Monday.

Regardless of which GOP challenger emerges from the Aug. 2 primary, O’Halleran signaled he plans to run a positive campaign.

“The political side of the equation for me is I’m a firm believer that you work with people, not against people. I’ve never had an ad, a mailer or anything like that, that’s been negative against my opponents, ever. And that’s, that’s just who I am. I learned that a long time ago as a police officer,” O’Halleran said. “You can make friends or you can make enemies. The job is to make friends and to be able to work with other people.”

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