The slogans of candidates in the three-way Republican primary race in Congressional District 1 suggest a brawl is coming.
House Speaker Andy Tobin calls himself “battle-tested.”
One-term State Rep. Adam Kwasman wants to be known as a “fighter.”
And rancher Gary Kiehne says he’s fed up with politicians like them.
One of them will advance to the main event versus incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in one of the most competitive congressional races in the nation this election year. The Cook Political Report lists the race as a toss-up, and Roll Call labels Kirkpatrick as having a slight edge on her Republican challengers.
Democratic interest groups have spent at least $256,000 on ads against Republican frontrunner Tobin, the politically powerful and well-connected state House speaker.
The National Republican Congressional Committee lists both Tobin and Kiehne as “on the radar” among promising candidates in competitive races.
Early voting begins July 31.
HITTING THE ROAD
The district is vast, covering nearly all of Eastern Arizona, stretching from Tucson’s northern suburbs all the way to the state’s northern border.
With so much ground to cover, name recognition is one of the main obstacles for candidates, even Tobin.
Son Michael is behind the wheel while Tobin works as they travel around the state. Tobin jokes he knows where all the cellphone-reception dead zones are on the highways.
The travel is tough but important, he said.
“People want to know that you’ve walked in their shoes, that you’ve walked on their land, and that you care,” Tobin told voters during a campaign stop in Marana.
Kwasman said he’s touring with hard work, little sleep and a lot of music mixes given to him by friends. This month he held events in four counties.
Kiehne has focused his attention on his base in the White Mountains region, with visits to Northern and Southern Arizona. “We’ve been shaking a lot of hands, we’ve been kissing a lot of babies,” he said at a debate in SaddleBrooke.
RECORDS AND REMARKS
Although audiences seem to appreciate Kiehne’s candor, his comments have caused him trouble.
Both Tobin and Kwasman said Kiehne should leave the race following a debate in Florence when Kiehne said most mass shootings “have been by Democrats pulling their guns out and shooting people.”
Kiehne apologized for the remark, saying he had been misinformed. He said unlike some politicians he is capable of taking responsibility when he makes a mistake.
Kiehne’s opponents pointed to other remarks in which he compared Vietnamese refugees to illegal immigrants from Mexico and said police evacuating residents from a wildfire were like Nazi police, for which Kiehne has not apologized.
In debates, the three candidates spend time talking about who’s the most conservative and who dislikes Obamacare most.
Tobin has an eight-year record in the state Legislature.
The first time he ran for a state House seat, he won the primary election by 42 votes, forever convincing him that every vote counts, he said. Subsequent victories came a bit easier.
He’s backed some controversial bills, including SB 1070, the state’s tough anti-immigration policy.
Talking about his record, he says voters want an experienced negotiator who has demonstrated courage to make tough choices.
“It’s not always pretty making sausage. It just isn’t,” he told the Pima County Republican Women’s Club. “There are some tough calls you have to make from time to time.”
But those calls helped position Arizona to lead the nation in expected job growth last year, Tobin said.
Kwasman, a fiery public speaker, says choices are easy and he would stick to the principles of limited government and free-market economics.
“If I sell out these principles that you’re hearing here today, I expect you to boot me,” he told a Marana audience.
He says he knows how Washington, D.C., works, having worked as a page and intern for former Rep. Jim Kolbe.
Kwasman calls Tobin a “big-government, big-spending conservative.”
“I believe government exists to protect individual liberty,” Kwasman said, charging Tobin “sees government as a tool with which to further an agenda. I think that’s a huge difference.”
In the past year, Tobin supported bills to exclude manufacturers and smelters from having to pay sales tax on electric and gas bills and to provide public funding for next year’s Super Bowl in Glendale. Kwasman opposed them.
Both Kwasman and Tobin voted yes on the controversial religious-freedom bill that could have allowed discrimination based on a “sincerely held” religious belief; on the creation of a new child protection agency; on the expansion of tax credits to benefit private schools; and on a $9.24 billion budget package.
On the expansion of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, Arizona’s Medicaid program, Tobin tried to block Gov. Jan Brewer’s plan and then to negotiate an alternative, but ultimately he couldn’t get enough votes to stop it. A suit by Tobin and other Republicans to block the expansion is pending before the state Supreme Court. He passed a bill limiting eligibility for the program, but Brewer vetoed it.
Kwasman likewise worked and voted against the Medicaid expansion, and is part of the suit to overturn it.
Kiehne is a newcomer to politics, and he counts that as an asset. When Tobin and Kwasman argue in front of an audience, Kiehne is quick to call it politics as usual.
He said Tobin is a career politician and Kwasman is too eager. “Mr. Kwasman has not even finished his term and he wants to be advanced,” Kiehne said at the SaddleBrooke debate.
“I want to lend my business experience back in Washington to be able to try to talk common sense into a bunch of gristle-heads,” Kiehne said in Florence.
THE “ROGUE WAVE”
Kirkpatrick looked to be unbeatable until the crisis of child immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border came up this month, said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican political consultant and president of HighGround in Phoenix.
A Republican candidate might be able to ride the coattails of the unpopularity of the President and the Democratic party, he said.
Statewide polling of Republican primary voters this month showed the border and immigration are more important to voters than ever, he said. About half of voters identified it as a hot issue in June 2010, just after the State Legislature passed SB1070. Now, 59 percent say it’s a top concern, Coughlin said.
If Kirkpatrick doesn’t respond well to this “rogue wave” of an issue, she could be more vulnerable, he said.
Kiehne, with his “penchant for saying colorful things” and his money, could win votes with steady communication on the immigration issue, Coughlin said.
By the end of March, Kiehne had raised the most money, about $434,000, including $205,000 of his own money.
Tobin, with his center-right campaign, could pull in significant support from independents and rural Democrats, Coughlin said.
Tobin had raised about $385,000 by the end of March, including help from business leaders, auto dealers and sports executives.
Tobin said the race is winnable for him because of his public safety and business relationships.
Kwasman had raised about $131,000 through March. He acknowledges, “I will be outspent,” but said he’ll announce a “tremendous increase” in fundraising over last quarter.
The next quarterly campaign finance reports are due in two weeks.
Kwasman said as a state representative he already represents 40 percent of Republicans in Congressional District 1.
He says Kirkpatrick is the extreme opposite of what voters want.
“This ain’t Gabby Giffords or Mo Udall,” Kwasman told an audience in Marana. “This is a radical Democrat in a Republican-leaning district.”
An ideology analysis by GovTrack found Kirkpatrick is more center-left than extremely liberal.
Kirkpatrick is gearing up for the fight ahead. She had raised about $1.5 million by the end of the first quarter.
“Ann wins tough races because of her deep roots in the district and the broad coalition of support that she has built. Folks recognize that Ann is a problem-solver who works across the aisle to get results,” said D.B. Mitchell, her campaign spokesman.
Kirkpatrick will count on continued support from female voters from both parties.
“Regardless of party affiliation or region,” Mitchell said, “women support Ann because of her commitment to issues that matter — fair pay, good jobs, affordable health care and quality education.”