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GOP grassroots battle for party control

The man seen as the leader of Arizona’s grassroots Republican movement was ousted last month in his bid to remain top dog in his legislative district, a move seen by party loyalists as either heavy-handed interference by the congressional delegation or as the first step in retaking control of the party.
“We’re having a grassroots fight for the soul of the party,” said lobbyist Kevin DeMenna, a longtime Republican activist. “The Republican Party has bottomed and we are recovering… (District) 11 is the canary in the mine.”
The change he points to in Legislative District 11, which includes parts of Phoenix and Paradise Valley, was last month’s electoral defeat of Rob Haney, a frequent and vocal critic of Sen. John McCain and other high-ranking Republicans.
Haney failed in his bid for re-election as chairman of the district GOP. Steve Tully, former majority leader in the Arizona House of Representatives and a one-time McCain aide, defeated Haney by 12 votes in the Nov. 25 election.
Precinct- and district-level politics is the bedrock of political activity and the place where many elected officials get their starts. But what happens at that grassroots level typically doesn’t elicit such exuberant remarks from the party faithful.
Nathan Sproul, a political consultant and former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, said the battle for control of District 11 was the latest clash between warring factions within the party.
“There’s a faction that believes that, if you don’t believe with them 100 percent of the time, you’re not a Republican,” he said. “Then there’s the group that echoes what Ronald Reagan said, that if someone agrees with you 80 percent of the time, you don’t treat him as a 20-percent enemy.”
Rob Haney personifies the former description. He is unabashed in his conservative principles and is strident in his belief that the recent failings of the Republican Party — the presidential election this year, congressional elections this year and two years ago — are because elected Republicans have been too liberal. Those people shouldn’t be in the party, he said.
“We see this in a much larger context,” he said. “We see this in the context of saving the country.”
The biggest difference between the two groups is largely a philosophical one: What is the purpose of the Republican Party? Is it, as Haney’s critics say, to get Republicans elected to office? Or is it to “stand up for the platform values,” as Haney sees it?
“The Rob Haney wing of the party, I think, would be content to hold 20 percent of the electorate who agree with them,” said Sproul. “Unfortunately, you have to get 50-percent-plus-one (to win).”
The fight for control of the party by no means ended with Haney’s defeat. Next month, the sides will once again clash when the Maricopa County Republican Party elects officers — Haney is now running for chairman of that group — and when the state party elects its leaders.
And, despite DeMenna’s confidence that the tide is turning away from the Haney-led crowd, others in the party aren’t so sure the results of those upcoming elections are in the bag just because of one district’s election.
“You can only identify something as a harbinger or an aberration in hindsight. I think it’s too soon to determine which one (Haney’s loss) is,” said Farrell Quinlan, who was recently elected chairman of the District 20 Republican Party.
Don Hesselbrock, a precinct committeeman in District 11 and supporter of Haney’s, said the changing of the guard in his district was due to retaliation from McCain and is not representative of what’s going on large-scale within the party. Haney opposed McCain in his bid for the presidency until the final months of the campaign.
“I’m not sure that this win really says more than John McCain wanted to get even with Rob Haney. I don’t know that you can extrapolate that it means anything else,” he said. “Those two (upcoming) elections will tell you whether District 11 was the canary in the coalmine or just a grudge match.”
Both sides are acutely aware of what is at stake. During the run-up to the September primary elections, when voters elect precinct committeemen, each side formed political committees and sent mail to voters urging the election of various slates of the party’s foot soldiers.
Precinct committeemen are important, not just because they elect district leaders, but because each district is awarded one state committeeman for every three of its PCs. The battle over the reins of the party will be most visible when those state committeemen meet Jan. 24 to elect a state party chairman.
Randy Pullen, who defeated Lisa James two years ago by four votes, is seeking re-election as state party chairman. Although Republicans in Arizona have increased the number of legislative seats under Pullen’s leadership, DeMenna and others are pushing for a change in leadership, much like they were in District 11.
Still, no one has stepped up to challenge Pullen. The most likely candidate, said multiple sources who asked not to be identified, is James, but she was out of the state and could not be reached for comment.
Whether the result of a head-to-head contest between Pullen and James in 2008 would have a different result than two years ago remains to be seen, but even a small shift in those elected as state committeemen could have a huge result.
“Considering that Pullen won by four votes two years ago, every vote obviously counts,” Sproul said.?

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