The race to win the Republican nomination for an eastern Arizona Senate seat has turned an already-icy relationship between legislators into a super-heated contest, with both sides accusing each other of distortion and misrepresentation.
Even other elected officials have taken note of the campaigns’ tone in the expansive Legislative District 5, which, ironically, was once represented by iconic lawmaker Jake Flake, known for his easy demeanor.
“It has been very negative,” Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said.
The race has lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most-watched primaries in the state, and for good reason: It features big political names in Safford businessman Rep. Bill Konopnicki and Snowflake resident Sen. Sylvia Allen.
Konopnicki, who owns McDonald’s franchises, is a veteran Republican lawmaker and is regarded as a centrist.
Allen, who comes from the politically well-known Tenney family, is considered to be more conservative.
The pair has a history, dating back more than two years ago to the death of Flake, the former House speaker and state senator, which triggered a process to fill the vacated Senate seat and replace Flake’s name on the primary ballot.
Both Allen and Konopnicki vied to replace Flake on the ballot. Republicans from the district chose Allen.
And while Allen and Konopnicki both serve the same district, the two don’t work together.
Dust-up over fundraising
On the campaign trail, Allen has questioned Konopnicki’s conservatism and his support in the district. Konopnicki shot back, saying Allen supports amnesty.
One radio ad from Allen’s campaign claimed the Safford Republican is spending thousands of “Maricopa County dollars to try and buy Allen’s seat.”
She issued a news release in July saying her opponent’s finance reports show that “Konopnicki’s support is neither rural nor conservative” and claimed all of his campaign contributions came from outside the district.
Konopnicki, in response, questioned Allen’s understanding of campaign finances.
He said in a release that Allen needed a “math genius” to help her understand campaign finance reports. This was an apparent reference to her statement in an earlier Appropriations Committee hearing in which she asked for a “math genius” to explain part of the budget.
In the letter, Konopnicki said there are seven hospitals from the district that contributed to a hospital political action committee, which supports his candidacy.
“Somehow my opponent views these contributions as being ‘not local’ because the checks were sent from the association address,” he said.
The source of campaign contributions is but one of the disagreements in this heated primary race.
“It’s a very nasty campaign,” Konopnicki told the Arizona Capitol Times, adding that the tone is “fairly typical” of campaigns run by Constantin Querard, Allen’s political consultant.
Immigration stances attacked
But Querard said what Konopnicki is doing is “political cross-dressing.”
Querard said Konopnicki is probably the “most liberal Republican” in the House, but he’s running as a “Glenn Beck-9/12-tea party candidate.”
“If you want to run on your record, that’s fine. If you just want to make up a whole new record — if you just make the whole dang thing up — that will upset people because it’s not honest,” Querard said.
Konopnicki said he’s pro-life, pro-Second Amendment rights, and voted for $2.2 billion in tax cuts.
“If that’s not conservative, tell me what is,” he said.
The Allen campaign also hit Konopnicki for “distorting” his record on immigration.
In a recent statement, Allen said Konopnicki’s “open-borders history is at odds with what the voters want.”
Allen accused Konopnicki of working to prevent the employer sanctions law from passing in 2007, and criticized him for being absent on a vote involving immigration legislation similar to SB1070 last year. Allen also said Konopnicki only voted “yes” on SB1070 this year because he didn’t want to be the only Republican to balk at it.
Actually, Konopnicki voted “yes” on the employer sanctions legislation in 2007, although he was critical of it.
SB1070, which hasn’t been enforced in its entirety as a result of a court injunction, seeks to require the police to ask for a person’s immigration status if there is suspicion that the person is in the country illegally.
“When he went around and he said, I’m a ‘yes’ on SB1070 because I believe in secure borders — no, no,” said Querard. “You told The New York Times you were a ‘yes’ vote because you were afraid to vote your conviction.”
Actually, The New York Times quoted Konopnicki as saying: “Everybody was afraid to vote ‘no’ on immigration.” The April article went on to quote Konopnicki as saying he did not believe voting ‘no’ would “change the outcome.”
Konopnicki said he has always stated that Arizona’s borders need to be secured.
What he disagrees with is the approach that illegal immigration is the fault of employers, according to Konopnicki.
“It’s not the employer’s fault. It’s the federal government’s fault. And I have always said that,” he said. “I have said consistently all along we have to close the border. It’s the federal government’s responsibility. It’s not a cop out. It is what it is.”
Konopnicki’s campaign is pushing back.
An anti-Allen mailer said his rival “supports amnesty,” and quotes Allen as saying, “I would give amnesty today to many…”
The quote is part of a letter Allen wrote defending SB1070, and is actually very hawkish on the subject, saying she would only support amnesty if the Arizona border with Mexico was secure.
If not, “it will do no good to give them amnesty because thousands will come behind them and we will be over-run to the point that there will no longer be the United States of America but a North American Union of open borders,” Allen said in the letter.
High stakes election
The Aug. 24 primary contest is significant on many fronts.
In LD5, the Republican primary winner would be in a very strong position to win in the general election. Allen, for example, fended off a vigorous challenge from Democrat Bill Jeffers two years ago.
The winner of the primary will face Democrat Elaine Bohlmeyer in a district with a slight Republican registration advantage.
Allen or Konopnicki will help shape the Senate’s temperament in 2011, when the state will still face a host of major issues, such as the budget deficit and illegal immigration.
Additionally, either candidate’s support can be crucial in the race for the Senate presidency. And whoever becomes president will be in a position to set the tone for the Legislature.
Konopnicki, who is termed out in the House, has outraised and outspent Allen. The latest campaign reports showed that Konopnicki collected more than $97,000 and spent more than $110,000.
Allen, meanwhile, raised about $50,000 and spent nearly $32,000.
Konopnicki has also received the endorsement of Gov. Jan Brewer.
It remains to be seen whether the Safford Republican’s financial advantage and Brewer’s backing will help him defeat the Snowflake incumbent.
In any case, many believe the race is going to be tight.
“I think it’s, you know, (within) 1 or 2 percentage points. It’s pretty close,” said Chester Crandell, who is running for the House in the district.