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Republicans scramble to take on Mitchell in CD5

(From left to right) Lee Gentry, Susan Bitter Smith, David Schweikert, Chris Salvino and Jim Ward at a debate in Awhatukee. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

(From left to right) Lee Gentry, Susan Bitter Smith, David Schweikert, Chris Salvino and Jim Ward at a debate in Awhatukee. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

With few policy positions separating the frontrunners in Arizona’s 5th Congressional District, the candidates are relying on their qualifications, credibility and their ability to defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell in November as they seek the Republican nomination.

All speak about border security as the indispensable precursor to any other immigration reforms. All disparage the federal health care reform legislation that passed last spring with no Republican votes. And all said the federal stimulus package President Obama promoted and Congress passed last winter was ineffectual.

But David Schweikert and Susan Bitter Smith are each on their third run for Congress, and businessman Jim Ward said voters need a fresh face for the general election.

Schweikert and Bitter Smith, however, say Ward, who moved to Arizona in 2008, may be a little too fresh and have tagged him as a carpetbagger.

And with Republicans so focused on repealing Obama’s health care measure, Chris Salvino frequently mentions that he’s the only phsysician in the race, going so far as to appear on his website and campaign ads wearing doctor’s scrubs.

Schweikert, the GOP’s 2008 nominee against Mitchell, may not have the fundraising lead, but said he’s ahead where it matters and has essentially declared the race over. The campaign of the former Maricopa County treasurer said internal polling shows him so far ahead of the competition that it would be a waste of money to spend much more on the primary. Instead, Schweikert said he will save money to take on Mitchell.

Naturally, Schweikert’s opponents disagree. Bitter Smith said she believes she’s neck-and-neck with Schweikert, while Ward accused him of ignoring the 65 percent of voters who hadn’t yet cast their ballots.

Chris Salvino

Salvino, a Phoenix trauma surgeon, has emphasized his medical credentials, which he said are important in a year when health care is on so many voters’ minds. His list of financial contributors is dominated by health care professionals.

Schweikert had his chance in 2008, Salvino said, when Mitchell handed him a 9-point loss in a district that voted overwhelmingly for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Instead, Salvino said, he is the “right candidate to come back to.”

Salvino has never run for office, but is hoping his outsider status will be a boon this year.

“Some people think of me as an accomplished surgeon. Others think of me as an adventure-seeking veteran who flies jets and has a knack for business ventures,” Salvino said on his campaign website. “I am a hard working, citizen legislator with a unique set of skills that wants to restore the American dream …”

Salvino also said his military record is an important qualification as Congress and the White House decide how to handle the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

David Schweikert

Schweikert made no apologies for his 9-point loss in 2008, saying he was “right there with Mitchell” in the polls until the banking crisis became daily news in September of that year.

“Overnight, it became toxic to be a Republican,” he said.

But 2008 was a Democratic wave year — as was 2006, when Mitchell won the seat — and now Mitchell must seek re-election in what’s expected to be a Republican year, in a district where the GOP holds a significant voter registration advantage. Schweikert said his campaign’s polling shows him with a 7-point lead over Mitchell.

Schweikert, who runs a real estate investment firm, said his wife refers to him as “an accountant on steroids,” and he said that’s exactly what Congress needs to help roll back the federal government’s massive debt. On his website, he refers to himself as a “fiscal warrior” who will take on “D.C. big spenders.”

Susan Bitter Smith

Bitter Smith narrowly lost to Schweikert in the 2008 primary, and makes it clear that she thinks she would’ve fared better against Mitchell than Schweikert did.

“We nominated the wrong guy,” she said.

The public affairs consultant and former Scottsdale City Council member said Schweikert was too quick to declare the primary over, and said she thinks it’s a two-person race. She has deep roots across the district, she said, including the Tempe-based precincts that Schweikert lost to Mitchell in the last election.

Bitter Smith said she has been accessible to “disenchanted Democrats” and independents eager for change, as well as conservative Republicans. As a small-business owner — she runs the public affairs firm Technical Solutions — Bitter Smith said she understands what 5th District voters want, and said she’s the only candidate in the GOP field who can take down Mitchell.

“They’re looking for someone who has run a small business, has experienced and understands the damage that the Democratic members of Congress and Harry Mitchell have done to their businesses and their future,” she said.

Jim Ward

In a year when anti-incumbent sentiment is expected to run high, Ward said his background as a venture capitalist who has never run for public office makes him an ideal candidate to take on Mitchell.

But while Ward promotes his outsider status, Schweikert and Bitter Smith have criticized him for running for Congress after living in Arizona for only a short time.

Ward, however, said he has more history in Arizona than his rivals say. He said he’s a Midwesterner who came to the Valley in 1982 to attend what is now known as the Thunderbird School of Global Management. While there, he met his future wife, whom he married in a local ceremony before traveling out of state to begin a more than 20-year career in advertising and later, venture capital.

Of that period, Ward said that the couple’s “game plan” was always to return to Arizona. Once they adopted two daughters, he said, they did. That was in 2008.

“It was a long time before gravity was able to bring us back here,” he said.

Harry Mitchell

Each GOP candidate claims to be the one who can beat Mitchell in November, and some of them have accused the incumbent of avoiding voters.

To the contrary, he said, anyone can look at his publicly available schedule to see that he has met with dozens of business people, community leaders and typical residents on his frequent trips to the district.

“I come back every weekend,” he said.

Although he did not hold the in-person town halls of his first term, Mitchell said he held two call-in versions “where we talked to 30,000 people. I’m not sitting at home. I’m out in the public.”

Mitchell said he is receiving favorable messages from constituents about his support for bills he introduced to extend tax cuts signed into law by then-President George W. Bush and to reduce estate and capital gains taxes.

On immigration, he said he voted to build a border fence, to install additional technology to track immigrants attempting to illegally enter the U.S. and to deploy 3,000 additional troops to the border.

And on health care, Mitchell said he had made it clear that he would not support a bill that included a “public option” tied to Medicare benefits, and when it was written out of the final version, he voted for it.

— Mark Scarp is a freelance writer for the Arizona Capitol Times. Jeremy Duda is a staff writer.

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