David Schweikert has spent two years itching for a rematch with U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell, and with a commanding win in the Republican primary for Arizona’s 5th Congressional District, he’ll get another chance in a far more favorable atmosphere.
Schweikert, the Republicans’ 2008 nominee against the two-term Democrat, earned 37.5 percent of the vote in the Aug. 24 primary, easily disposing of his five competitors. The former Maricopa County treasurer received about 22,000 votes, while his closest competitors, Jim Ward and Susan Bitter Smith each had about 14,000 votes.
Schweikert’s campaign maintained a consistent conservative message in rapping Mitchell for his votes on health care reform and the federal stimulus package.
“These things are just destroying jobs and racking up massive debt,” he said. “We stayed very focused on what we believe Congressman Mitchell has done wrong.”
In the final weeks before the primary, Schweikert essentially declared victory, and his campaign said he was so far ahead of the pack that no other Republican candidate could catch him. Schweikert’s campaign stood by the statement, even after he reneged on his claim that he would cut back on his advertising spending for the rest of the primary.
For Bitter Smith, the loss marks the end of her third run for Congress. The public affairs consultant and former Scottsdale city councilwoman said money was the difference-maker in the campaign. Schweikert and Ward each spent about 2 ½ times more than she did.
“I’m not disappointed … ,” said Bitter Smith, who said she called Schweikert to offer her support and help in defeating Mitchell. “I think there are great issues that Republicans have to talk about against Democrats.”
Ward, a venture capitalist who moved from California to Arizona in 2008, outspent Schweikert, but was branded a carpetbagger by his opponents for launching his congressional run so soon after moving to the state.
Ward attended college in Arizona in the early 1980s, but was unable to shake the outsider label given to him by Schweikert and Bitter Smith, both of whom have deep roots in the Scottsdale-based district.
Chris Salvino, a Phoenix doctor, marketed himself as a health care professional who would help turn back President Obama’s historic health care law. But his professional background didn’t give him the boost he’d sought, leaving him in fourth place in the crowded primary.
Mitchell bested Schweikert by 9 points in 2008, but the political climate in 2010 is far different than two years ago. The Democratic waves that swept Mitchell into office in 2006 and re-elected him two years later appear to have subsided, and Republicans are expected to retake congressional seats in many districts nationwide.
Mitchell must deal not only with the anti-incumbent and anti-Democratic sentiment sweeping the country, but also with the demographics of his own district. Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 40,000 voters in the Arizona’s 5th Congressional District, which Mitchell initially won against an incumbent Republican – J.D. Hayworth – who had been sullied due to associations with lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“It was a radically different environment,” Schweikert said of the 2008 campaign, noting that at the time independents swung toward Democrats. “Now those independents have had the opportunity to live under liberal dominance. It will be a very different campaign and a very different election year.”
Mitchell spokeswoman Melissa Hodgdon said the centrist Democrat isn’t concerned about the political climate, which is expected to favor Republicans in November.
Republicans may try to tie Mitchell to President Obama or other unpopular Democrats, Hodgdon said, but voters in the district know Mitchell and they know he doesn’t just vote with party leadership every time, as evidenced by his votes against Democratic budgets and cap-and-trade legislation.
“Every race he’s ever run – and I think this is number 18 – there’s always been a Republican edge,” Hodgdon said. “There are plenty of things in his record that show he doesn’t just vote along party lines.”
Schweikert ran a well-funded campaign for the GOP nomination, and showed more than $200,000 in cash on hand in his last campaign finance report. But Mitchell has more than $800,000 on hand.
Writer Bill Bertolino contributed to this report