As Paul Gosar left the Yavapai County Fair on Oct. 2, he saw a dime on the ground, leaned over to pick it up and put it into the hand of a young girl waiting in the entrance line.
“Here’s a dime,” Gosar said before standing up and saying hello to the girl’s parents.
If little things like that win elections, then Gosar’s campaign strategy may be right on target. The Flagstaff dentist has spent the past several months traveling across one of the most expansive and diverse congressional districts in the nation, sometimes making speeches, sometimes handing out campaign flyers, but mostly just shaking hands and assuring voters that he is one of them.
“I don’t speak foreign languages. I speak English, and I speak hick,” said Gosar, a Republican who is challenging U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. “I’ve always said that if you can sit and have a cup of coffee with somebody, shake their hand, it goes a long way.”
Gosar, who practices dentistry in Flagstaff, is trying to make as many casual introductions as possible before Nov. 2. Rather than focus on big campaign speeches and policy discussions, Gosar spends a lot of his time giving voters simple reassurances.
He tells them that he wants to fix problems in Washington D.C. He explains that the health care law was the result of an overreaching federal government. But more than anything else, he wants voters to believe he is one of them.
“This isn’t about me. It’s about we,” Gosar said to a crowd of about 20 supporters at the Oct. 3 opening of his Flagstaff campaign office. “We will win, and we’ll have the solutions ready, and I will champion those for you. I guarantee you that.”
The anti-incumbency mood and the disdain for the Democratic majority in Congress that’s driving this year’s elections play well for Gosar. He is running as an outsider with no political connections, and he has no voting record to criticize.
When talking policy, Gosar has promised to reverse or rewrite the health care law and lower taxes. And he frequently reminds residents of the district that his opponent voted for the health care law.
It’s a familiar trope for Republican candidates this year, but at the Yavapai County Fair, later that evening at a Prescott Tea Party candidate forum and the next day at the opening of his Flagstaff office, nearly every voter who spoke with the Arizona Capitol Times said they liked what they saw in Gosar.
Still, most of those voters said that they would vote for anyone who runs against Kirkpatrick.
Joe Cluck, a Navy veteran who lives in Flagstaff, said he’s always voted Republican and he would do so again this year, regardless of the candidate. He came to Gosar’s Flagstaff campaign office opening just to get a sense of what Gosar is like.
After listening to Gosar rail against Kirkpatrick and promise health care and tax reform, Cluck was on board.
“He seems like a good guy,” Cluck said. “He’s got good ideas about health care, and he sounds like he cares about vets, which is important for me.”
But most of Gosar’s promises come with a big caveat: It’s going to take more than one term in office to deliver.
“Are we going to repeal a health care bill with the current administration? No,” he said during the Yavapai Tea Party forum. “We’re going to prepare for 2012. That’s how we have to do this.”
Gosar said that to achieve the sort of health care reform he wants to see, he may have to spend several more years in Congress, despite his repeated and emphatic disdain for the idea of moving to Washington D.C. or becoming one of the “D.C. insiders,” a label that Gosar’s campaign has had success in assigning to Kirkpatrick.
To fix the health care system, Gosar gives a three-part approach: increase competition by eliminating the ability of health insurance companies to share information about costs; cut spending on public health care programs; and institute tort reform.
“Public health funding is everywhere,” Gosar said. “We don’t have a grasp on how that’s working and where the money goes. We need to calibrate those (programs). We’ve put tons of money into dinosaur medical infrastructure, and we could be getting a much better bang out of our buck.”
Gosar’s only past political experience was his involvement with the American Dental Association’s Council on Government Affairs from 2006 to 2009. He was vice chair during his last two years with the group.
But what Gosar lacks in political stature, he is making up for by brining well-known political figures into his camp. After coming out on top of the eight-way primary with 31 percent of the GOP vote, Gosar has managed to gain the support of all former opponents except Sydney Hay.
“One of the rules I’ve always heard is that Republicans eat their own,” Gosar said. “I want to put that to bed. So I’ve actually asked all of my competitors to get involved and support my campaign.”
Steve Mehta, a cardiologist who came in fifth place in the Republican primary, spoke alongside Gosar at an Oct. 2 event in Prescott to promote Proposition 106. In addition to touting the merits of the proposition, which aims to prevent the federal government from requiring Arizona residents to purchase health insurance, Mehta gave Gosar his blessing as the candidate who will put health care decisions back in the hands of individuals.
Gosar has promised to be more responsive to constituents than Kirkpatrick. He said he would return to the district every weekend if elected.
Gosar said he would spend one weekend in the Casa Grande area, another in the White Mountain area, another in the tribal areas of northeastern Arizona, another in the Prescott area and another in the areas around Flagstaff.
Rotating across the district on a regular basis is the best way to provide the level of attention that voters deserve, he said.
But during the campaign Gosar has ignored Kirkpatrick’s invitation to several debates, and he cancelled a television debate earlier this month due to a bizarre set of concerns regarding the television station’s studio presence in Phoenix.
Some potential voters in the district weren’t convinced that Gosar would be as responsive as he has promised.
Rick Lipary, an Army veteran who is affiliated with the local VFW club, approached Gosar during the grand opening of Gosar’s campaign office in Flagstaff to scold him for ignoring e-mails from potential supporters.
“There’s one place where I think you dropped the ball,” Lipary said. “What are you doing to get veterans involved in your campaign? I tried to e-mail your staff three times, and I didn’t hear anything back.”
Gosar said he is trying to work out kinks in his operation.
“This is the first time I’ve ever run a campaign, so we’re having some growing pains,” Gosar told Lipary before explaining his weekend strategy of rotating through the district.