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Tea Party taking aim at moderate Republicans in primary

Rep. John Fillmore (left) and Sen. Don Shooter are among conservative Republicans hoping to attract Tea Party support in their respective primary campaigns. (File photos)

It’s been two years since the Tea Party flexed its political muscles and sent more Republicans to the state Capitol than at any time in state history, and Tea Party activists haven’t put their tri-cornered hats back on the shelf yet.

Observers say the Tea Party will continue to be influential in this election — if its members pick their battles carefully.

Some districts will see the impact more than others. Matchups like the Senate races in legislative districts 13 and 16 may be decided by the activists themselves — both contests pit a Tea Party favorite against an incumbent establishment Republican.

In LD16, Sen. Rich Crandall is being challenged by Rep. John Fillmore, who hasn’t self-identified as a Tea Partier but has gotten support from the district’s Tea Party groups. Meanwhile, the LD13 race features legislative veteran Sen. John Nelson up against Sen. Don Shooter, whose heart may well pump tea instead of blood.

Shooter and Fillmore — both of whom are nearing the end of their first term in office — say they hope the Tea Party activists in their districts will help sway the primary in their favor.

“That would be nice. I would appreciate that,” Fillmore said. “If I thought they (supported me), I would feel a lot more comfortable about the amount of money that Mr. Crandall will have to run against me.”

Other lawmakers are going all-in on the Tea Party philosophy, as well.

Like Shooter, Rep. Michelle Ugenti carried the Tea Party mantle two years ago. To her, that means having a strong commitment to the principles of limited government, limited spending, and a strict adherence to the Constitution, as well as a willingness to challenge the status quo.

But even though the state is on a better track than it was two years ago — the budget has been balanced and there’s money in a rainy-day fund now — Ugenti said the pressure is still on from the voters.

“It’s like going on a diet,” she said. “If you’re looking to lose 50 pounds and you think you’re going to diet for three months and that’s it, you’re doing yourself a disservice. This is a lifestyle change. This is a course correction forever.”

Ugenti faces a three-way primary in Legislative District 23 against incumbent fiscal hawk Rep. John Kavanagh and newcomer Jennifer Petersen, a longtime school board member.

Petersen said she is intentionally positioning herself as a non-Tea Party conservative, and her message of practical fiscal conservatism is aimed at a different set of voters than Ugenti is targeting.

“Let’s get some solutions in place here, let’s not just grab headlines nationally,” Petersen said. “And that’s been really resonating for me, and I’m hearing it over and over again. What I’m hearing is that our priorities are confused at the Legislature.”

Courting the Tea Party may work in some races, say observers — but not all of them.

Because both LD13 and LD16 are heavily Republican, the primary will essentially decide the November election. And in both cases, Shooter and Fillmore have a built-in early advantage: Primaries tend to attract more ideological voters who are more likely to identify with the candidate they perceive is most conservative.

Democratic political consultant Paul Ulan said that it’s races like that where the Tea Party can have enough sway to alter the outcome.

“You have to look at some of these races on a district-by-district basis,” he said. “In some of these races, for the primary, a small segment of the population will determine who wins and who loses. And that’s where the Tea Party folks can have an impact.”

In LD13, right-wing activists have long chafed at Nelson’s voting record, saying he is too moderate. The PAChyderm Coalition, a conservative group that ranks lawmakers’ place on the conservative spectrum based on their votes, dubbed him a “bipartisan Republican” and ranked him as one of the three least conservative members of the Senate Republican caucus.

In LD16, Crandall, a favorite of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, got an even less flattering assessment: The PAChyderms rated him a RINO (Republican in name only) and ranked him as the single least conservative Republican in the Legislature.

If the Tea Party activists are among those primary voters, and if they’re organized and motivated to recruit other conservative Republicans to vote in the primary, they may win the races for Shooter and Fillmore.

Nelson said he “didn’t care to get into (the) discussion” of his conservative bona fides compared to Shooter’s. But he added that he stands by his record and believes he has served his constituents well.

“I’ve got a pretty good record on this side of town and supporting the sentiments of this district, and the only things that have changed (is the district) added Wickenburg and Yuma and a lot of open space in between,” he said. “I’ve had Tea Party opposition in the past, and I did OK.”

Crandall, meanwhile, said only that he doesn’t believe Fillmore has an edge over him because most of the new district is made of his old constituents, not Fillmore’s.

But one thing is for certain, say insiders: the Tea Party isn’t going away.

Tucson Republican pollster Margaret Kenski said that, while fewer voters are identifying themselves as being aligned with the Tea Party, they’re still identifying with the limited-government, low-tax philosophy that the group espouses.

Don Critchlow, a political science professor at Arizona State University, said the issues that served as the impetus for the 2009 Tea Party demonstrations are still out there: concern over government spending, increasing government in the form of the federal health care law and distress over the economy.

Even so, he said that the group’s influence will be limited.

“Tea Party members, they’re activists. But they aren’t so powerful that they can decide votes,” he said. “They have more influence with a candidate who is seen as too moderate and too much involved in the establishment.”

GOP political consultant Brian Murray agreed that the Tea Party will have some influence on this year’s elections. However, he said that any candidate who brands himself with a single endorsement — whether it’s from the Tea Party, the chamber of commerce or another group — may see that strategy backfire.

“It always comes down to a candidate as an individual and their policies,” he said. “If you look at a self-identified Tea Party person, that’s not a core policy standpoint. It’s more of a place on the spectrum.”

Republican strategist Gibson McKay was also adamant that the Tea Party will have an effect, particularly on the state-level races. Although the issues motivating them may be driven by the federal government, the local races are closer to home and more personal.

However, he also cautioned against sticking to a single brand.

“To run as only one kind of person, whether it’s only a Tea Party person or only a union backer, is not a wise strategy,” he said.

The messages and issues that resonate in a primary may not play well in the general election, especially in a presidential election year, when increased voter turnout means a single group’s influence ends up being diluted, McKay said.

“It brings out a broader base of supporters, who tend to be more moderate,” he said.

Candidates, then, have a fine line to walk: Play up to the Tea Party enough that they win the primary but don’t appear too extreme for the general election voters.

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