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GOP senators to Pierce: Pull back spending in Republican primary

Senate President Steve Pierce (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Republican teapot is boiling.

Several members of the GOP caucus in the Senate delivered this week a letter to Senate President Steve Pierce, expressing their dismay that the money he has raised is being used to defeat a party-mate and fearing “long-term fissures.”

The senators told Pierce that the decision by the Republican Victory Fund, whose goal is to return a robust majority to the 30-person chamber, casts a cloud of doubt over the group’s real intent. The senators were reacting to reports that the fund has decided to favor Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, in his Republican primary contest against Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction.

The committee recently sent out two mailers — one touted Crandall’s record and another labeled Fillmore a “liberal” and Crandall a “conservative.’’

“This effort will surely create a division within the caucus that is unnecessary, and that will likely produce long-term fissures,” the senators warned in their letter.

It was signed by Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, Senate Majority Whip Frank Antenori, Senate President Pro Tempore Sylvia Allen and eight other senators. There are 21 Republicans in the 30-person Senate.

Reached on the phone, Pierce reiterated his earlier point that he has no control over the group’s spending, although he has raised funds for the committee.

“They can send me a letter if they’d like. But I do not have anything to do (with the committee’s spending),” he said.

He added: “I have raised over $400,000. Not one of the other senators has come and said, ‘Can I help you?’ and I don’t have any control on where that money goes.”

The senators’ dismay didn’t come as a surprise, but what is interesting is their decision to publicly call Pierce’s attention to the matter.

The strongly-worded letter also signals that many of Pierce’s colleagues question his assertion that he doesn’t have a say in the group’s spending priorities.

Allen said she doesn’t care about which race the committee is spending money on — she just doesn’t want the group to pick sides in a primary contest.

“The issue to me is not Crandall or Fillmore,” she told the Capitol Times. “My issue is regardless of who they would have sent it out for, it was wrong to do it in the primary. They need to wait for the general election.”

But for some, the spending for Crandall played a role in their dismay at the committee and Pierce.

“Here’s Steve Pierce and Andy (Tobin) using the House and Senate victory funds to support a very RINO, liberal senator, Rich Crandall, over Fillmore, who is a more conservative House member in a contested race,” said Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem.

In their letter, the senators said the caucus agreed about two years ago to be supportive of a committee whose goal is to extend the GOP dominance in the Legislature.

But the “understanding,” they said, is for the group to get engaged only in the general election to help out fellow Republicans.

“This certainly violates the spirit of what the caucus wanted,” the senators said, referring to the committee’s recent spending.

Engaging in a Republican primary also limits the funds that are available to help party-mates who are facing a contested general election, they said.

Additionally, it leaves donors in an “unfavorable light,” they said.

“Donors who contribute to what has ostensibly been represented as a ‘Republican Victory’ effort must surely not want to be participants in dividing the caucus over independent expenditures meant to help Republicans defeat Democrats, but are now being used to defeat fellow Republicans,” the senators wrote.

The Republican Victory Fund, which was formed in 2011 but has had different incarnations in the past, reported raising $168,000 in the first five months of this year.

Its primary goal is to extend Republicans’ dominance in the state Legislature. It’s now clear that goal also includes preferring some candidates in intra-party contests.

In an earlier interview, Camilla Strongin, the group’s chairman and a consultant to Pierce, refused to respond to Fillmore’s insinuation.

But she said her group looked at Crandall’s record, particularly his work on education, and listened to contributors in deciding to engage in an intraparty contest.

“If you looked at his voting record, if you looked at his stance on education, he’s certainly much more conservative than I think the opposition would like to portray him,” Strongin said, referring to Crandall.

“He’s currently sitting as a senator and our goal is to return a very robust Republican Senate,” Strongin said.

Fillmore, who has Tea Party leanings, is portraying himself as more conservative than Crandall.

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