Doug Quelland, a former Republican lawmaker who was kicked out of office for violating campaign finance laws two years ago, is hoping to make history by becoming the first independent candidate to win a Senate seat in Arizona.
But the odds are against him. His fundraising has been lackluster, which means his ability to shape the campaign’s narrative is limited.
That, in turn, means he can’t effectively fight back attacks that come his way, including criticisms surrounding his refusal to pay back thousands of dollars in fines that he owes the state for violating campaign finance laws.
But Quelland, a Phoenix resident, has arguably changed the dynamics in the Senate race in new Legislative District 20, which includes parts of Glendale and north Phoenix.
He has complicated the chances of Rep. Kimberly Yee, the Republican nominee who is hoping to cross over to the Senate.
In a three-way contest, some insiders say Quelland could pull enough votes from Yee, allowing the Democratic challenger, Michael Powell, to squeak through and claim the seat. Powell is also from Phoenix.
As of the latest count, Republicans have almost 11,000 more registered voters than Democrats, which represents a 10-percent edge.
But a third of the district is also made up of independents, which makes the race competitive.
Yee recognizes the complications that Quelland brings to the race.
That much was apparent during a Clean Elections-sponsored debate last month, when Yee used her opening statement go after the former Republican, who snubbed the forum.
“Doug Quelland was kicked out of office because he was found guilty of multiple campaign finance violations and was fined for fraudulently using the state’s publicly-funded campaign finance system in the 2008 elections,” Yee said.
“It has been years now and he still has not paid back one penny of the
$31,000 plus interest owed back to the hardworking taxpayers of this state.”
Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, a close ally of Yee, echoed the sentiment.
“Again, a lawbreaker who hasn’t paid his fines should not be elected as a lawmaker,” Gray said.
When asked about his fines, Quelland told the Arizona Capitol Times to talk to his lawyer.
• • •
Because the district leans Republican, GOP strategists have pretty much written off Quelland’s candidacy.
First, they point to his dismal fundraising figure.
By Sept. 17, Quelland had loaned himself $5,500 and collected less than $900 from supporters.
Consultant Kyle Moyer, who is not involved in the Senate race but is helping Republican Paul Boyer win a House seat in the district, said, “Unless he’s willing to write a personal check, I don’t know see how he has any funding, and if he does write a personal check and has not paid his fine to Clean Elections, I think he’s got a much bigger problem.”
During the same period, Yee, by contrast, raised more than $67,000 and had $54,000 left in the bank, which means her machinery will be well- oiled going into the home stretch.
Powell, meanwhile, is running with public financing, and has about
$20,000 left to spend.
Sean Noble, another consultant, said Quelland would have to outspend the two other Senate candidates to have an impact on the race.
“He has zero chance of winning and at this point, he can’t hurt her,” Noble said.
In addition to the majority party’s voter-registration advantage, strategists also point to the fact that Republicans have traditionally fared better here in recent elections than Democrats.
Yee, they added, fits the district well. She’s more centrist than some in her caucus and she’s clearly willing to support more funding for education.
They said the district is competitive — but barely. That is, it’s less of a toss-up district than other areas of the state.
And finally, they point to the political quagmire that Quelland is in, chiefly his ouster from office in 2010 and his refusal to pay approximately $39,000 in fines including interest he owes for violating the rules for publicly-financed candidates during the 2008 election.
The Arizona Clean Elections Commission earlier found he paid a consultant to do political work with money from his business. The expenditures, the commission argued, violated rules for publicly funded candidates.
Late last month, Quelland offered to pay back $20,000 of the amount he owes.
If he and the Clean Elections Commission ultimately cannot agree on a payback amount or a payment plan, Quelland could face bank levies or liens on his property, a development his opponents could further use against him.
• • •
Drive on any major intersection on Bell Road close to Interstate 17 and you’ll see ubiquitous “Q” signs painted in red against a white backdrop.
The signs belong to Quelland, who sometimes refers to himself in the third person as “Q.” He’s presuming that voters in the district know who “Q” is.
Indeed, Quelland believes he’s better known than his two opponents.
“In my district, there are no incumbents, and there is no name identification except for the ‘Q’ because the ‘Q’ has been around for 31 years,” he said.
Quelland has good reasons to presume he’s known in the district. As a Republican, he represented the previous Legislative District 10 in the House between 2003 and 2006, and again, from 2009 to 2010, when he was removed from office.
He has longstanding ties to the community. He owns lawnmower and rental businesses that have been around the neighborhood for decades.
The district is also new, which means all the candidates have to introduce themselves to a good chunk of voters whose homes were drawn into LD20 and therefore haven’t cast a ballot for them before.
And with the retirement of Gray, the incumbent senator, the Senate seat is vacant.
Quelland insisted he’ll beat Yee and Powell in November.
He predicted he would get as much as 45 percent of the vote, and told the Arizona Capitol Times he’s executing a solid plan.
“Mine is a grassroots (campaign). I have the greatest ground game in state history, and you’ll see the results,” he said.
• • •
Powell, a college instructor, acknowledged that Quelland’s candidacy could benefit his campaign.
“It’s a three-way race so the voters have a choice for three candidates instead of the normal two parties,” Powell said.
“So I think that will also create some hidden surprises,” he said.
In addition, Powell said the Democratic message is more appealing to voters.
He has been pressing Yee, for example, about her support for budgets that slashed education funding and kept education funding flat even when the economy began to turn around.
“Kimberly Yee has followed in lock step with the majority,” Powell said.
Yee has pushed back against the criticism, maintaining she worked behind the scenes to fight for education dollars and suggesting the cuts could have been more severe without advocates like her.