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Home / 2012 year in review / Who’s hot, who’s not: A year of ups and downs for Arizona politicos

Who’s hot, who’s not: A year of ups and downs for Arizona politicos

As 2012 comes to a close, some Arizona politicos have reached new heights of prominence and power. Others saw once-promising careers hit the wall.

Jeff Flake and Kyrsten Sinema gained influence and stature in the nation’s capital, while Andy Biggs reached the pinnacle of power in the Arizona Senate.

Meanwhile, former Senate President Russell Pearce and his successor, Sen. Steve Pierce, fell from grace, while a slew of Republican candidates once again failed in their bids to reach the halls of Congress.

WHO’S HOT

Jeff Flake

An open U.S. Senate seat is a once-in-a-generation occurrence in Arizona, and Jeff Flake was up to the challenge.

Flake, a six-term Mesa congressman with a reputation as a principled fiscal hawk, faced a self-funding millionaire in the GOP primary, where businessman Wil Cardon pumped about $8 million of his own money into the race. Despite a barrage of television ads from Cardon attacking Flake from the right on illegal immigration and climate change, Flake stomped his challenger by nearly 50 points, getting some help from the Club for Growth along the way.

And in the general election, where a Republican Senate candidate hadn’t faced a serious challenge in more than 30 years, Flake drew a tough Democratic opponent in former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who attracted millions in outside spending. But Flake still prevailed in what became one of the hottest U.S. Senate races in the country.

U.S. senators in Arizona tend to hold their seats for a long time. Kyl spent 18 years in the Senate, while John McCain has been there for 26 years. Based on that precedent, Flake, who just turned 50, will likely have a long tenure.

Kyrsten Sinema

Kyrsten Sinema’s chances of ever making it to Congress had long been pegged at slim to none due to her radical past. When she resigned from the state Senate to run for Congress in the new 9th Congressional District, even some Democrats were wringing their hands at the prospect of having her as their nominee.

But Sinema, a former Green Party activist whom the Arizona Democratic Party labeled as “too extreme” for central Phoenix during her first legislative run in 2002, disproved years of conventional wisdom.

Sinema moved toward the political center after arriving at the state Capitol in 2005. She worked with Republicans on bipartisan issues and was one of the few Democrats able to make any headway in a GOP-controlled Legislature.

A remarkably savvy politician and strong fundraiser, Sinema dominated her competition in the three-way Democratic primary for CD9. And despite the GOP’s best efforts to paint her as a left-wing radical and hit her with inflammatory comments — including a controversial statement that some interpreted as deriding stay-at-home mothers — Sinema prevailed over Republican nominee Vernon Parker.

Because she represents such a competitive district, it seems certain that Sinema will face a tough challenge in 2014. But the way she defied expectations makes Sinema’s campaign one of the most remarkable wins of the election cycle.

Andy Biggs

The Senate presidency seemed out of reach for Andy Biggs when the dust settled after Election Day. Steve Pierce, who defeated Biggs for the Senate’s top spot a year earlier, looked poised to retain his position of leadership, especially after voters rejected several GOP Senate candidates who were pledged to the Gilbert Republican.

But with Pierce facing dissent over his handling of the Republican Victory Fund, Biggs was able to capitalize on the discontent. He managed to sway a Pierce supporter — the identity of the defector is the source of rampant speculation at the Capitol — and ousted the sitting Senate president.

Biggs is staunchly conservative, and has earned a reputation as a thoughtful and eloquent spokesman for the conservative right. Now, all eyes are on Biggs, who has pushed radical ideas in recent years, such as eliminating the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System and abolishing the Arizona Board of Regents.

While Biggs is solidly on the right of his caucus, many observers expect a more pragmatic approach as Senate president. His biggest chance to make his mark may be in the coming debate over AHCCCS expansion and on the budget, both areas where the former Senate Appropriations chairman will have a chance to flex his fiscally conservative muscles.

Doug Ducey

Making a name for himself from the relatively anonymous post of state treasurer isn’t easy, but Doug Ducey made the most of it in 2012.

Ducey, the founder and former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, became the public face of the campaign against Proposition 204, even appearing in a statewide television ad against the measure, which would have made permanent the temporary 1-cent  sales tax increase approved by voters in 2010.

The campaign was a success, and the sales tax measure went down in flames. Since then, Ducey has started calling for pension reform for state employees as well, attaching his name to another high-profile issue.

The profile Ducey built up this year could help in 2014, when he is widely expected to run for governor. With the GOP side of the field already filling up, the businessman-turned-politician’s 2012 credentials could pay dividends.

The FBI

Perhaps no person or institution within Arizona had as much impact on the state’s political scene as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In March, Rep. Richard Miranda, D-Tolleson, resigned in the face of pending federal charges. He later pleaded guilty to selling a building owned by the charity he ran and illegally pocketing $144,000. He was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison.

Two months later, Rep. Ben Arredondo, D-Tempe, was indicted on federal bribery charges, accused of accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of tickets to sporting events in exchange for political favors. Unfortunately for Arredondo, the tickets he took came from a fake company set up as a front for the FBI. He pleaded guilty and could face prison time when he is sentenced in January.

And a joint investigation by the FBI and Maricopa County Attorney’s Office determined that Attorney General Tom Horne, a Republican, illegally coordinated with an independent expenditure committee during his 2010 race. Horne and ally Kathleen Winn, both of whom deny the allegations, aren’t facing any criminal charges. But County Attorney Bill Montgomery is trying to force them to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by Winn’s committee against Horne’s Democratic opponent.

Aside from the elected officials the FBI ensnared in 2012, the feds also hit former House staffer John Mills with charges that he stole and later repaid about $130,000 from the campaign account of former House Speaker Jim Weiers. Mills pleaded not guilty to the charges.

WHO’S NOT

Russell Pearce

The former Senate president, SB1070 sponsor and champion of the anti-illegal immigration cause saw his political career come to a likely end in 2012, when his bid to retake his seat in the Legislature was thwarted. Russell Pearce followed his 2011 ouster in a historic recall election with a loss in the Legislative District 25 GOP primary, once again losing to a centrist Mormon Republican with a moderate stance on illegal immigration.

But 2012 was a loss for more than just Pearce. It was a blow to the entire movement he spearheaded. The anti-illegal immigration positions that buoyed so many Republicans just two years ago have become far less potent, and many in the GOP are starting to view them as a liability.

President Barack Obama’s dominance with Latino voters left many congressional Republicans talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Major illegal immigration bills were notably absent in the 2012 legislative session. And few GOP immigration moderates faced the primary challenges from hawks that characterized several races in 2010.

Many Republicans still want to crack down on illegal immigration and oppose any measure they view as rewarding people for breaking the law. There is no shortage of GOP lawmakers who are willing and eager to pick up where Pearce left off. But for Pearce himself, 2012 may have been the end of the political road.

Tom Horne

Attorney General Tom Horne began the year as an oft-mentioned candidate for governor in 2014, but he ends it mired in scandal that could end his political career.

After a lengthy probe by the FBI and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, investigators determined that Horne and colleague Kathleen Winn violated campaign finance laws in 2010. The agencies accused Horne of illegally coordinating with an independent expenditure committee Winn ran against Democratic nominee Felecia Rotellini.

The investigator at the Attorney General’s Office who tipped off the feds about the alleged campaign finance violations accused Horne of retaliating against her. She is preparing a lawsuit against the office. Horne also faces allegations that he shielded Winn from an internal investigation aimed at finding the source of suspected leaks to the media, and of improperly withholding embarrassing parts of the investigation from public records.

Adding to that is an alleged affair with a subordinate Horne hired to a six-figure job at the Attorney General’s Office. FBI agents said they watched Horne hit a parked car and leave the scene at the colleague’s apartment complex during a lunch break, and accused him of leaving the scene to hide the suspected affair.

Republican retread candidates

Three Republican candidates who fell short in their 2010 congressional races came back for another shot last year, and all lost again.

Jesse Kelly, who nearly ousted then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords two years ago, looked like he was in the driver’s seat for the June special election to replace the congresswoman, who resigned while she recovers from a gunshot wound suffered in an assassination attempt. But Ron Barber, Giffords’ former district director, won a commanding victory in the special election, and then went on to win the general election in November.

Vernon Parker, who lost a Republican primary to future Congressman Ben Quayle in 2010, had an opening in the new 9th Congressional District, when Quayle opted not to run in his home district. But Parker lost a hard-fought race against Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

And Jonathan Paton, who had a stunning loss to Kelly in the 2010 primary, left the confines of his home base in Tucson to run in the sprawling 1st Congressional District, which takes in much of northern and eastern Arizona and dips into northern edge of Pima County. Although former Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick looked vulnerable down the stretch, she defeated Paton and earned a return to the congressional seat she lost two years ago.

Ben Quayle

Congressman Ben Quayle took a big gamble and lost.

After the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission drew him into the highly competitive 9th Congressional District, Quayle chose instead to run in the heavily Republican 6th Congressional District. The problem? Fellow freshman Congressman David Schweikert was running there, too.

Quayle, whose house was just blocks away from the dividing line between the two districts, argued that he should run in CD6 because the majority of it was part of his old district. He denied that the political makeup of the districts motivated his decision, but most observers viewed it as a calculated risk. In CD9, he’d face a tough race every two years, while in CD6, he only needed to win one hard-fought primary and he wouldn’t have a competitive race again for years.

Whatever the reason for his decision, Quayle’s gamble didn’t pay off. Schweikert won the blockbuster primary, sending Quayle back home after just one term in Congress.

However, the once-promising congressman and son of former Vice President Dan Quayle may not be on the sidelines for long. Rumors already have him eying another run for office, perhaps in CD9, where most politicos believe he would have defeated Democratic nominee Kyrsten Sinema if he had run there.

Citizen initiatives

Citizen initiatives have led to some of the most significant policy changes Arizona has seen in the past 15 years. But the only two initiatives to reach the ballot in 2012 suffered landslide defeats.

Proposition 121 would have created a “top-two” election system in which all candidates for an office ran on one ballot and the top two vote getters advanced to the general election, regardless of party. Proponents touted it as a way to give more voters a choice in elections that are often decided in their partisan primaries, reduce the power of political parties and increase the voting power of independents.

Proposition 204 aimed to make permanent the temporary sales tax increase passed by voters in 2010. Unlike Proposition 100, which expires in 2013, Prop. 204 was very specific about where the money would go, with more than

$500 million of the revenue going to the K-12 system each year.

But while both campaigns raised eye-popping amounts of money as they collected signatures to get onto the ballot, they were outspent by their opponents down the stretch. Americans for Responsible Leadership, a conservative nonprofit corporation, largely bankrolled both opposition campaigns. The combination of outside money and concerns over the two initiatives led to both measures getting crushed by two-to-one margins on Election Day.

Steve Pierce

Sen. Steve Pierce appeared poised to return to the Senate presidency after the 2012 election. The Prescott Republican, who was elected to the Senate’s top spot after Russell Pearce was recalled in 2011, looked to have the votes of nine of the 17 Republicans who won Senate seats in the election.

But one of those senators switched sides when they met in private for their organizational meeting, giving the victory to Sen. Andy Biggs, whom Pierce had defeated the year before.

Many observers attributed Pierce’s loss to dissatisfaction over the way he ran the Republican Victory Fund. Critics accused him of steering money from the independent expenditure committee to allies while denying help to candidates who supported Biggs. Several GOP organizations in the state called for his ouster as a result.

Pierce has denied the allegations, saying he had no voice in how the money was spent. He said no one lifted a finger to help him raise money for the fund, though everyone seemed to have opinions on how it should be spent. And he pointed a finger at the unnamed turncoat, whom he accused of accepting a “gift” — a reference to the coveted committee chairmanships the Senate president decides — to switch his vote.

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