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Congressional challengers took vastly different approaches to shutdown

Andy Tobin announced on Oct. 3 that he is running for Arizona's First Congressional District.

Andy Tobin announced on Oct. 3 that he is running for Arizona’s First Congressional District.

Challengers in Arizona congressional districts expected to produce the closest races of 2014 took varying tactics when dealing with the federal government shutdown.

Some chose to exploit the crisis for political gain.  Others declined to take an aggressive approach as the melee in Washington, D.C., raged on for more than two weeks.

The tactics chosen by candidates already racing for the U.S. House in Congressional Districts 1, 2 and 9 depended on each candidate’s  situation.  While some observers were critical of any candidate who chose to take advantage of the congressional impasse for their own political gain, others deemed it wise to use battles in D.C. to their advantage.

Candidates like House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, who hopes to oust Rep. Anne Kirkpatrick from her seat representing CD1, took the incumbent lawmaker to task over the government shutdown by playing up a popular local angle – the shuttering of the Grand Canyon, which was closed for 11 days after the shutdown took effect on Oct. 1.

Before Gov. Jan Brewer cut a deal with the U.S. Interior Department to reopen Arizona’s namesake with state funding, Tobin – boasting a fresh new cowboy hat look on a revamped Twitter page – took to the Internet to blast Kirkpatrick for her service in D.C. during the federal shutdown.  He attempted to draw a link between the congresswoman’s support of Obamacare and the Grand Canyon’s closure.

“Which would you choose? Failed Obamacare or our beautiful Grand Canyon? #AZ01,” Tobin tweeted on Oct. 7.

Reactions to the shutdown such as Tobin’s are a “perfect barometer for the tone of the district,” said lobbyist and former GOP lawmaker Stan Barnes. “You can trust that those candidates running in specific districts know the tone which they should set on any key controversial issue.”

“I think the speaker knows what he’s doing in this regard. It is a proven Arizona political maneuver to pick a fight with the federal government or to cast blame with the federal government, and in this case, the federal government deserves a fight,” Barnes said.

Some understand it’s better to lay low and position themselves as more reasonable, thoughtful leaders, Barnes explained, while others may sense they need to push a more strident tone chastising the shutdown for one reason or another.

Barry Aarons, a conservative lobbyist, said that’s the case with Tobin, who faces a primary challenge against one of his fellow House members, Rep. Adam Kwasman, R-Oro Valley. The two candidates may try to run to the right of one another to gain a primary victory.

“Kwasman already lurched so far to the right on this… and that’s fine, but you know, I think you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that you have the ability to govern, and I think that the voters in the middle are going to be the ones who make the decision to replace Ann Kirkpatrick, Krysten Sinema or Ron Barber or not,” Aarons said.

***Less bombastic rhetoric***

Expected to once again tangle with Rep. Ron Barber in CD2, third-time U.S. House hopeful Martha McSally isn’t expected to face as tough a primary.  That may explain why she’s use less bombastic rhetoric when discussing the shutdown.

“McSally believes she’s got the primary locked up,” said Barnes, though fill-in Tucson radio host Ed Martin is also running for Congress in the district.

In an appearance on the John C. Scott Show on Oct. 2, the day after her official campaign announcement coincided with the government shutdown, McSally avoided a question about how she would’ve voted on a House budget proposal that would delay the individual mandate portion of Obamacare for one year.  Republicans knew the deal would not pass muster in the Senate, effectively causing the shutdown.

Pressed on the issue, McSally only said that she wouldn’t have voted for a shutdown.

Kristen Douglas, McSally’s campaign manager, said the candidate would make time to discuss the issue in the future after touting the failure of Congress to avert a shutdown as a “great example of why we need someone like Martha to step up and run because of a lack of leadership [in Congress] right now.”

While political consultants for Barber chastised McSally for her inability to take a stand on the issue, playing up her outsider status and posturing herself as an effective leader who would’ve avoided the shutdown is the right strategy for McSally, according to Aarons.

Unlike Tobin or Kwasman, since a primary victory for McSally seems more secure, there’s no reason to run to the right and upset moderate voters in both parties, he said.

“I think whoever her advisors are have evaluated the fact that she’s in a marginal district, and her ability to be viewed as a thoughtful, logical participant in the government running is going to have a lot to do with certain independents,” Aarons said.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took to the phones to target

With the shutdown ended and the dust settling, in may turn out that those who held their tongues during the budget battle will come out of it looking the best, said political consultant and former GOP lawmaker Chris Herstam.

“In the heat of these historic battles, sometimes refusing to exploit an issue can be commendable,” he said.

“The federal government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis have been historic events in Washington, D.C. I criticize any politician that tries to use those two events to further their own political agenda,” Herstam said. “When I got an email from Congressman Matt Salmon asking me for a campaign contribution because he was standing with [Sen.] Ted Cruz, I became nauseous.”

But predicting the impact of a shutdown, a rare event for lawmakers in Washington, D.C. is an imperfect science. The last time the federal government shut down, in 1995, preceded a presidential election year.  A different electorate shows up to the polls in presidential races than in midterm elections, such as those set to occur in 2014, noted Rodd McLeod, political consultant for Barber.

And the impact of the shutdown on 2014 congressional races, still a year away from sending voters to the polls, may not be felt as strong, if at all, by Election Day.

“In our 24-hour news cycle society, it is Oct. 17, and there are going to be at least two more opportunities to have shutdowns, defaults and so forth and so on. So by the time we get around to evaluating what impact this will have on races, we’ll have two or three more crises occur and no one will remember this,” Aarons said.

Hank Stephenson contributed to this report.

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