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Months before the election, lawmakers jockey for leadership roles

Rep. J.D. Mesnard (left), Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (center), Rep. David Gowan (right).

Rep. J.D. Mesnard (left), Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (center), Rep. David Gowan (right).

Although the 2014 election season is just heating up, a quieter campaign has been continuing for months — the election of legislative leadership.

In the House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses, lawmakers are corralling votes for key caucus leadership positions that are opening up as current leaders prepare to leave their chambers.

The leadership election is held days after the November general election, and the results of the former depend heavily on the outcome of the latter. Lawmakers looking to move into leadership positions have to calculate which of their colleagues will be returning to the Capitol and count their votes among the newcomers.

Leadership hopefuls are already courting their rank-and-file counterparts for votes.

HOUSE REPUBLICANS

In the House Republican Caucus, all three leadership positions will be hotly contested.  The outcome of the contests, which pit members of the far right wing of the caucus against more moderate Republicans, will set the tone of the chamber for the next two years.

The contest to succeed House Speaker Andy Tobin is intensifying, and at least three candidates are vying for the top House position. Whoever wins the post will wield the broad powers that come with the job, including assigning bills and lawmakers to committees, deciding which legislation comes to the floor for debate, and hiring and firing legislative staff.

Republican Reps. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert, David Gowan of Sierra Vista and J.D. Mesnard of Chandler are all vying for the speakership.

All three have some experience in leadership. Gowan is the current majority leader, and Farnsworth held that post from 2004 to 2006. Mesnard is the speaker pro tem, a leadership position appointed by the speaker.

While Gowan and Farnsworth both hail from the more conservative wing of the party, Mesnard is generally considered a more establishment Republican, a dynamic that is repeated throughout the campaign for the three House GOP leadership positions.

If Gowan and Farnsworth face off, they are certain to split the conservative wing of the party, making a win for either of them in the first round of voting nearly impossible and increasing the likelihood that they strike a deal and one of them steps aside and supports the other.

Further down the leadership ticket, Republican Rep. Rick Gray of Sun City is hoping to move up to the second-in-command post of majority leader from his current position as Republican whip. While the speaker is the leader of the entire chamber, the majority leader is in essence leader of the caucus, and is charged with crafting the majority agenda.

Gray, who like Mesnard is considered part of the business wing of the Republican Party, is facing a challenge for the position from socially conservative Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro, again pitting a member of the far right wing of the caucus against a more establishment Republican.

The struggle between the “establishment Republicans” and the “Tea Party” wing of the caucus will be repeated in the race for House Republican whip, where Republican Rep. Karen Fann of Prescott and Rep. David Livingston of Peoria are facing off for the position.

Fann, who is in her second term after a long history in as a Prescott City Council member and Chino Valley mayor, is part of the establishment GOP camp, while Livingston, a freshman lawmaker from Peoria, falls in with the far right wing of the caucus.

HOUSE DEMOCRATS

With Minority Leader Chad Campbell leaving the Legislature due to term limits, the job of top Democrat in the House is wide open. Currently, Rep. Bruce Wheeler of Tucson is assistant minority leader, the second-in-command, while Rep. Eric Meyer is the House Democratic whip.

Meyer faces one of the few competitive general elections in the Legislature, but if he is re-elected, he said he would be interested in taking over the top Democratic position in the House. Democrats seem to widely support his candidacy.

Wheeler said he’s is still considering whether he wants to remain in leadership, but he is also widely liked and many Democrats say he could maintain the position if he decides he wants it.

That leaves the likely fight within the House Democratic leadership to the position of whip.

The House Democratic caucus consists of more than 50 percent freshman lawmakers. Several members of the current freshman class have expressed some interest in moving into leadership, including Reps. Mark Cardenas, Stefanie Mach and Andrew Sherwood.

SENATE REPUBLICANS

And while the field for Republican leadership matchups in the House is pretty much set, the Senate is a different story. Senate President Andy Biggs of Gilbert said if re-elected in November, he’ll run for the chamber’s top post once again, and there’s no clear challenger at this time. But the impending retirement of Sen. John McComish of Phoenix, who’ll leave the Legislature at the end of his term, leaves an open race for the Senate majority leader.

McComish could be replaced by Sen. Adam Driggs of Phoenix, who was elected as part of a slate with McComish in November 2012 as the majority whip. But Driggs, considered one of the few moderate Republicans in the Senate, may wait to decide whether he’ll run for majority leader until after the November elections. The number of moderates left in the chamber may determine his chances of winning a leadership vote.

Moderates like McComish and Sen. Michele Reagan, the Scottsdale Republican running for secretary of state, are both on their way out, leaving a shrinking bloc of moderates that includes Driggs and incumbent Sens. Steve Pierce of Prescott and Bob Worsley of Mesa.

The moderate bloc also took a hit last summer with the retirement of former Sen. Rich Crandall, who was replaced by the more conservative Sen. Dave Farnsworth of Mesa.

Driggs’ chances of claiming the majority leader post could be boosted if a few more traditionally conservative candidates are ousted in November by moderate GOP primary challengers. It also helps that Driggs has no clear challenger for majority leadership in his caucus.

The other incumbent member of the Senate’s leadership team, Sen. Gail Griffin of Hereford was appointed, not elected. And one of Driggs’ opponents in the 2012 leadership election, Sen. Rick Murphy of Peoria is dealing with a tough primary challenge from his fellow Peoria Republican, Rep. Debbie Lesko, who chose to run against Murphy given the senator’s ongoing legal troubles with Child Protective Services.

SENATE DEMOCRATS

Leadership may also be a toss-up among Democrats.  Sen. Lynne Pancrazi of Yuma will be the only member of the current leadership team remaining in the chamber next year if she’s re-elected. Democratic Sens. Anna Tovar of Tolleson and Steve Gallardo of Phoenix, the minority leader and whip, respectively, are moving on.  Tovar is expected to run for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, while Gallardo is running for Congress in the 7th District.

The only incumbent Democrat with any legislative leadership experience is Sen. Steve Farley of Tucson, who served as assistant minority leader in the House in 2011 and 2012.

Eddie Farnsworth, Republican, Gilbert, LD12

Legislative experience: House 2001-2008, and since 2011.

Leadership experience: majority leader, 2003-2004

Committees: Judiciary chairman; Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs; Rules

David Gowan, Republican, Sierra Vista, LD14

Legislative experience: House since 2009

Leadership experience: majority leader since 2012

Committees: Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility; Rules; Technology and Infrastructure

J.D. Mesnard, Republican, Chandler, LD17

Legislative experience: Policy adviser to the Senate, 2002-2009, member of House since 2011

Leadership experience: Speaker pro tem (appointed position), 2013

Committees: Commerce; Rules; Ways and Means

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