Andrew Thomas’ gubernatorial campaign is full of familiar refrains for those who have followed the rise and fall of his political career.
From K-12 education to economic development, there are few issues that Thomas doesn’t view as demonstrative of the need to fight illegal immigration.
That pillar of Thomas’ campaign is the same central theme that characterized his successful race for Maricopa County attorney in 2004 and his narrow defeat in the Republican primary for attorney general in 2010.
What has changed since then is the disbarment that turned a once-promising career into a political punchline. A disciplinary panel in 2012 stripped him of his law license after determining that he abused his power as county attorney by pursuing false criminal charges against county supervisors, judges and other political foes.
Thomas has long maintained his innocence, describing himself as a martyr who was punished for having the guts to fight illegal immigration and stand up to a corrupt establishment. Meanwhile, most political observers view him as completely unelectable because of the disbarment scandal.
Nonetheless, Thomas is running. And many political observers still can’t agree on whether he’s simply trying to make a point with his campaign or truly believes he can win.
Conservative blogger and activist Shane Wikfors, who supported Thomas in his 2010 campaign, said Thomas is likely holding out hope that he can win, just like someone who buys a lottery ticket hopes that he’ll strike it rich. But he said Thomas probably understands that he’s not going to be the Republican nominee.
“He’s smart enough to realize he can’t win. But I also think he’s trying to send a message that you can’t beat up on Andy Thomas,” Wikfors said. “I think he sees himself as some lone voice in the wilderness as the anti-establishment candidate, as the last remaining candidate who will stand on controversial issues.”
Daniel Caldwell, a former Republican operative who now works for a veterans’ nonprofit organization, said Thomas wants to prove that he’s still a force to be reckoned with in Arizona politics. And he wants to prove he can do it without anyone else’s help. Some of Thomas’ staunchest allies of past battles, such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former state Senate President Russell Pearce, are endorsing other candidates in the six-way GOP primary.
“This is the revenge tour, first of all,” Caldwell said. “This is him sticking it to the establishment in many ways, trying to get one more shot at the establishment that he feels wronged him.”
Public relations consultant Jason Rose, a former Thomas ally who worked on his 2010 race for attorney general, takes a different view. Rose said he is surprised by Thomas’ campaign because he thought it would primarily be an exercise in image rehabilitation. But that is not the case, as far as Rose can tell.
“My observation from the cheap seats is he entered this truly believing he can win,” said Rose, who is supporting Doug Ducey in the governor’s race. “By the way he campaigned, it was not an effort to rehabilitate. It was an effort to win.”
Barnett Lotstein, who worked for Thomas for six years at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said redemption is likely part of Thomas’ motivation. But Thomas wouldn’t be running if he didn’t think he could win, Lotstein said.
“I have no doubt that he believes that he can win. I have no doubt about that at all. He’s a true believer,” Lotstein said.
Staying clear of the media
Those outside of Thomas’ inner circle can do little but speculate about his motivations. He doesn’t talk to the media, nor do members of his campaign team. He doesn’t issue press releases. Following an Aug. 19 candidate forum in downtown Phoenix, Thomas refused to speak with the Arizona Capitol Times about his campaign.
For much of the campaign, Thomas even avoided the myriad forums and events that the other candidates have flocked to. Republican operatives and rival campaigns say Thomas focused mostly on collecting his $5 qualifying contributions for Clean Elections funding, spending much of his time at gun shows.
“He’s been invisible to our district,” said Scott O’Connor, chairman of the Legislative District 28 Republicans.
The only press event he’s held was in July to announce his plan to combat illegal immigration, a combination of fencing and National Guard troops he dubbed the “Patton line.”
Thomas has been a bit more visible lately, attending debates and forums with the other GOP candidates. He received $753,000 in Clean Elections funding in June.
Legislative District 13 Chairman Robert Branch said he has seen Thomas speak at several Republican events. But while Thomas is still popular with many in the grassroots — he has touted his win in a straw poll of Maricopa County GOP Executive Guidance Committee members as a mark of support — Branch said Thomas’ message doesn’t resonate well outside of his base of loyal supporters.
At the events where he has seen the gubernatorial candidates speak, Branch said the others have won over supporters. But he’s rarely heard Thomas win over people who weren’t already loyal supporters.
“I think these are people that … win over votes,” Branch said of the other candidates. “I don’t know if Andy Thomas is doing that or not. It doesn’t sound like it.”
A message with limited appeal
Many Republicans said Thomas’ message has limited appeal. While it’s popular with many of the most conservative Republicans, other voters are far less receptive.
“I think he resonates some to many PCs. But not, I don’t think, to the masses,” said Ray Malnar, chairman of the Legislative District 20 GOP.
Thomas has focused on issues that are important to many conservatives, most notably illegal immigration, which consistently polls as the top concern among Republican primary voters, and his support for SB1062, a 2014 bill that advocates touted as protection for religious freedom but opponents characterized as anti-gay.
Thomas was the only GOP gubernatorial candidate who did not call on Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the legislation. In his mailer and television ads, Thomas said his opponents caved to the “gay lobby” that he stood up to.
“Andy has a core constituency of the right wing of the Republican Party and Tea Party people,” Lotstein said.
A.J. LaFaro, chairman of the Maricopa County Republican Party, said Thomas has some salient points, just like the rest of the candidates.
“I think that Mr. Thomas’ message is just as strong as the other candidates or he wouldn’t have gotten into the race,” LaFaro said.
Republican political consultant Constantin Querard said there’s nothing wrong with Thomas’ message in the primary. Other candidates have made illegal immigration centerpieces of their campaigns as well.
Thomas’ problem, Querard said, is that he doesn’t have the money or resources to promote it in a campaign against much better funded opponents.
“If he wants to talk about fighting illegal immigration, he can. But everybody else is. And when Christine Jones does it, she does it with a million-dollar ad buy,” Querard said.
Most recent polls, which are heavily criticized by Thomas’ supporters, show him with less than 10 percent of the vote for the Aug. 26 primary, though some have put him the double-digit range. Branch said 10 percent is Thomas’ ceiling, though he doubts Thomas will get that much of the vote. Meanwhile, Caldwell and Lotstein said Thomas could get 15 percent, if not higher.
“With so many candidates, the voters might split the vote,” LaFaro said. “There’s people that have said that because Mr. Thomas has such a loyal support base that he may get enough votes to split the difference and run up the middle. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see how the horses break as they move up to the finish line.”
But the conventional wisdom among Arizona politicos is that Thomas never had a chance.
“He’s immaterial to the race. It’s over,” Rose said.