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Fewer moderates in 2015? Primary election will determine balance of Senate

GOPFor all the promises of the survival of Republican lawmakers who voted for Medicaid expansion, the few remaining in the Senate could find their ranks diminished at the conclusion of the primary election.

Three of the six GOP lawmakers credited with helping Medicaid expansion pass the Senate aren’t around to defend their seats. One resigned last year while the others are seeking other elected offices in the state.

Their open seats in the Senate are being contested in primary elections pitting pragmatic candidates supported by Gov. Jan Brewer, who’s attempting to help elect lawmakers who can defend her legacy, against conservatives who promise to undo Medicaid expansion, if possible.

As for the three incumbents, only two are considered safe — the ones without a primary opponents. The third is locked in a bitter, high-spending campaign to retain his seat against an anti-Medicaid expansion challenger.

Most political observers expect the Senate to wind up with about the same number of pragmatic GOP lawmakers as there have been in the past two sessions.

Some still see a possibility for the group to grow in number.

But on the eve of the election, the fate of the self-described pragmatic Senate Republican candidates, despite Brewer’s aid and endorsement, is far from certain. The moderate representation in the Senate could hit a new low — an outcome that would signal a victory for local Republican leaders who have labeled Brewer’s coalition and those who support Medicaid expansion “legis-traitors.”

Lobbyists say it’s unfair to label the group traitors or moderates, given that they’re being persecuted for one vote among hundreds that they cast along with other Republicans at the Capitol.

But if the pragmatists’ ranks dwindle, it could become more difficult for those remaining if or when the time comes to cast a decisive vote against the majority of the GOP caucus.

“There’s no doubt about it,” said lobbyist and consultant Chuck Coughlin. “If the size of those caucuses shrink — what I would call the pragmatic conservatives, people who understand the enterprise of government — if they shrink, the party will be more ideologically driven.”

Payback made easier
The six lawmakers who earned the “legis-traitors” label from the Alliance for Principled Conservatives for their Medicaid expansion votes — Sens. Rich Crandall, Adam Driggs, John McComish, Steve Pierce, Bob Worsley and, despite her objections and subsequent votes against Medicaid expansion, Michele Reagan — were immediately targeted at the end of the 2013 session, as grassroots Tea Party groups vowed retribution come the 2014 election season.

Payback became easier when three of the lawmakers chose not to seek re-election.

Crandall retired from the Legislature in 2013 to take a job with the Wyoming Department of Education, eliciting a sigh of relief from precinct committeemen in Legislative District 16. Crandall was never popular among the right-wing faithful in the Mesa region, and PCs nominated three candidates, any one of whom they considered far more conservative than Crandall.

Sen. Dave Farnsworth was chosen to finish Crandall’s term and is running against Taylor McArthur, who has aligned himself with the business community and Brewer. McArthur’s campaign has been bolstered by independent expenditure support from the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and Stand for Children Arizona, among other political committees that have spent more than $76,000 to support his candidacy.

But legislative polls show it is unlikely McArthur can win and reclaim the seat for a more pragmatic lawmaker than Farnsworth, an anti-Medicaid hardliner who has blasted McArthur as the “liberal” choice for Mesa voters.

A similar battle is shaping up in LD23, where newcomer Jeff Schwartz has earned Brewer’s endorsement in his bid to replace Reagan, R-Scottsdale, who’s leaving the Senate to run for secretary of state. Schwartz is challenging Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, in a bruising campaign that has seen Schwartz attack the representative as a career politician who has spent most of that career giving Arizona a bad name.

Kavanagh has hammered on Schwartz for his support of an Alaskan Democratic candidate and his pledged support of Medicaid expansion.

Even the race to replace McComish, R-Phoenix, is shaping up to be more difficult for McComish’s heir apparent, Rep. Jeff Dial. The Chandler Republican is in a tougher-than-expected primary race with former state GOP chair Tom Morrissey, though most political observers expect Dial to win.

McComish, after 10 years in office at the Capitol, chose to run for a justice of the peace post.

Heaviest primary spending

Of the incumbents left to seek re-election, only Worsley, running in LD25, is in danger of losing his seat. The others, Driggs, R-Phoenix, and Pierce, R-Prescott, are not challenged in the primary.

Worsley, a political newcomer in 2012 when he won a bitter primary election against recalled former lawmaker Russell Pearce, is again locked in a tough election against a more ideological member of the Republican establishment, despite an endorsement from the governor.

The race has seen some of the heaviest spending of any primary campaign this year, much of it Worsley’s own money.

With the help of his own finances, Worsley raised more than any legislative candidate so far this year. He easily had the financial advantage as of the June 30 reporting deadline, when he’d already raised more than $260,000.

But the financial edge hasn’t been enough for Worsley to fend off surgeon Ralph Heap, chosen by Mesa powerbrokers as the conservative firebrand to defeat Worsley.

Worsley has answered by funneling thousands more into the race. In August, he lent $115,000 to his campaign to distance himself from Heap.

Elsewhere, a seat some hoped to could be won by a moderate Republican candidate appears likely to remain in the hands of a more ideological conservative. Brewer’s endorsed candidate in LD11, Scott Bartle, has campaigned diligently to win a Senate seat vacated by Sen. Al Melvin, R-SaddleBrooke, who briefly ran for governor.

But polling suggests it’s more likely that Rep. Steve Smith, best known for his failed attempts to gather funds for fence-building on the Arizona-Mexico border, will claim the Senate seat.

Power in numbers

While a number of factors will determine the temperament of the Senate and the legislation that will become a priority in 2015 — primarily, who’s the next governor — there is certainly power in numbers. Worsley, who acknowledged his race against Heap is close — “I could easily not be there’’ — said it’s always nice to have a few more “independent-minded” lawmakers to serve with.

It’s easier to make a vote that’s unpopular with a majority of the party’s caucus when five or six lawmakers are voting together rather than when it’s just two or three taking a stand.

The number of moderates could also have an influence on what legislation is considered in the Senate, McComish said.

“If there’s a strong representation in the Senate of pragmatists versus ideologues, than it will have a significant influence on legislation that gets to the governor, whoever the governor is,” McComish said.

But lobbyist Barrett Marson said the number of pragmatic lawmakers remaining in the Senate might not make much of a difference, depending on who’s left among them. Lawmakers such as Pierce and Worsley are less concerned with how their votes will be viewed by their fellow party members because they have less to fear.

Pierce has received minimal challenges in elections since taking office, and isn’t the kind of personality to let the threat of political retribution sway his decision to vote one way or another.

“Being a legislator doesn’t define him, and he’s doing this out of a desire for service,” Marson said. “I don’t think it takes a lot for him to go out on a limb.”

Similarly, Worsley has enough on his plate outside of his office that if his votes were to anger the party so much that he’d lose an election, it’s not the end of the world for the Mesa Republican, Marson said.

Even if only two or three moderate Republicans survive the primary, “that’s still enough to gum up the works, depending on how many Democrats versus Republicans there are in the Senate,” he said.

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