As primaries approach, purge of moderate GOP no longer seems likely

Ben Giles//May 27, 2014

As primaries approach, purge of moderate GOP no longer seems likely

Ben Giles//May 27, 2014

GOP boxing glovesThe results of a handful of congressional races held in six states on May 20 had national pundits declaring victory for the GOP’s mainstream candidates, and more importantly, a tell-tale loss for Tea Party candidates.

The influence of the Republican Party’s far-right wing had been overstated, reports exclaimed.

Though Arizona’s legislative primaries are months away, some lawmakers and lobbyists look to this week’s results as a bellwether of the state’s upcoming elections, a development that marks a drastic change in the narrative following the 2013 regular session.

A handful of Republican lawmakers were considered “dead in the water” last summer for the sin of breaking with the bulk of their caucus and voting in favor of expanding Medicaid in Arizona. The promise of primary challenges from within their own party loomed over the end of session, as Tea Partiers and some far-right factions of the GOP swore retribution.

It seems the opposite has come true. As the state gets closer to the August primary elections, the remaining Medicaid expansion Republicans are no longer considered likely to get booted from office. In some legislative districts, more conservative candidates are even facing challenges from more “pragmatic Republicans,” lobbyist Barry Aarons noted.

“What you’re seeing is just as many moderate candidates challenging conservatives as you’re seeing Tea Party candidates challenging moderates,” Aarons said. “It’s all over the map this year.”

Railbirds credit time and money for changing the narrative.

The purge called for last summer likely won’t occur in August, said lobbyist Barrett Marson.

“Time heals a lot of wounds,” Marson said. “The prospect in June 2013 of moderates surviving primary challenges, the general consensus was these guys are dead in the water. A year later, you’ve seen some significant fundraising from these moderates. And quite frankly, they’re conservative, but one vote makes them a moderate.”

Marson primarily credits the Medicaid expansion-Republicans’ fundraising advantage for boosting their re-election prospects.

Even some Republicans who were considered weakened and susceptible to a challenge before they voted in favor of Medicaid expansion may now have been bolstered by their controversial vote.

Rep. Doug Coleman, and Apache Junction Republican who many cited as the primary example of a pro-Medicaid expansion supporter ripe to be voted out of office, reported in January that he’d raised roughly $39,000. The increase in funding was fueled by a health care industry more than willing to thank those GOP lawmakers who stuck out their necks in 2013.

The timing of legislation that expanded the amount of contributions individuals are able to give to a candidate couldn’t have come at a better time for lawmakers such as Coleman.

Tea Party candidates, once boosted to elected office by a robust Clean Elections system that left them on equal footing with traditionally-funded candidates, are now less and less viable in the face of a law that allows contributions up to $4,000, Marson said.

“The thing that we’re finding now is a Clean Elections system that doesn’t give as much to candidates and a business community that is both energized and focused,” Marson said.

With less money than their moderate GOP opponents, Tea Party candidates may struggle to get their message out to voters on issues such as Medicaid expansion or SB1062, he said. SB1062 was portrayed as a religious freedom measure by supporters and anti-gay by opponents. It was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. Those are issues that still resonate with the Republican Party’s base, but the message could get lost in the noise of the election cycle.

Senate Majority Leader John McComish, a Phoenix Republican who’s retiring from office, last year dismissed the notion that his vote for Medicaid expansion would affect his re-election bid or those of others.

Time helped make his prediction come true, but so, too, did a 2014 session that dealt with issues that reinvigorated the business community.

McComish said a more engaged business community has been willing to throw its considerable weight around on issues such as education, particularly to defend Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, or Common Core.

It’s still too early to predict how the big business community could affect other primaries, but candidates in some legislative primaries are expected to get assistance when trying to oust more conservative incumbents. The Senate race in Legislative District 16, where the appointed Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, is facing a challenge from a young Republican, Taylor McArthur, could be an indicator of the business community’s influence, according to Aarons.

Those gearing up for a challenge of the remaining pro-Medicaid expansion Republicans say they’re undaunted by the business community’s support.

“We’ve got the chamber, the governor and the rogue Republicans siding with the Democrats,” said Tea Party activist Christine Bauserman. “They’ve always been in bed together and we’ve always known they were going to get a lot of money. It’s not stopping us from fielding candidates and it’s not stopping people from running.”

And while other issues have come up since the Medicaid expansion vote in 2013, an ongoing court battle over the legality of that vote ensures that it could still be a seminal issue in the minds of voters this fall.

If the legal challenge is successful, who’s sitting in the Arizona Legislature and the Governor’s Office will determine how the state reacts to another vote on Medicaid expansion, Bauserman said.

“I think they should be very afraid of how angry people are,” she said.