Moderate Republicans challenge conservative party mates in battle for soul of GOP

Moderate Republicans challenge conservative party mates in battle for soul of GOP

GOP boxing glovesThe battle over the heart and soul of the Republican Party is raging in a beige, West Valley ballroom.

Republican Reps. Darin Mitchell and Steve Montenegro sit on the stage with Litchfield Park City Councilwoman Diane Landis, a Republican who is challenging the incumbent team in the primary election for one of the two House seats in Legislative District 13.

For the past hour, Mitchell and Montenegro have hammered Landis as a “moderate” Republican who would expand government and vote against the party platform. They have repeatedly questioned her support for Gov. Jan Brewer’s Medicaid expansion plan and the Common Core education standards.

“This is really an important debate, not because we’re in it, but because it truly reflects the division within our party… It’s a classic debate between somebody who wants to expand the role of government and somebody who wants to contract it,” Mitchell said.

Landis denounces the assertion that she would expand government, and stumps on her record of opposition to a property tax in Litchfield Park.

But the mere mention of the word “moderate” put Landis on her heels, and she starts the debate in a defensive mode, clearing up “rumors” about her candidacy that were started in a candidate comparison flier distributed by the incumbents calling her a “friend of big government.”

By the end of the debate, she’s on the offensive, saying that although she supports Common Core and Medicaid expansion, she is the real conservative and Mitchell and Montenegro are just ideologues who put their dogma above common sense in votes like Medicaid expansion.

“On ideology, these two conservatives were willing to let our state go into bankruptcy. I don’t understand that,” she said.

A moderate resurgence
In the wake of Tea Party candidate Dave Brat’s primary election victory over U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia, national pundits are declaring a Tea Party resurgence.

But in Arizona, a few moderate Republicans are attempting to flip the narrative that has gripped the GOP since the Tea Party uprising of 2010.

In this conservative state, these moderates — although they oppose that characterization — are going on the offensive, running primary challenges against some of Arizona’s most conservative lawmakers while openly supporting the two business-backed policies that have caused massive chasms in the party.

In Scottsdale’s LD23, political newcomer Effie Carlson is running for one of the two House seats in a four-way primary against two Republican challengers and an incumbent who voted against Medicaid expansion and Common Core.

In that district’s Senate race, Republican Jeff Schwartz is attempting a primary election challenge to defeat Rep. John Kavanagh, who is leaving the House and seeking the Senate seat due to term limits.

In Mesa’s LD16, Republican Taylor McArthur is running his first campaign for elected office and is challenging Republican Sen. David Farnsworth.

All four of the challengers support both Medicaid expansion and Common Core, and are running against incumbents who oppose both measures.

And all four have earned endorsements from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, lending credence and perhaps financial support to their campaign. Their incumbent opponents, with the exception of Montenegro, have not.

All four challengers have also been endorsed by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, which snubbed their incumbent opponents.

Defining moderate
Landis, McArthur, Carlson and Schwartz all reject the “moderate Republican” moniker, and instead call themselves “common-sense conservatives” or “pragmatic Republicans” or “center-right candidates.” Carlson prefers the term “happy Republican.”

Accurate or not, in Arizona, a moderate Republican has been popularly defined as anyone who supports Gov. Jan Brewer’s Medicaid expansion in 2013 or the Common Core educational standards that are being applied in Arizona schools.

The issues have become a litmus test in conservative circles to define what kind of Republican a person is — and they have created a deep chasm in the Republican Party.

Landis rejects the label of moderate Republican, saying she is a fiscal conservative, a concealed-weapons permit owner, and a pro-life woman who grew up on the border and supports border security.

It’s not just that the label is wrong, she said, it’s also unpopular with Republican primary election voters.

“Moderate is a bad word,” she said after the debate.

But Mitchell, the LD13 incumbent, argued that the term conservative doesn’t fit someone who supports policies like the restoration of Arizona’s Medicaid system and Common Core.

“You can’t vote for Medicaid expansion in the last session, you can’t vote for Common Core continuation, and say you’re a conservative. It’s just not done, it’s not credible,” he said.

Schwartz, a Scottsdale real estate consultant who launched his campaign by criticizing the “religious freedom” bill, SB1062, that created a controversy before Brewer vetoed it, said he doesn’t think there’s a negative connotation to the word moderate. “But everybody has a different definition of what a moderate is and what a conservative is,’’ he said.

“There’s a lot of descriptors that people can use and adjectives to describe people, but I would consider myself center-right,” Schwartz said. “And I think it’s important that we not label people with taglines to describe them, but more look at the character of their leadership, how they view and are open minded about policies that are going to impact the state as a whole.”

With the issue of Medicaid expansion, he said the only conservative option was to expand the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) program to cover people at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level and draw down federal dollars designed to aid the expansion of the program.

A conservative case for expansion
In characterizing Medicaid expansion as a conservative plan, the moderate Republicans face the same uphill battle that Brewer fought in 2013.

But there’s a strong case to be made for that idea — as Brewer proved with her resounding and oft repeated refrain: “Do the math.”

Brewer contended that the plan would draw down $8 billion in federal money to Arizona in the first year at no cost to the general fund. Republicans opposed to Brewer’s proposal never put forward an alternative that complied with voter mandates and did not leave the state in worse fiscal shape.

Like Brewer, Schwartz said the vote to expand Medicaid was a business decision.

“None of us like Obamacare,” Schwartz said. “We hate Obamacare and what it’s done. But the reality of it is we got a fiscal impact as a result of the Medicaid expansion. The fact of the matter is the state came out on the better end of the stick on the money.”
Schwartz echoed Brewer’s argument that the federal funds the state will receive in exchange for Medicaid expansion would go to other states if not Arizona.

So does McArthur, who saw the Legislature’s choice to expand Medicaid in 2013 as the best of two poor options — but that doesn’t mean he’s a fan of Obamacare.

“I think that goes without saying. To say I’m not going to try and repeal Medicaid expansion doesn’t mean I support Obamacare,” he said.

But in a room full of Republicans opposed to President Barack Obama’s agenda, it’s far easier to make the case that Medicaid expansion is part of Obamacare, and therefore a bad policy.

Republicans opposed to Medicaid expansion argue it will bankrupt Arizona by bloating the Medicaid rolls, and worry that the federal government can’t be trusted to keep up the promised matching funds and Arizona will be left paying the bill in the future.

“According to the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank), Obamacare — and Medicaid expansion specifically — is going to cost the state of Arizona $2.8 billion dollars between 2016 to 2022,” Montenegro said.

When the LD13 debate moderator asked the three candidates about Medicaid expansion, which he characterized as “seemingly successful,” Montenegro was indignant.

“I’m going to challenge the question. Seemingly successful? This is Obamacare,” Montenegro said, to nods from the crowd of about 100 people.

But neither he nor Mitchell addressed the heart of the moderator’s question, which was: “Given the opportunity, what changes, including funding sources, would you make? And what would become of the 1.5 million (people) currently on the system if you got your way?”

Conservatives for Common Core
The moderate challengers are also drawing fire for their support of Common Core, a frequent target of the party base and Republican lawmakers during the 2014 regular session.

Republican legislators sponsored several bills to neuter the standards. One would have allowed local school districts to develop their own standards and to hold back funding for a test to adequately assess Common Core standards. Another would have outright banned the standards — which Arizona has played a part in developing for years — from being further implemented in the state.

Like Medicaid expansion, the fight over education standards is sure to be a major point of contention in elections this fall. Depending on who’s elected as Arizona’s next governor, it could become a major legislative battle in 2015.

McArthur, Schwartz, Landis and Carlson all say they support the standards and won’t make efforts to repeal them. While most offered modest criticism of the standards, they agreed that they are the best choice available to help guide Arizona’s K-12 education system.

“I support high standards and I support accountability… And those are principles of Common Core,” Schwartz said. “I think we all could’ve done a better job of integrating more local control as we rolled out that process, but we can’t go back.”

Carlson calls the standards a conservative concept. She said they are nothing more than a framework that allows each individual school board to decide how best to meet those goals.

She said one side is having a political conversation full of anti-federal rhetoric, while the other side is focused on the actual content of the standards.

“The funny thing is, the reason they developed these standards was to avoid a federal takeover of education. The governors came together and realized that there was a real issue there, that the feds were going to come in. It was a reaction to No Child Left Behind and some other things… It was a way for the governors to protect their rights as sovereign states to manage education standards,” Carlson said.

As a former homeschooler, Carlson remembers her first experience with big government. In 1994, Congress debated H.R. 6, an attack on homeschooling that drew fierce opposition from homeschooling families, including hers, and eventually was amended to exclude the provision that had homeschoolers up in arms.

“So I get that there is a need for a real conversation about keeping a watchful eye on the nationalization of things, especially in education. Because local control is so important to education,” she said.

Viable challengers?
The viability of these political newcomers may depend on how far endorsements from the chambers of commerce go in their campaigns — and if the support of the business community includes the money needed to build support in a primary election where incumbents have the advantage of name recognition.

And while they’re all in favor of Common Core and Medicaid expansion — though vehemently opposed to Obamacare — none of the challengers have drawn attention to their positions. None mention the standards or Medicaid expansion on their “issues” sections of their websites.

Republican political consultant Barrett Marson of Marson Media said that’s not a surprise.

“Look, nobody’s going to run on Common Core and Medicaid Expansion in a Republican primary,” he said.

Carlson said they just aren’t that big of an issue for most people outside of the political bubble.

“Really, the only place I get asked about Medicaid expansion is in the (legislative district meetings),” she said.

To win, the challengers are going to need money and volunteers to knock on doors, Marson said. While the chamber may help with the money, Republican activists usually help with the latter.

By supporting challengers to Republican incumbents, the chambers have stepped out on a ledge, and Marson predicted that the chambers will go beyond a simple endorsement to back the challengers as much as possible financially.

“If you’re going to choose a challenger over an incumbent, you’re going to put some money toward that candidate. Otherwise, you’re going to pay the price after the election,” he said.

Marson said the challengers will need to rely on independent voters requesting Republican primary election ballots and turning out for the pragmatic Republicans.

One factor helping that is there are very few Democratic primaries, so independents who do turn out in the primary election will likely request Republican ballots, he said.

“If hope springs eternal, it’s going to be that independent candidates come out like never before…There’s a big base of voters who will like them because they’re not crazy conservative, they’re not far-right candidates. They’re pragmatist conservatives,” he said.