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Would-be speakers of the House are courting the not-yet elected

Members of the Arizona House of Representatives debate bills on May 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Jarvis/AZCIR)

Members of the Arizona House of Representatives debate bills on May 3, 2016. (Photo by Sarah Jarvis/AZCIR)

Republican Richard Hopkins is still in the beginning stages of his write-in, longshot campaign for the Arizona House of Representatives.

But already, three Republican heavy hitters from the Capitol are cozying up to him. One offered to hold a fundraiser on his behalf. Another took him out to lunch to check in on his campaign and offer advice. A third sent a letter with a handwritten message asking to meet.

It’s not just that they want to see Hopkins win. The three Republicans are trying to ensure that, when and if he makes it to the House from his Democratic-leaning Legislative District 4, they can count on his vote in their bids to be the next speaker of the House.

Republican Reps. J.D. Mesnard and Darin Mitchell, along with Republican Sen. Don Shooter, who is planning to move from the Senate to the House this year, are all seeking the top post in the House.

The speaker of the House is a powerful position who decides everything from who to hire as House staff to which lawmakers are appointed to lead which committees and whether bills are assigned to committees or are dead on arrival.

While all three of the hopeful speakers have natural constituencies at the Capitol and allies they have worked with for years who will predictably support their campaigns, a large part of the race for speaker of the House comes down to the incoming freshman class of lawmakers.

Nine Republican lawmakers from solidly Republican districts are leaving the Capitol this year, meaning at least a quarter of the House Republican caucus in 2017 will be brand new to the House.

And the day after the November general election, those new lawmakers will be summoned to the Capitol to select their leaders for the next two years.

The candidates for speaker are doing everything they can to ensure that the incoming freshman class looks on them favorably. That includes, in some cases, breaking a cardinal rule for leadership: Don’t play favorites in primary elections.

First impressions count

When trying to win over Republican candidates who may soon become Republican lawmakers, first impressions are important.

And Shooter certainly made an impression.

He recently sent a letter to every Republican lawmaker and House candidate in an attempt to tamp down his reputation as the Capitol’s party animal jokester while he campaigned for speaker.

“(A)s everyone knows, I like to drink beer and act the class clown. I realize that if elected Speaker, I will cut back on the beer and jokes out of respect for the office and the institution,” he wrote.

“I got a letter – excuse me, I got ‘the letter’ – from Shooter,” Hopkins said with a chuckle.

Chip Davis, a Republican candidate for the House in Legislative District 1, said since he doesn’t spend much time at the Capitol, he hadn’t heard about Shooter’s reputation.

“I got a kick out of a guy who would put in a letter ‘Well, I’m gonna cut back on the drinking and dirty jokes,’” he said.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean he wants Shooter in charge, he added.

While Shooter is still gauging his support, both Mesnard and Mitchell say they have the votes locked up to become the next House speaker.

Trey Terry, who is doing work for Mitchell’s campaign, said Mitchell is almost ready to release a list of enough supporters to make him the next speaker, and that Mesnard’s chances are slim – specifically because many of the likely incoming freshman Republicans are siding with Mitchell.

“He needs an inside straight flush draw (to win). He’s running out of winnable races for these incoming freshmen,” Terry said.

Mesnard laughed at the idea that Mitchell has the votes, and said he would love to see his opponent’s list of supporters. He said he has enough support right now to be the next speaker, and there’s no possible path to victory for Mitchell.

Seeking support from freshmen

“I’m confident I have enough support to win right now, regardless of what happens in the primary,” he said. Of course, he was quick to add that he’s not taking the votes for granted and is still making his case to every Republican candidate and lawmaker.

Both candidates’ strategies rely on incoming freshman lawmakers for support, some of whom may or may not actually win their races.

But Mesnard said Mitchell is breaking an unspoken rule in leadership campaigns: You don’t pick sides in the primary.

Mitchell has hosted fundraisers for Republican House candidates who he believes would back him for speaker. Several of those candidates he’s helping are contested primary races, often where the other candidate in the race is backing Mesnard.

The outcome of those elections will likely determine who ends up as speaker.

In 2012, the Republican Victory Fund, an independent expenditure committee that was led by then-Senate President Steve Pierce, spent money helping Sen. Rich Crandall defend his Senate seat in the primary against Rep. John Fillmore. The action bitterly split the caucus, and many accused Pierce of picking sides in the primary to ensure he would remain Senate president. Crandall won re-election, but Pierce’s move may have cost him the presidency – he lost re-election as Senate president by one vote.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for people who are in leadership or seeking leadership to be picking sides in the primary,” Mesnard said of Mitchell’s tactics.

But Terry said Mitchell isn’t making the same mistake Pierce did.

Picking sides

First, Mitchell isn’t using the caucus’ independent expenditure committee to help candidates – he’s just connecting them to political donors. Second, Pierce was sitting president at the time, which is different from being a candidate for the chamber’s top office, Terry said.

“You can pick sides in the primary based on how you want the Republican caucus to look, what kind of Republican caucus you want to have,” he said, adding that’s acceptable, even if the goal is to select a caucus that supports Mitchell.

But Mesnard said he is trying to be helpful to all Republican House candidates, even if they support Mitchell for speaker, but he’s making a clear distinction between “being open and helpful and equal opportunity, and endorsing or trying to pull someone across the finish line at someone else’s expense.”

Factors to consider

For Republicans hoping to become representatives next year, there are a lot of factors to consider before picking a speaker.

Hopkins, for example, said his first priority is making sure whoever is speaker will appoint him to his priority committees: Education, Public Safety and Insurance.

But Hopkins’ LD4 is near Mitchell and Shooter’s district, LD13, and Hopkins said he would also like to see the job go to someone from his neck of the woods, all other things being equal.

Davis said the most important thing is that the new speaker has an open mind and a fair hand, and that he not retaliate against those who break ranks or lock freshman Republicans out of the room during important negotiations.

To that end, Davis is trying to talk to Capitol insiders to get a feel about the personalities of the speaker candidates. He said he’s leaning toward supporting Mesnard, but it’s still too early to make a real decision.

“I need to earn my spot at the table before I order what I want for dinner,” Davis said.

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