NRCC Pushes Moderate in Ariz. Primary

The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $200,000 in the last two weeks on television spots in Arizona’s 8th U.S. House District boosting the candidacy in the contested September 12 primary of Arizona State Rep. Steve Huffman, handpicked successor of retiring Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe.

Like Kolbe (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 74%), Huffman is pro-abortion and supports the guest-worker program for illegal immigration favored by the Bush Administration and many Senate Democrats.

Almost incredibly, NRCC-crafted ads dub Huffman “the conservative choice” of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a backer of a “common-sense approach” to immigration.

Former State Rep. Randy Graf, meanwhile, is the favored candidate of most conservatives in the 8th District. Graf is solidly pro-life and a strong supporter of the tough border-security measure sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.), which passed the House last year.

Two years ago, Graf stunned pundits by winning 43% of the vote against 20-year incumbent Kolbe. In an underfinanced campaign, Graf scored points with Republicans throughout the Tucson-area district (much of which is on the Mexican border) by hitting hard at Kolbe’s support for a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants.

Since he announced his retirement, Kolbe has made several not-so-subtle hints that he would not back Graf if Graf is the Republican nominee.

One source close to NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) told me under a promise of anonymity that the decision to support Huffman was made because “Graf is unelectable” against either of the two Democrats vying for nomination in the 8th. “Based on polling data the NRCC had, [Huffman] was the strongest candidate,” said this source.

The same source said a survey conducted for the NRCC by the Tarrance Group showed Huffman and Graf just about tied among likely Republican voters. Reynolds did not return my calls.

The NRCC’s support for Huffman in the primary also pitted the committee against a third prominent Republican in the race, Arizona’s Republican National Committeeman Mike Hellon, who, like Huffman, is pro-choice and favors a guest-worker program. Nonetheless, Hellon told me he would not support Huffman if Huffman won the nomination. A colleague of Hellon on the RNC, North Dakota National Committeewoman Connie Nicholas, e-mailed me from Copenhagen upon learning of the NRCC decision. “I’m outraged—and you can quote me!” she said.

When I questioned NRCC spokesman Carl Forti about the Huffman-over-Graf decision, he told me: “We don’t discuss our strategy.” Forti did confirm, however, that the NRCC has had “a lot of calls” complaining about the move, which is the first time this year the committee has taken sides in a primary for an open seat.

Breaking with precedent, the NRCC decided to support Huffman in the primary without consulting the other GOP members of Arizona’s U.S. House delegation. “In the past, the committee did not have to operate under BCRA [the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act], which requires that we operate separately from other Republicans who might be involved in the race,” said Forti. “This has to be a truly independent expenditure, as BCRA makes it a felony to coordinate any such expenditures with others outside the committee.” After the McCain-Feingold Act became law, Forti went on to explain, the NRCC set up a separate independent expenditure team—in his words, one “walled off” from the rest of the committee—to deal with such circumstances.

“We’re not worried about it,” said Graf campaign manager R.T. Gregg, a former Reagan Administration official. “Primary voters are going to be incensed about national Republicans’ trying to dictate how the district should vote. Our donations have picked up since the news of this occurred.” Gregg also said he had just gotten off the phone with an irate Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Calif.), who had learned of the NRCC’s decision and volunteered to do “anything and everything to help Randy.”

The NRCC’s involvement on behalf of the least conservative candidate has to raise serious doubts among conservatives nationally. Will the national Republican Party return to its pre-Reagan days of habitually promoting moderates over conservatives?