A funny thing happened in Arizona’s 8th District primary election on Tuesday. A conservative former state legislator, Randy Graf, faced off against the hand-picked candidate of the retiring incumbent, liberal Republican Jim Kolbe and the entire Republican establishment. The Kolbe clone had the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which had decided that Graf was "too conservative for his district.”
The Republican voters in the 8th District of Arizona told the NRCC and Jim Kolbe to take a hike and gave Graf a healthy 43% plurality in a field of five candidates. Graf will likely continue down the path of victory in November, unless the party establishment chooses to interfere and works against an already proven campaign organization.
In the more publicized Rhode Island race between liberal incumbent Lincoln Chafee and a conservative challenger, at least the party bigwigs were supporting an incumbent. The Arizona race had no incumbent; it was an open seat. Yet the national party elites intervened to help the liberal candidate, Steve Huffman, against the conservative. What’s the political equivalent of "clueless"?
Arizona’s 8th District is not a liberal district. Moderate Republican Kolbe was first elected in the Reagan landslide in 1984 and became increasingly liberal with each succeeding term, but his constituency is as far from Rhode Island politically as it is geographically. Washington insiders have always had a hard time seeing over the horizon. Back in 1980, every "smart Republican" in Washington knew Ronald Reagan was "too conservative" to get the Republican nomination and they were certain he was too conservative to beat Jimmy Carter. It must be something in the water.
Arizona’s 8th District encompasses the east side of Tucson and the southeastern corner of the state, including 80 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border. In 2004 the chickens came home to roost for Kolbe. A conservative state legislator challenged Kolbe in the 2004 Republican primary over the issue of border security and government spending got 43% of the vote with very little money and no outside help. Kolbe had opposed all efforts to crack down on illegal aliens crossing the border and was a cosponsor of House amnesty legislation that was very similar to the Kennedy-McCain amnesty bill. He was so openly hostile to border security that the Tucson Border Patrol union local called for his defeat. After his near-defeat in 2004, Kolbe announced his retirement and Graf announced he would run for the open seat.
Despite the efforts and the deep pockets of the party establishment in support of Kolbe’s
candidate, Randy Graf won. The bad news is, the national party leaders who opposed him in the primary may abandon him and the district to the Democrats. A Graf win in November would mean they were wrong, and that would be just too embarrassing.
Randy Graf is an experienced legislator with impeccable Republican credentials. He was
Republican majority whip in the Arizona House of Representatives and highly respected by his colleagues. He has the endorsement of 26 members of the state legislature, taxpayers groups, the local Border Patrol union, law enforcement associations, the Minutemen and pro-life organizations. The Democrat opponent has the support of the public employee unions, the liberal news media and probably 80% of the University of Arizona faculty.
The 8th District has a slight Republican edge in voter registration and more than 100,000 independent voters. It is undoubtedly a less conservative district than some others in Arizona because of the influence of the university and a liberal daily newspaper. Yet the No. 1 issue in the district in 2006 is illegal immigration. Why? It has something to do with the fact that 45% of the more than 2 million illegal aliens coming across the Mexican border each year come through some part of the 8th District. It could also have something to do with the epidemic ID theft, auto theft, methamphetamine sales and gang violence spreading across the southwest.
The citizens of the 8th District also might be upset by the overburdened hospital emergency rooms and crowded school classrooms. Many Democrat and independent voters may join Republicans is saying the clock has run out on political correctness and it is time to secure our borders.
Graf’s biggest obstacle to victory in November will not be his Democrat opponent, but the damaged egos of the Republicans who backed Kolbe’s hand-picked candidate. They have threatened to pick up their marbles and go home. The national Republican Party encouraged and legitimized this temper tantrum by funding Huffman in the primary. They need to step forward and tell the Kolbe faction in Tucson what Barry Goldwater told the conservatives at the National Republican Convention in Chicago in 1960: "Grow up!"
Graf was the voters’ choice in the party’s primary, and the Republican big wigs in Washington should give Graf the financial support needed to win. Whether the wounds of a bitter primary can be healed before November 7 all depends on which goal these party blue bloods take more seriously—keeping this congressional seat in Republican hands or punishing the man who challenged Kolbe and beat him.
The "Graf can’t win" slogan always did ring hollow, and now it sounds merely petulant. Most voters can remember when that was said of Ronald Reagan’s candidacy in 1980. Like Reagan, Randy Graf may have one more surprise in store for those slow learners in Washington.