Arizona has a history of producing lightning rod members of Congress such as Representative Paul Gosar. But the Arizona politician you should be paying attention to — and who might tell us a lot about Democrats’ hopes of avoiding a 2022 destruction in the House — probably isn’t on your radar.
That would be Representative Tom O’Halleran, a Democrat in office since 2017 who started his political career as something few Democrats can claim – a Republican.
O’Halleran’s neighborhood was redrawn in 2020, getting harder and trumpier. Many say he is doomed to failure, but O’Halleran is unfazed. Despite all the challenges Democrats face in this year’s midterm elections — President Biden’s low approval ratings, historic precedent for the party in power, inflation overheating — O’Halleran believes old-fashioned retail politics will endure for him. His approach exemplifies the stubborn but necessary hope that Democrats can both localize and personalize their races to overcome a punishing national environment.
“I’m not one to stoke the fire,” O’Halleran, 76, said in an interview last week. “I’m someone who tries to keep it in the area it’s in so we can continue to use it effectively.”
Even before it was redrawn, O’Halleran’s district, which encompasses most of eastern Arizona, was highly competitive. Donald Trump wore it in 2016, the year O’Halleran won his seat. He’s held it ever since, thanks in part to Republican recruiting difficulties, who have put forward a string of over-the-top and disappointing candidates.
This year’s Republican primary field includes a former contender on the reality TV show “Shark Tank” and a QAnon conspiracy theorist.
But now the district is even kinder to Republicans: Trump won 53 percent of his voters in 2020. Some Republicans argue that in this political environment, any conservative candidate who wins the primaries will win the general election, so it’s less important to the party than it has been in the past to find a superstar candidate.
“There’s a limit to how far you can outrun your party before the political heaviness eventually catches up with you, especially in a year like this,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House Republicans super PAC.
O’Halleran has only so much control over his electoral fate, with the political world anticipating a Republican wave that will flip the House. Some Democrats just hope that O’Halleran and a few other party candidates can hold and reject Republicans overwhelmingly in tough races.
In that scenario, O’Halleran is on the front lines of the defense of the Democrats, defying his district’s partisanship, as he has done several times before. And the way the Republican primary is falling apart, it’s very possible that O’Halleran will face another weak opponent in the general election.
Either way, he feels confident.
“I was a Republican, remember?” he said. “I was the same person then as I am now. And so I think people will remember that.”
‘I am who I am’
You won’t see O’Halleran talking about progressive policies on cable news or criticizing his Republican colleagues in the paper. It’s all part of his political strategy.
A former Chicago police officer, he was first elected to the Arizona legislature as a Republican in 2000 and served in both chambers until 2009. After losing his seat in the state Senate to a more conservative candidate, he unsuccessfully ran to return to the state legislature as an independent, running for the U.S. House in 2016 as a Democrat.
He claims to do more city hall events than anyone else in Arizona. And while he acknowledges that fame allows some members of Congress to fill their campaign coffers and build enthusiasm, he says that’s not for him.
When asked how he would respond to voter concerns about gas prices and inflation, he began by explaining a chart presented at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, sprinkled with supply and demand statements. When asked how he would fit that message into a 30-second ad, he replied, “What goes into the 30-second campaign ad is my sincerity.”
He said this race comes down to how much confidence his voters have in him, just like in previous races. That’s one of the reasons he doesn’t change his approach, even though he now has new voters.
“I am who I am,” he said, adding, “If I start to change because of that, that will tell them I’m willing to make changes based on my ability to be chosen versus my ability to help lead.”
The competition down the aisle
O’Halleran also rejects the idea that he’s been lucky with his Republican league over the years.
In 2016, he was challenged by a former sheriff who stepped down from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign after he was accused of threatening to kick his ex-boyfriend out of the country. In 2018, O’Halleran faced an Air Force veteran who had already lost a few House matches. In 2020, a challenger who struggled with fundraising in 2018 again struggled.
This year’s overcrowded Republican primary features Ron Watkins, a former website administrator widely believed to have played a key role in authoring the anonymous QAnon posts. Republicans doubt Watkins will make it. He last reported raising just over $50,000, behind three other Republicans who filed federal campaign applications.
But even the candidate most appealing to the establishment — Eli Crane, the Republican chieftain fundraiser — holds positions that are hard to defend with moderates. He is a former member of the Navy SEALs, a former “Shark Tank” contender and boasted that he supported the decertification of the 2020 election. His biggest competition for the nomination could be state representative Walt Blackman, a decorated veteran who once praised the Proud Boys.
When asked about the primary field, Republican strategists didn’t express much excitement, but they were also confident that their party would win the seat anyway. And even if a candidate who isn’t doing well at fundraising wins the nomination, they expect outside groups to help.
The expensive Phoenix media market may not have seemed worth the investment in previous years, but with such a promising national environment and the district’s new partisan makeup, Republicans expect it to be worth it this time around.
“Candidates and campaigns are always important,” said Brian Setitchik, an Arizona Republican consultant. “That said, with that congressional district redesigning and a hyper-optimistic environment for Republicans, I’d say that race becomes the race of Republicans they’ll lose in November.”
But O’Halleran’s team remains optimistic. Rodd McLeod, a Democratic adviser who works with O’Halleran, claims the congressman’s relations with voters run deeper than partisanship.
“He could be the man,” McLeod said, “who survived the wave.”
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Nebraska wants the next Iowa . to be
For the past 50 years, Nebraska’s role in the presidential primaries has largely been a place with a good airport from which to travel to western Iowa.
With Iowa’s first-place finish in the nation in grave jeopardy after its last two Democratic primaries failed, Nebraska is poised to enter the competition to knock its neighbor off the start of the Democratic presidential nomination calendar.
“Nebraska is going for it,” Jane Kleeb, the president of the state’s Democratic Party, told me.
She will lobby her fellow Democratic National Committee members to support Nebraska in jumping to the front of the nomination line, she said. Meanwhile, Republicans so far remain committed to keeping Iowa in first place.
Among the Democrats, Nebraska will have competition. New Jersey volunteered to join the DNC last month, and Michigan Democratic officials are also lobbying to go first.
Both are large states dominated by urban areas in expensive media markets. The appeal of the traditional early states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—is that they are theoretically small enough to run grassroots campaigns that aren’t just television productions.
Kleeb says Nebraska has low-cost media markets in Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island; a recent record, unlike Iowa, of sending one of its electoral votes to Democratic presidential candidates; a mix of urban, suburban and rural voters; a significant Latino population of 11 percent; and numerous Fortune 500 companies — and Warren Buffett — to support party formation in the state.
“We know we’ll be going up against a great Midwestern state like Michigan,” she said. “What we have in front of us is that we are small – small but mighty.”
A shift from Iowa to Nebraska would keep rural issues at the center of an increasingly urban Democratic Party. Candidates should become fluent in pipeline and preeminent domain politics, where Kleeb got her political start, and learn to embrace the runza, Nebraska’s unofficial state sandwich.
— Leah (Blake is on vacation)
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