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In the tossup race for Arizona’s new 9th district, Democrats and Republicans have the exact opposite problem.
The Democratic field is crowded with three up-and-coming stars, while the universal description of the GOP field is “weak” and enthusiasm lags.
Both parties have much at stake in the Aug. 28 primary — and early voting begins Thursday.
On the Democratic side, former state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has emerged as the frontrunner.
Democrats cannot agree, however, on which other candidate poses the strongest threat to her in the primary — former state party Chairman Andrei Cherny or state Senate Minority Leader David Schapira.
“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” said Pima County Democratic Chairman Jeff Rogers, who is very involved in state party politics. “It’s a shame we can’t spread them across more races because at the end of August two of them will lose and not be in leadership positions.”
Sinema has been on the political scene for about a decade. She has cultivated a national profile and has the backing of EMILY’s List, and many expect the female vote to solidify around her in the primary.
Cherny has made his tenure in the White House working for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore central to his direct-mail and television advertising. And Schapira is relying on his name identification, a grass-roots campaign and the support of local Democratic figures such as Rep. Raúl Grijalva and former Rep. Harry Mitchell.
Because of an absence of reliable public polling, Democrats placed added weight on the latest fundraising reports. Sinema had the strongest quarter, but Cherny had the most in cash on hand at the end of June.
Cherny has had the largest presence on television, spending nearly six figures as of the end of last week, according to a source in the campaign. That figure is very modest for the Phoenix market but still enough to eclipse his opponents.
Sinema is on the air as well, and her advertising has been generally positive. But as early voting approaches, it has gotten downright nasty between the two. Opposition research against both has surfaced in reports and press releases.
Central to Cherny’s case for the nomination is a common Republican theme: that Sinema is unelectable in the fall.
Operatives from both parties call her “media savvy.” That ability to garner media attention has hurt her in this race, though.
About 10 years worth of statements, interviews, photos and votes are in the public record, have surfaced in the primary and will be a factor if she is the nominee.
Democrats concede she has problems. Some worry that she will be portrayed as more liberal than she is in what was drawn to be a swing district. Others point to a political maturity that has occurred in her over recent years.
Republicans strategists say she is the candidate they would most like to face in the fall. But one of those Republicans — who lives in the district — hedged after he named her.
“I’m equally scared and nervous about her winning,” he said. “With a weak GOP field, God forbid she becomes our next Congressmember.”
Schapira raised only about $70,000 in the second quarter. As a result, he has not been able to compete in direct mail and on TV. But he has not been counted out.
A source in the Sinema campaign named Schapira as her strongest primary rival.
“He will outperform the typical broke candidate,” an unaligned Democratic strategist said, citing his infrastructure, campaign staff and ties to the district.
His campaign is betting on the strategy that pushed state Sen. Deb Fischer over the top in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary: staying out of the fray as the two other candidates bloody each other up in a three-person field.
“When Kyrsten and Andrei squabble, it draws a lot of attention,” Schapira campaign manager DJ Quinlan said. “Our strategy is to put our heads down and go talk to voters.“
The major difference from the Nebraska race is that the negativity has not hit the television airwaves in Arizona.
The GOP side of the race has been overshadowed by the Democrats in attention, fundraising and nearly every other way.
Republicans do seem more certain on who their nominee will be — former Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker, who is an African-American. He came in fourth in his previous run for Congress in 2010, losing to now-Rep. Ben Quayle in a 10-way GOP primary.
Still, Republicans admit they do not have a good handle on the race.
“Nobody has a lot of resources, so it seems like Vernon has the momentum,” one national GOP strategist said.
Others competing in the GOP primary are businessman Travis Grantham, ex-Chandler City Councilman Martin Sepulveda and retired Air Force officer Wendy Rogers.
Many hoped Quayle would run in the 9th district, but he opted to run against fellow Rep. David Schweikert (R) in a Member-vs.Member race that has sucked up much of the attention and money of Republicans in the state.
Quayle’s critics charge that he waited too long to make his decision about where to run and blame him for the weak recruitment.
In a recent interview with Roll Call, Parker acknowledged it was difficult to raise money amid all of the high-profile federal primaries. (There’s a heated GOP Senate primary that has overshadowed downballot contests, too.) But he expressed confidence that after the primaries were over, GOP fundraising will pick up in the 9th.
Despite the differing nature of the each primary, it is certain that both nominees will be financially drained heading into the general election. The Democrat will probably have an edge, but outside spending could quickly level the playing field in the expensive Phoenix market.
And Republicans are bullish on the future, when they can be more prepared with better recruitment.
“If Republicans lose this seat and it’s a close one, you’re going to see a far more top-tier candidate next time around,” an unaligned GOP strategist said.