Radio Exec Seeks to Knock Off Ariz. Freshman

Posted March 16, 2004 at 6:33pm

After spending heavily from his own pocket to win his seat in 2002, Rep. Trent Franks (R) faces a serious primary challenge from a well-to-do radio executive in Arizona’s 2nd district.

Rick Murphy (R), who owns five radio stations within the district, is set to formally announce his candidacy today but has already dumped $250,000 of his own money into the campaign.

“If it takes $1 million then it takes $1 million,” Murphy said in an interview Tuesday. “I will do whatever I have to do. I will go to the mat.”

Franks, who was an oil and gas executive before coming to Congress, floated the possibility that he will also dip into his own pocket to finance the primary race.

“I’ve helped my campaigns in the past and would be prepared to do so again,” he said Monday. “It is very likely we will be competitive in the financial area.”

Franks ended 2003 with $35,000 in the bank compared with Murphy’s $350,000. The Congressman also had $300,000 in debt from a personal loan made during his first race.

The 2nd district contest is one of only a handful of serious primary challenges to sitting House incumbents nationwide.

Following the redrawing of Congressional district lines in Texas, several Democratic incumbents faced serious primary competition this year.

Rep. Chris Bell (D) was handily defeated in a primary by former Houston Justice of the Peace Al Green in the Houston-area 9th district on March 9, while Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) beat back his primary challenger by just 126 votes.

Unlike the Texas situation, however, Murphy’s challenge to Franks is based on philosophy, not geography.

“I haven’t seen anything that he keeps his word on,” Murphy said. He noted that Franks pledged not to accept political action committee money during the 2002 campaign but has already taken $78,000 in donations from PACs this cycle.

Murphy added that Franks originally voted against the Republican prescription drug bill but later changed his vote under pressure from House leaders. The measure passed 220 to 215.

While Franks said he “is not sure what [Murphy] is dissatisfied with,” he sought to paint the race as a battle between the moderate and conservative wings of the party.

“Rick is coming quite a ways from my left, so there will be a clear difference in perspective between us,” Franks added.

Murphy rejected that idea, describing himself as “pretty far right.”

He is likely to focus more on fiscal issues, however, whereas Franks’ focus will be on social issues.

On Franks’ signature issue of abortion, Murphy maintains the two are in agreement: Both oppose abortion rights.

Franks admits that as a freshman legislator he is at his most vulnerable.

Challengers “always consider that the best time to go,” he said.

In 2002, Franks was not initially seen as a top-tier candidate to replace Rep. Bob Stump (R), who was retiring after 13 terms.

Stump had endorsed his longtime chief of staff, Lisa Atkins, making her the prohibitive favorite in the Republican primary.

Using more than $300,000 of his own money and touting his connections among social conservatives, Franks eked out a 797-vote victory over Atkins. He took 28 percent to 26 percent for Atkins.

Calling Franks the “accidental Congressman,” Murphy said he didn’t run in 2002 because “everybody thought Lisa Atkins or [Peoria Mayor] John Keegan was going to win it.”

Keegan finished third in the GOP contest, with 20 percent of the vote.

After the close primary result, Franks cruised to a general election victory with 60 percent.

Again this cycle, all of the attention will be focused on the Sept. 7 Republican primary.

The odd-shaped 2nd district takes in much of the northwest corner of the state, with two arms snaking through the Hopi Indian Reservation in the north and the Phoenix suburbs in the south.

More than 80 percent of the district’s population lives in the Phoenix suburbs, making it a GOP stronghold.

President Bush would have won a 15-point victory there in 2000.

With nearly six months remaining before the primary, Franks said he is already gearing up his fundraising operation to cope with the wealthy Murphy.

“We had a pretty good year last year,” said Franks, noting that his campaign raised roughly $200,000. “We will ramp up fundraising at this point.”

Franks’ fundraising will get a major boost March 31, when Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) hosts a Washington, D.C., event for him.

Hastert will appear at both a reception ($1,000 per guest) and dinner ($2,000 per guest) on Franks’ behalf at the Capitol Hill Club.

National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti said that “if Trent Franks asks for help, we will be there for him.”

The support from GOP leadership for Franks’ re-election bid comes in spite of a dispute he had last summer with the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Franks introduced a bill that would have limited the number of terms a Member could serve on the committee, which is charged with overseeing all spending.

Only Rep. Pat Toomey (R), a fellow conservative running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation, and it was met with derision from key Appropriations staffers.