Voters Set Up Fall House Battlegrounds

Posted September 8, 2004 at 6:26pm

Coconino County Supervisor Paul Babbitt (D-Ariz.) easily won his primary Tuesday, setting up a November matchup against Rep. Rick Renzi (R) in what is seen as one of House Democrats’ best pickup opportunities nationwide.

Babbitt cruised to a 74 percent primary victory over businessman Bob Donahue in a race largely used as a runup to the fall election against Renzi.

“The primary was the setup for the general,” said Babbitt campaign manager Frank Constanzo. “It gave us some indication as to where our strengths and weaknesses were and gave us a chance to test out some messages.”

In contrast to 2002, Renzi had the benefit of a clear primary field this time around, allowing him to husband his resources for the general election.

The lack of a primary “allowed us to execute a strategy where we were able to work as a Congressman versus having everything we did tainted with political rhetoric,” Renzi said Wednesday.

Four of Renzi’s home-state Republican House colleagues were not as lucky, as they drew serious primary foes on Tuesday.

All four won by double-digit margins, however, including Rep. Trent Franks (R), who beat a free-spending radio executive 65 percent to 35 percent. None of the four is expected to face competitive contests in the fall.

The focus come November will be squarely on the vast reaches of the 1st district, which takes in much of eastern Arizona and is larger than the entire state of Pennsylvania.

The seat was drawn by a bipartisan redistricting commission in 2001, one of two new seats that the state gained as a result of rampant population growth during the 1990s.

It was drawn as a “fair fight” district, evenly divided between the parties. While President Bush carried it by 5 points in 2000, voter registration statistics as of Sept. 1 showed that there are 143,607 registered Democrats to 109,806 registered Republicans.

A look at the vote totals for Babbitt and Renzi in the primary provide an early cheat sheet on the strengths and weaknesses of each man.

Overall, Renzi took 34,984 votes to Babbitt’s 34,000, a remarkable bit of parity.

Not surprisingly, Babbitt ran strongest in Coconino County, which includes the city of Flagstaff, where he had previously served as mayor. He received 7,294 votes in the county to 3,325 for Renzi.

Renzi ran strongest in Yavapai County, which includes his base in Prescott; he won 18,076 votes there, more than three times the 5,783 that Babbitt received.

In his 2002 race against venture capitalist George Cordova (D), Renzi took 34,008 votes in Yavapai to just 18,395 for Cordova.

“That is my absolute base,” said Renzi, who predicted he would win between 38,000 and 40,000 votes in Yavapai on Nov. 2. “Those are strong traditional western Republicans.”

Constanzo insists that Babbitt is far stronger than Cordova.

“At the end of the race Cordova was hit hard by Renzi and he did not have the ability to respond,” said Constanzo. “We are preparing for a similar attack, although we don’t think we have the vulnerabilities [of Cordova].”

Cordova was the surprise victor of a crowded five-way Democratic primary in 2002. As soon as he won the nomination, he was bombarded by the National Republican Congressional Committee for past tax liens and failed business ventures.

Though personally wealthy, Cordova never dipped heavily into his pocket for the general election and Renzi outspent him by nearly $1 million. Renzi won the race by a surprisingly narrow 49 percent to 46 percent margin. As of Aug. 18, Babbitt had raised a respectable $811,000 but had a less solid $344,000 in the bank. Renzi showed $703,000 on hand at that time.

In other Arizona primary action, Franks defeated radio executive Rick Murphy by a surprisingly strong 30-point margin thanks in large part to his showing in the Phoenix suburbs.

Franks won 31,063 votes in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its environs. Murphy took 13,585 votes in the county. Murphy actually won Mohave County by 400 votes over Franks, but was unable to make up such a huge deficit.

Franks faces a non-serious challenge from 2002 nominee Randy Camacho (D) in the fall.

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R), who has held a southern Arizona district for the past 20 years, won 57 percent to 43 percent over state Rep. Randy Graf (R), who attacked the Congressman as too liberal on immigration and abortion.

Republican Reps. J.D. Hayworth and Jeff Flake, both of whom are expected to leave Congress at the end of 2006, won primaries with 82 percent and 59 percent, respectively.

Meanwhile, primary voters in Nevada, as expected, set up a competitive general election contest between freshman Rep. Jon Porter (R) and former gaming executive Tom Gallagher (D) in the suburban Las Vegas 3rd district.

Like Arizona’s 1st, this fair-fight district is also a top target of House Democrats. Although Democrats hold a miniscule edge in voter enrollment, Porter won the seat by 19 points in 2002 against an ethically challenged county commissioner.

Nevada Republicans also selected businessman and anti-gay crusader Richard Ziser to be their nominee against Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D) — but not with much enthusiasm. In a field of six little-known contenders, Ziser pulled just 34 percent of the vote. “None of the above” finished with 14 percent.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.