Both Parties Prepare for Renzi Vacancy

Posted April 30, 2007 at 6:25pm

As Rep. Rick Renzi’s (R-Ariz.) legal troubles mount, Arizona Republicans have become more pessimistic about the Congressman’s predicament, while Democrats in Washington, D.C., prepare to finance a special election campaign should one become necessary.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has opened a special fundraising account for Arizona’s 1st district and has begun raising money in the event that Renzi resigns from Congress. Republican operatives in Arizona, meanwhile, are now openly contemplating life after Renzi — whether he resigns before the conclusion of his current term or chooses to forgo re-election next year.

“There are half a dozen ethically unchallenged Republicans ready to run for Congress,” said one source close to the Arizona Republican Party.

In the wake of reports that federal authorities raided a business connected to his family and that a grand jury was examining a land swap, Renzi last week proclaimed his innocence and vowed to serve out the remainder of his current term. But Grand Canyon State Republicans, who already were quietly discussing one individual as a possible replacement for Renzi — former state Senate President Ken Bennett (R) — are bracing for his premature exit, and have since expanded the list of potential replacements.

Now on the GOP’s list of prospective candidates are Sydney Hay, who lost the 2002 GOP primary to Renzi; Steve Pearce, a cattle rancher; state Sen. Tom O’Halleran; businessman Lewis Tenney, who is another losing candidate from the 2002 GOP primary; and state Rep. Bill Konopnicki.

“Tenney would be the best candidate we would have in the general,” said one GOP insider in Arizona. “He has huge appeal to the Mormon Democrats in the eastern part of the state.”

Konopnicki, this insider continued, “is seriously looking at it and telling people he would drop $500,000 of personal money to do it.”

Like Tenney, Bennett — a businessman living in Prescott — also is a Mormon.

The two are seen as attractive candidates by Republicans because they might have strong crossover appeal among the 1st district’s significant population of Mormon Democrats. This potential could make Bennett or Tenney an even better 1st district candidate than Renzi, who has been successful at the ballot box in the competitive rural district partly because of his solid relationship with the American Indian community.

Bennett, however, might be a political liability because of his then-18-year-old son being prosecuted last year for assaulting 11- to 14-year-old boys at a summer camp.

The GOP also is high on the other prospective candidates. Hay, a former radio talk show host, is capable of spending some of her own money on a race, while Pearce potentially could dump in $1 million, according to a Republican operative based in Arizona.

The National Republican Congressional Committee vowed not to cede ground to the Democrats in the 1st district, regardless of the cards the GOP is dealt. Notably, a spokeswoman for the NRCC did not promise that Renzi would win re-election in 2008, only that Republicans would hold the seat.

“The NRCC will continue to be aggressive in positioning ourself to rebuild the Republican majority,” committee spokeswoman Julie Shutley said. “Every seat we now hold is absolutely vital in those efforts, including Arizona 1.”

Renzi, who now also is being investigated by the House ethics committee, has been the subject of rumors that he is on the verge of resigning his Northeastern Arizona House seat ever since it was reported that an insurance business owned by his wife was raided by the FBI. If Renzi were to resign, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) would call a special election to replace him that would include both a primary and a general contest.

By law, the primary can occur no less than 75 days but no more than 105 days after a Congressman’s resignation becomes official. The general election must be held no later than 45 days after the primary but cannot occur less than 35 days after the initial contest.

The Congressman has relinquished all of his committee assignments. He has been the subject of two different federal investigations, with at least one of them going back to before the Nov. 7 elections, when he won re-election over attorney Ellen Simon (D) — beating her by 8 points as he garnered 52 percent of the vote.

Federal authorities are investigating Renzi’s role in a land swap deal, and The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a grand jury in Tucson is meeting to consider possible indictments.

The 1st district has leaned Republican over the past few cycles, voting for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. But the district holds more registered Democrats than Republicans and could tilt left next year depending on how Renzi’s situation shakes out.

With Renzi’s ethical baggage appearing to increase, the list of Democrats looking at the race is growing. Democrats believe they will either have the luxury of challenging for an open seat in 2008, or running against a severely flawed Republican in Renzi.

On the Democrats’ radar are Simon; state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick; attorney Jim Ledbetter; and state Department of Environmental Quality Director Steve Owens.

The DCCC clearly is more bullish on flipping the 1st district since the investigations into Renzi intensified over the past two weeks.

“From the beginning that was one of the seats we were going to go into,” DCCC spokesman Fernando Cuevas said. “We think Rick Renzi is a tainted candidate, period.”