In a move that appears to be a thumb in the eye of the Republican establishment, voters in the Tucson area chose Randy Grafa former state legislator and golf pro and a founding member of the Minutemen civilian border patrol groupover four opponents in Tuesdays primary for Arizona House District Eight. Grafs win came despite a last-minute decision by the National Republican Campaign Committee to buy at least $122,000 of ads supporting moderate state Rep. Steve Huffman.
"We ran a campaign focused on the crisis at the border, and we kept our focus on the issues instead of the attacks," Graf told U.S. News shortly after a speech to roughly 200 supporters at a Tucson hotel. "The voters responded to that."
Grafs win could be crucial for national Democrats, who have argued that a conservative candidate like Graf will be no match in the general election for a centrist opponent in this 9,000-square-mile district. Moderate Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, who is retiring from Congress this year, has held the seat for 22 years. Gabrielle Giffords, a former state senator who says she was a Republican until 1999, won the Democratic primary handily on Tuesday.
In a sign of the strong desire to see a Giffords-Graf face-off, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran ads in the final days of the race attacking Huffman for missing several crucial votes on immigration and border security. Huffman, who has not yet conceded in the race, called those ads "not even close to true" Tuesday evening.
"This is the only race in the country where national Republicans and Democrats ran ads focused on one candidate in a crowded Republican primary," Huffman said during a rally at his new home in Tucson's tony Oro Valley. "Clearly the decision was made that I was the candidate who could keep this [congressional] seat for the Republicans."
Graf takes strong issue with that notion, which has solidified into conventional wisdom in Washington political circles. He insists Kolbe "rode a wave of [former President Ronald] Reagan conservatism" to win his seat in the 1984 election, only to become more liberal later. Gesturing to a board displaying precinct returns, he also emphasized last evening that he beat Huffman in every county in the districtranging from Cochise County, a conservative hotbed famous for its ranchers angry about illegal immigration, to Pima County, which includes the more liberal city of Tucson.
"Jim Kolbe had a strong record of delivering constituent services to this district, and after 22 years, he'd become something of a powerful cardinal in the House," says Frank Antenori, who fielded his own Republican primary candidacy. "The district is conservative, but they weren't going to throw the guy out."
Graf's victory could also signal that Republican voters are angry about the pace of immigration reform. Last week, Senate Republicans took a bit of a risk when Majority Leader Bill Frist announced that the Senate and House would not attempt to iron out stark differences in their immigration reform bills before the November election. A Tucson Weekly/Wick Communications poll taken in August showed that more than 60 percent of District Eight Republicans viewed immigration as the most important issue in the race.
"The voters down here have been through all this bureaucratic frustration before," says Graf. "And there's real fury with Washington that's hardened into cynicism."
Democratic candidate Giffords also has vowed to make immigration a strong focus in her campaign. She won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Mexico in the early 1990s and has written scholarly papers on successful efforts to clamp down on border traffic in San Diego in the mid-1990s. She favors a border security plan that would include a guest-worker program.
"There's a reason I'm running a campaign with the slogan 'because change can't wait,'" Giffords says.
Graf did not receive a call from the Huffman campaignand it's unclear whether the candidate has formally conceded. Early this morning, with almost 95 percent of precincts reporting, Graf led Huffman by 6 percentage points. An unknown number of early ballots that came in late will be counted in the coming days. Huffman would have to win those ballots by an almost 4-to-1 ratio over Graf to carry the race, a move some Arizona political observers deemed unlikely.
Graf plans to travel immediately to Washington, where he will meet with national Republican officials and give a short pitch to a set of Republican political action committees.
"After all the harsh campaigning," says R.T. Gregg, Grafs campaign manager, "we need to make sure these guys are ready to be with us." -- Angie C. Marek