Did Rep. Paul Gosar betray his conservative principles when he followed the urgings of House Republican leaders and voted to raise the debt ceiling?
That’s the question on which state Senator Ron Gould has bet his initially long-shot, and now increasingly competitive effort to deny the freshman Tea Party Republican dentist turned politician a second term in Congress.
Known for his brash, anti-abortion, anti-taxes, pro-gun stances even in the far-right Arizona legislature, the Lake Havasu City businessman has capitalized on all-out support from the Club for Growth’s Political Action Committee to force the workaholic, fiercely anti-Democrat Gosar into a costly fight in a redrawn congressional district.
The sprawling Congressional District 4 includes all of Northern Gila County, but also scoops up Prescott, the Verde Valley, Sedona and the entire western third of the state – from the outskirts of Yuma to the Utah border.
The district tilts heavily Republican and only 11 percent of the district’s residents live in Rim Country, the scrawny tail on the sprawling shaggy dog of a district.
The demographic of the district’s 710,000 residents includes 18 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Native American, 2 percent black and 76 percent non-Hispanic white. Republicans account for 42 percent of registered voters, Democrats for 23 percent and Independents about 35 percent. However, based on past elections in the districts the bulk of the Independents generally vote Republican – which gives Republicans a two-to-one advantage in a normal race, according to an analysis conducted by consultants for the Independent Redistricting Commission.
The Redistricting Commission split Gila County between District 4 and District 1, mostly to unite the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache Reservations with the Hopi and Navajo Reservations – creating a new District 1 that’s almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and a population that’s 24 percent Native American and 22 percent Hispanic.
Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick – who Gosar ousted two years ago in the old District 1 – is making a strong bid to regain that seat, which means she would once again represent southern Gila County.
Gosar opted to move to Prescott rather than risk a re-match with Kirkpatrick in the redrawn District 1.
Instead, he found himself facing two strong Republican challengers – Gould and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu. Initially, the anti-immigrant crusading Babeu pulled ahead in the polls, but then his campaign self-destructed in a series of outlandish scandals involving Babeu’s reported gay boyfriend, who turned out to be an illegal immigrant. After the boyfriend claimed Babeu threatened to deport him if he revealed their relationship. Babeu denied the claims, but ultimately dropped out – leaving the fight to Gould and Gosar.
Gould got off to a slow start, but then gained traction with a huge infusion of money from the Club for Growth’s Super PAC. Started by a small group of wealthy Wall Street investors, the Club for Growth has sunk millions into Republican primaries – mostly supporting far-right conservatives in struggles with Republican moderates.
Gosar has made an issue of some $619,000 the Club for Growth has spent on behalf of Gould.
However, Gosar’s campaign spending reports show that he has raised nearly $1 million, a third of it from Political Action Committees. Small donors have contributed only 8 percent of Gosar’s money, undercutting his indignation with Gould’s reliance mostly on out-of-state donors.
Unregulated “Super PACS” have increasingly dominated campaigns since the U.S. Supreme Court trashed core campaign finance reforms and ruled that such groups can spend as much as they want with minimal disclosure of their sources so long as they don’t directly coordinate expenditures with the candidate they’re supporting.
However, in Gould’s case, his campaign finance reports show that he has paid substantial sums to a political consulting group also used by the Club for Growth, making it easy to effectively coordinate campaign through the shared consultants.
The Democratic candidates in the lopsidedly Republican District have kept a low profile. That includes Mikel Weisser, a teacher, poet, performer and political activist and Johnnie Elbert Robinson, whose Web site says he has run a mentoring program for troubled teens and worked in congressional offices.
The campaign has revolved largely around Gould’s effort to play up his credentials as one of the most conservative members of the Arizona legislature and support for gun rights so fierce that he pushed through a bill in the last session that would have prevented colleges from banning guns on campus.
With the help of the Club for Growth, he has attacked Gosar for his vote earlier this year to raise the debt ceiling by $1 trillion. The Gould campaign has characterized that vote as a tax increase, but it simply authorized the government to pay debts already owed based on spending previously approved by Congress. The final vote was 269 to 161 to raise the debt ceiling to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debt. Many economists warned that defaulting on the debt could trigger a disastrous chain of events that would have raised the government’s borrowing costs, forced the shut down of government and perhaps thrown the economy back into recession.
However, a core of Republican lawmakers ignored the pleas of the House Republican leadership and voted against the debt ceiling increase. Gosar sided with the leadership, although he was among a group of freshmen lawmakers who pushed hard for trillions in spending cuts and tax cuts. That included many freshmen supported by the Tea Party.
The House and Democratic leadership struck a deal to raise the ceiling only if a legislative Super Committee was set up to find ways to trim the deficit by about $1.4 trillion over 10 years, split evenly between defense and domestic programs. However, that committee failed to reach a deal with set in motion a series of automatic cuts starting next year that economists warn may cripple the struggling economy. Sen. John McCain has warned that one estimate shows the automatic cuts could cost Arizona’s struggling economy 50,000 jobs.
Generally, Gosar has supported most spending and tax cuts considered by Congress in the past two years. He has strongly supported the House Republican Budget authored by Congressman Paul Ryan, now the Republican vice presidential nominee.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that over 10 years that budget would cut federal spending by about $6 trillion and federal taxes by about $4 trillion. Among other things, the program would turn Medicare into an insurance support plan for younger workers that would increase their out-of-pocket costs in retirement by an estimated 40 percent. The plan would also turn Medicaid (in Arizona known as AHCCCS) into a no-strings-attached block grant to the states, with substantially less federal support.
Roughly 30 percent of Gila County residents rely on AHCCCS for their health coverage.
Gosar also won praise from Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and others for moving through Congress last session a bill that would make the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – not the U.S. Forest Service – primarily responsible for supervising the construction of the Blue Ridge Pipeline. Payson officials said the bill was essential in clearing away bureaucratic tangles that could otherwise stall completion of the $34-million pipeline that will more than double the town’s long-term water supply.
Gosar has piled up endorsements, including U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, State Rep. Brenda Barton, who currently represents Rim Country, anti-abortion-crusading Congressman Trent Franks, the National Rifle Association and the Arizona Republic. Gosar’s Web site also claims an endorsement by Star Valley Mayor Bill Rappaport, but Rappaport – a Democrat – says he never endorsed Gosar.
Gould has mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge to Gosar, with his improbable flanking move to the far right.
Gould is an ultra-conservative lawmaker best known in the last legislative session for introducing a bill to require colleges to allow students and faculty to carry guns on campus. He also walked out of the Senate to protest the Republican decision to put a temporary one-cent sales tax on the ballot to avert more than $1 billion in cuts, mostly to education.
Criticized by even some Republican colleagues for his fierce criticisms and independent stances, the Club for Growth’s profile of him on its Web site pointed out that the Goldwater Institute rated Gould as the most conservative Arizona State Senator. By contrast, the Club for Growth said Gosar supported the bills the Club backed only 63 percent of the time.
That profile also says that Gosar voted to support the left-leaning, community organizing and voter registration group ACORN. However, Gosar said that ACORN lost its federal funding as a result of questions about its voter registration tactics before Gosar even took office.
Both Gosar and Gould have supported drastic restrictions on abortion, repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act, deep reductions in federal spending and adherence to the immigration control provisions of SB 1070.
One of Gould’s early campaign ads pictured him loading a copy of the Affordable Health Care Act into a skeet shooter and blasting it on the wing with a shotgun.
The Center for Responsive Politics Web site reported that Gould has raised $187,995, but that tally doesn’t count the independent expenditures by the Club for Growth. Of the money raised by Gould directly, 24 percent has come from small contributors, 74 percent from large contributors and 2 percent from PACs.
Rick Murphy, a Lake Havasu City businessman also running for the seat, has raised no money but donated $9,600 to his own campaign.
He has repeated sponsored legislation to oppose any form of gun control, favors making all abortions illegal, sponsored a bill to oppose gay marriage, opposes any immigration reforms that would offer any version of “amnesty” to people here illegally and says he would vote against any tax increases and any future increase in the debt limit.
Although Gosar has accumulated endorsements from federal lawmakers like Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl, Gould has countered with endorsements from state lawmakers – including Republican state Sen. Sylvia Allen, who currently represents Rim Country. Gould has the endorsement of state Senate President Steve Pierce.
Gould was first elected to the state senate in 2004, then re-elected in 2006 and 2008, but left this year as term limits took hold. The owner of an air conditioning and heating company, he also served on the Lake Havasu City Council. In the State Senate, he sat on the appropriations, finance, government reform, judiciary and water, land use and rural development committees.