By Martin Matishak - 09/01/14 10:53 AM EDT
Vulnerable Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) is hoping that his efforts to keep the Air Force’s venerable A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft fleet in the air could lift him to victory in November.
This year, Defense Department officials proposed mothballing the fleet, affectionately called the “Warthog” by U.S. troops, in order to save $3.5 billion over five years. They argued that the aircraft’s close air support mission could be carried out by other newer platforms, including the F-16 fighter and the B-1 bomber.
Now Barber, who successfully introduced amendments to the House defense authorization and appropriations bills to keep the A-10 airborne for at least another year, recently launched a TV ad touting his role in the fight to save the aircraft that’s critical to his Tucson district.
“No one has worked harder to save the A-10 aircraft than Ron Barber,” Maureen Phillips, a veteran who served as a tactical intelligence officer for A-10 missions, says in the spot.
The two-term congressman faces a tough reelection rematch against retired Air Force pilot Martha McSally (R), who has slammed Barber for not taking action earlier to keep the Warthog off the chopping block, a charge he vehemently denies.
The district is home to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which boasts approximately 80 Warthogs, around one-third of the service’s 283-plane fleet.
With more than 10,000 employees, the base is the district’s third-largest employer and pumps around $1.5 billion into the local economy annually, according to a fact sheet provided by the installation.
“Voters have a clear choice between someone who is credible, has firsthand knowledge and will lead on this issue, and someone who was asleep at the switch and is a follower and is taking credit for things he didn’t do,” McSally, who flew the A-10 during her time with the Air Force, told The Hill.
She said Barber’s efforts rest on “two very symbolic amendments that have no money behind them.”
Barber’s measure attached to the defense policy bill allocates $635 million in funding from the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, commonly known as the war fund, which exists outside budget caps.
Meanwhile, his amendment to the defense spending bill, which he co-sponsored with Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), whose district is home to about 20 Warthogs, bars the Pentagon from using any money to retire the A-10, but doesn’t specify how the Air Force should pay to keep the plane in the air.
Instead, McSally credits Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) for working to get language in the Senate version of the defense spending bill that set aside $338 million to maintain the A-10.
However, both of the Senate's defense measures are stuck in limbo, with neither receiving floor time, yet.
McSally said, “even if the Senate’s efforts … save the A-10 for another year, it’s going to be at risk the next year and the next year."
Barber calls McSally’s claims “untruthful,” saying he has championed the aircraft since his time as district director for former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D).
McSally refuses to acknowledge that he worked closely with McCain and Ayotte to keep the Warthog active, he said.
“Yes, we have slightly different plans in each of the chambers and both of the bills, but all of them have one common ingredient: We want to postpone the divestment of the A-10,” according to Barber.
He blasted McSally for making the aircraft’s viability an attack.
“If she was so interested in saving the A-10, she never would have politicized it,” Barber said. “It’s almost as if she was wishing I would fail, so she could make it a campaign issue, and that’s just plain wrong.”
The Warthog’s fate is a key issue in the campaign, but national security and military issues have taken a back seat to economic concerns in this toss-up seat.
“This district is going to be similar to other very closely contested races throughout the country in terms of who’s better on job and the economy, where the respective parties stand on ObamaCare,” said Arizona-based Republican strategist Chris DeRose.
He said Barber, like other Democrats, is “trying to tout their work on local issues to try to focus on anything but issues that are in the forefront of voters’ minds.”
DeRose predicted McSally is “absolutely, unequivocally going to win this race” because of her biography, and because she’s “where the district is on the issues.”
Andy Barr, a Democratic political consultant with Arizona ties, said Barber’s campaign is smart to highlight his work on the airplane, calling Davis-Monthan a “source of community pride.”
“If this is an issue they’re picking up, I think it’s for a good reason,” he added.
Barr dismissed the notion that the race would hinge on national issues.
“One thing you have to remember about Tucson is, it’s 2,500 miles away from Washington. A lot of stuff people are talking about [in D.C.] are not things that are resonating in Tucson or Phoenix,” he said.
Regardless, neither candidate plans to let go of the Warthog.
“This issue is definitely not over and done with,” McSally said before suggesting her campaign could run ads of its own on the attack airplane.
Barber said he is in communication with House and Senate leaders about coming up with a long-term plan to save the A-10.
“We have to keep this plane flying, and we’re going to do everything we can to fight, fight, fight to keep it in the air,” said the Democrat.
— This story was corrected on Sept. 2 to reflect that the A-10 is not stationed in New Hampshire.