Arizona House races aren’t just among the most competitive in the country this year — for top GOP and Democratic campaign officials, they’re also extremely personal.

Kelly Ward, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), launched her career in the Grand Canyon State, working on House campaigns and as an aide for then-Gov. Janet Napolitano. DCCC Communications Director Emily Bittner was a reporter in the state who later served as the top spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Party.

And National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) national press secretary Daniel Scarpinato, a Tucson native, was once an Arizona political reporter who later went on to work on a handful of GOP House campaigns there before heading to Washington for the last election cycle.

{mosads}“In this job, we don’t play favorites,” Ward said, “but I have a special place in my heart for Arizona. Absolutely.”

Ward and Bittner have been trying to defend three Arizona Democrats — Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Ron Barber and Kyrsten Sinema — this November. Meanwhile, Scarpinato has been attacking those same lawmakers in countless tweets and news releases to help the GOP win those swing seats.

But the Arizona political community is a small, entangled one. Ward, Bittner and Scarpinato all have a personal history with the three Arizona incumbents and with each other.

Ward and Scarpinato attended the University of Arizona together. In fact, Scarpinato, then a reporter with The Arizona Daily Wildcat student newspaper, once interviewed Ward, the president of the college’s Young Democrats, for a story on the political science department.

The piece got little attention; it was published the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Years later in Phoenix, Scarpinato was working as a reporter with The Arizona Daily Star covering statehouse and congressional races in 2008. One of his closest sources that year: Bittner, a former Arizona Republic reporter who was then the communications director for the state Democratic Party.

“We talked almost every day,” Scarpinato said.

For Bittner, the long, daily talks with Scarpinato served as a training ground for Washington: “I got good at political communications, in part, by sparring with Daniel.”

The bipartisan duo reconnected in July, going head-to-head in a midterm election debate on Steve Kornacki’s MSNBC show. Scarpinato brought his mother to the show, and Bittner chatted her up in the green room.

“It was an incredibly human moment,” Bittner said. “It was so adorable.”

The three aren’t the only ones with Arizona ties working for the House campaign arms. Todd Johnson, the NRCC’s research director, grew up in Tucson. And two other DCCC staffers studied in Arizona: Julie Sweet, the western regional political director, graduated from Arizona State University, while Hayley Dierker, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel’s former chief of staff who now is the committee’s chief operating officer, got her degree at Northern Arizona University.

“You can imagine the college rivalry discussions that happen within the building,” said Ward, whose office is in the Democratic National Committee headquarters near the Capitol.

For many young staffers, Arizona has often been a springboard to the national stage. 

Part of that is because it’s been at the center of many of the biggest political stories in recent years, from the emotionally charged battle over the state’s SB 1070 immigration law to the deadly 2011 Tucson massacre that nearly killed then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.). 

The state has also produced its share of national political figures: Sen. John McCain was the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, while President Obama tapped Napolitano, the state’s former Democratic governor, as his Homeland Security secretary.

“Arizona is a breeding ground for bipartisan campaign activity, and there’s a vibrant political community on both sides of aisle where young people can gain a lot of experience,” said Ward, who focused on community outreach for Napolitano, founded a pro-abortion-rights group called Arizona List and managed former Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell’s successful House campaign in 2006.

“Arizona voters are moderate swing voters,” she said, “and so lessons you learn in campaigns in Arizona really apply to races we are playing around the country this cycle.”

House Republicans are hoping to pick up at least a half dozen seats this year, and the Arizona Democrats are among their top targets. The Rothenberg Political Report rated two Arizona races as “pure toss-up”: Kirkpatrick’s race against state Speaker Andy Tobin in the 1st District, and Barber’s rematch with retired Air Force combat pilot Martha McSally in the 2nd District.

Sinema’s 9th District seat is considered much safer; the freshman congresswoman and former state lawmaker is the favorite against another retired Air Force pilot, Wendy Rogers. But Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last week after a fundraiser in Phoenix that the three Arizona GOP candidates will play a crucial role in helping Republicans boost the party’s 17-seat majority.

While Scarpinato is responsible for handling national press, he’s taken a particular interest in the Arizona races. He’s kept the Kirkpatrick and Barber races in his portfolio, and his Twitter feed is littered with tweets about the Arizona races.

The former writer recently began penning occasional political columns in a tiny Tucson newspaper, The Explorer, including one about the governor’s race. His mother, Diane, posts them to her Facebook wall.

“I have a very hard time letting go of Arizona,” Scarpinato admitted with a laugh.

He knows all three Democratic incumbents well. He covered Kirkpatrick and Sinema as a reporter at the Arizona Capitol and frequently talked to Barber when he was serving as district director in Tucson for Giffords.

During the 2010 cycle, Scarpinato worked on an unsuccessful GOP campaign for Giffords’s seat. And on Jan. 8, 2011, he had just started a job with Arizona Speaker Kirk Adams, a Republican, when he got the news that a deranged gunman had shot Giffords, Barber and 17 others at a constituent meet-and-greet in his hometown. 

When Giffords resigned her seat to recuperate, Barber, her longtime aide, won a special election to succeed her.

Adams would step down months later to run for the U.S. House, and Scarpinato stayed on with the new Speaker, Tobin, who just won a close GOP primary to take on Kirkpatrick on Nov. 4.

For all three campaign officials, memories of the Tucson shooting are still fresh. Scarpinato had been hiking with friends just outside of Phoenix when alerts poured into his cellphone. Bittner, who had just started a new job with freshman Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), was at a Georgetown basketball game when she got the news; she knew several of the victims, including Giffords staffer Gabe Zimmerman, 30, who didn’t survive. Ward, the DCCC’s new political director, had just turned on her computer at a D.C. coffee shop when the emails started arriving.

“Gabby was a mentor of mine as a young person,” said Ward, who first met Giffords when she would visit the University of Arizona as a state lawmaker. “I remember talking with her, having conversations over coffee at events. She had an instrumental impact on my life as a young person, and she still does.”

Disclosure: This reporter was briefly a colleague of Bittner’s at The Arizona Republic and a competitor of Scarpinato’s when he was at The Arizona Daily Star.

Tags Ann Kirkpatrick Joe Manchin John McCain Ron Barber

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