Wide field looks to get Arizona GOP back on track against Rep. Mitchell

A diverse field of GOP hopefuls is lining up for a shot to take the conservative-leaning district former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) held for six terms, creating an unpredictable primary race that will play out for the next two months.

Former Scottsdale City Councilwoman Susan Bitter Smith’s entry last month into the GOP field for freshman Rep. Harry Mitchell’s (D-Ariz.) seat threw a major variable into the equation, and the GOP will wait anxiously until September to learn who its candidate will be in the top-targeted race.

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Former Maricopa County Treasurer David SchweikertDavid SchweikertGroup of veterans call on lawmakers to support impeachment, 'put country over politics' Live updates on impeachment: Schiff fires warning at GOP over whistleblower Ethics Committee releases new details on allegations against Arizona GOP lawmaker MORE had been seen as the front-runner, but Bitter Smith appears to be cutting into his base. Three other candidates bring either significant legislative experience or big money to the race.

That leaves five viable candidates eyeing each other and, eventually, Mitchell. Early voting begins in a little over a month for the Sept. 2 primary.

Former congressional aide Jim Ogsbury is considered the race’s dark horse. The final two candidates, state Rep. Mark Anderson and former state Rep. Laura Knaperek, have solid bases of support in the district but are being significantly outraised by their opponents.

Whatever differences pop up on the campaign trail, they agree that Hayworth’s campaign did something wrong to lose the seat, even considering the tough environment for Republicans.

“Hayworth didn’t have a resource issue; he had a message issue,” Schweikert said. “I think they got so reliant on immigration and who could, sort of, scream the loudest.”

Republicans agree that a key for them will be avoiding the type of nasty primary that has plagued the state party and cost them some big races.

One of the most recent examples came in 2006, when Republicans couldn’t even mount a serious campaign for the open seat left by Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe.

Late negative attacks will be more difficult this time, as this is the first election in which Arizona will have permanent early voter lists. By adding to the number of people voting early, lodging negative attacks that will have major impact will be difficult.

But before Republicans train their focus on Mitchell, they must sort things out among themselves.

Anderson is a well-known 14-year state legislator in the Mesa area, while Knaperek has a small base in Tempe, where she was a long-serving member of the state House. The other three major candidates are all from the Scottsdale area.

Republicans see Schweikert and Bitter Smith likely fighting for voters from each other’s bases within the Scottsdale area and trying to steal some of Knaperek’s Tempe voters. Anderson’s base is small and doesn’t fall completely within the congressional district.

Democrats are quick to note that both Schweikert and Bitter Smith have run for Congress before and lost. Schweikert fell to Hayworth in an open race in 1994, and for a time he swore off electoral politics. Bitter Smith lost in both 1994 and 2000 in Rep. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeLindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Kelly, McSally virtually tied in Arizona Senate race: poll The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE’s (R-Ariz.) district.

Knaperek lost to Mitchell for state Senate in 2002 and, after regaining her House seat, lost reelection in 2006.

She raised about $100,000 through late March and expects to add only $80,000 to $90,000 to that total when the second quarter concludes next week.

“I have a lot of grassroots support — more than anyone in this race,” Knaperek said. “It’s not going to take a lot of money to win this race. What it’s going to take is a lot of work and name recognition and persistence.”

Ogsbury, a former House Appropriations Committee staffer, has impressed local observers. Though largely unknown, he put together $425,000 by the end of March and could pose a significant force in such a crowded primary.

Most of the candidates are trying to portray themselves as outside the political system, but Ogsbury and Bitter Smith have both worked as lobbyists, with Bitter Smith actually lobbying Congress during her campaign.

Ogsbury, the former congressional aide, said he thinks he can convince people that experience is necessary to change the system.

“I’m running against what has become a culture of big government and nanny state and big spending,” Ogsbury said. “But what distinguishes me is I have the tools to address that.”

Bitter Smith, who is known throughout Scottsdale, could benefit from concurrent municipal elections in the city.

“We have a big city council race and mayoral race at the same time, same polling place, same ballot, which inflates the value of Scottsdale voters,” Bitter Smith said.

All five candidates are garnering big-name endorsements. The Club for Growth is behind Schweikert, well-known Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is supporting Bitter Smith, Kolbe is backing Ogsbury, American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene has endorsed Anderson and three former state House majority leaders are backing Knaperek.

Schweikert and Ogsbury have already loaned their campaigns $250,000, and Bitter Smith has said she is prepared to give up to $350,000 to her campaign. Anything above that threshold would trigger the so-called Millionaire’s Amendment, which would raise the contributions ceiling for the others in the race.

The primary winner faces an uphill-but-not-insurmountable task, according to a poll conducted by a Democratic firm for the American Hospital Association. The March poll showed Mitchell leading Schweikert 50-24 and Knaperek 49-26.

Republicans feel Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBudowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? Sharice Davids to vote for Trump impeachment articles: 'The facts are uncontested' Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat MORE’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign will be a boon to their efforts. They promise to try to tag Mitchell with high gas prices and a lack of action on illegal immigration — an issue he largely neutralized against the hard-liner Hayworth.

“Harry Mitchell’s got a great spin machine that makes his votes look nice and pretty … but when [voters] look at their wallets, everything has increased since the Democrats have taken over,” said Maricopa County GOP Executive Director Tony Reinhard.

Mitchell campaign manager Seth Scott pointed to the incumbent’s support for the recent GI Bill and his work on introducing legislation to clean up Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

He also noted that Democrats have raised fuel efficiency standards.

“It takes more than a few months to reverse a failed energy policy of 10 years,” Scott said.