Arizona has a history of producing lightning-rod members of Congress, like Representative Paul Gosar. But the Arizona politician you should be paying attention to — and who can potentially tell us a great deal about Democrats’ hopes of avoiding a 2022 wipeout in the House — probably isn’t on your radar.
That would be Representative Tom O’Halleran, a Democrat who has been in office since 2017 and who started out his political career as something few Democrats can claim — a Republican.
O’Halleran’s district was redrawn in 2020 and became tougher and Trumpier. Many say he’s doomed to fail, but O’Halleran is unfazed. Despite all the challenges Democrats face in the midterms this year — President Biden’s low approval ratings, historical precedent for the party in power, overheating inflation — O’Halleran believes old-fashioned retail politics will come through for him. His approach is an example of the stubborn yet necessary hope that Democrats can both localize and personalize their races in order to overcome a punishing national environment.
“I’m not somebody that stokes the fire,” O’Halleran, 76, said in an interview last week. “I’m somebody that tries to keep it in the area where it’s contained so that we can continue to use it effectively.”
Even before it was redrawn, O’Halleran’s district, which includes most of eastern Arizona, was highly competitive. Donald Trump carried it in 2016, the year O’Halleran won his seat. He has held it since then thanks in part to recruiting problems by Republicans, who have put forward an array of over-the-top and underwhelming candidates.
This year, the Republican primary field includes a former contender on the reality TV show “Shark Tank” and a QAnon conspiracy theorist.
But now the district is even friendlier to Republicans: Trump won 53 percent of its voters in 2020. Some Republicans argue that in this political environment, any conservative candidate who wins the primary will win the general election, so it’s less important for the party than it has been in the past to find a superstar candidate.
“There’s a limit to how far you can outrun your party before political gravity eventually catches up with you, especially in a year like this,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, House Republicans’ super PAC.
O’Halleran has only so much control over his electoral fate, with the political world anticipating a Republican wave that flips the House. Some Democrats merely hope that O’Halleran and a few of the party’s other candidates in tough races can hold on and deny Republicans an overwhelming majority.
In that scenario, O’Halleran is at the front lines of Democrats’ defense, defying the partisanship of his district as he has done multiple times before. And the way the Republican primary is shaking out, it’s very possible that O’Halleran could end up with another weak opponent in the general election.
He feels confident either way.
“I was a Republican, remember?” he said. “I’m the same person then as I am now. And so I think people will remember that.”
‘I am who I am’
You won’t find O’Halleran talking about progressive policies on cable news or criticizing his Republican colleagues in the newspaper. It’s all part of his political strategy.
A former police officer in Chicago, he was first elected to the Arizona Legislature as a Republican in 2000, and served in both chambers through 2009. After losing his State Senate seat to a more conservative candidate, he unsuccessfully ran to return to the state Legislature as an independent, then ran for the U.S. House as a Democrat in 2016.
He claims to do more town hall events than anybody else in Arizona. And while he acknowledges that fame allows some members of Congress to fill their campaign coffers and help build enthusiasm, he says that’s not for him.
When asked how he’d respond to concerns from voters about gas prices and inflation, he launched into an explanation that included a description of a chart presented at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, sprinkled with mentions of supply and demand. When asked how he’d fit that message into a 30-second ad, he responded, “What will be in the 30-second campaign ad is my sincerity.”
He said this race would come down to how much his constituents trust him, the same as in past races. That’s one reason he’s not changing his approach, even though he now has new constituents.
“I am who I am,” he said, adding, “If I start changing because of that, that’s going to say to them I’m willing to make changes based on my ability to get elected versus my ability to help lead.”
The competition across the aisle
O’Halleran also dismisses the idea that he’s been lucky with his Republican competition over the years.
In 2016, he was challenged by a former sheriff who had stepped down from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign after being accused of threatening to deport his ex-boyfriend. In 2018, O’Halleran faced an Air Force veteran who had already lost a few House contests. In 2020, a challenger who struggled with fund-raising in 2018 struggled once again.
This year, the crowded Republican primary includes Ron Watkins, a former website administrator who is widely believed to have played a major role in writing the anonymous QAnon posts. Republicans doubt that Watkins will make it far. He last reported having raised just over $50,000, behind three other Republicans who have made federal campaign filings.
But even the candidate perceived to be most appealing to the establishment — Eli Crane, the top Republican fund-raiser — has positions that would be tough to defend with moderates. He’s a former member of the Navy SEALs, former contender on “Shark Tank” and has boasted that he supported decertifying the 2020 election. His top competition for the nomination might be State Representative Walt Blackman, a decorated veteran who once praised the Proud Boys.
When asked about the primary field, Republican strategists did not express much excitement, but they were also confident their party would win the seat anyway. And even if a candidate who is underwhelming at fund-raising wins the nomination, they expect outside groups to help out.
The expensive Phoenix media market might not have seemed worth the investment in previous years, but with such a promising national environment and the district’s new partisan composition, Republicans expect it’ll be worth the effort this time.
“Candidates and campaigns always matter,” said Brian Seitchik, an Arizona-based Republican consultant. “Having said that, with the redraw of that congressional district and a hyper-favorable environment for Republicans, I’d say that race is going to be the Republicans’ race to lose in November.”
But O’Halleran’s team remains optimistic. Rodd McLeod, a Democratic consultant who is working with O’Halleran, maintains that the congressman’s relationships with constituents run deeper than partisanship.
“He could be the guy,” McLeod said, “who outlasted the wave.”
What to read
Nebraska wants to be the next Iowa
For the last 50 years, Nebraska’s role in presidential primaries has largely been as a place with a good airport for traveling to western Iowa.
Now, with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation spot in grave peril after the last two Democratic caucuses were flubbed, Nebraska is ready to enter the contest to knock its neighbor off the beginning of the Democratic presidential nominating calendar.
“Nebraska is going to go for it,” Jane Kleeb, the state’s Democratic Party chairwoman, told me.
She will lobby her fellow Democratic National Committee members to back Nebraska in jumping to the front of the nominating line, she said. Republicans, meanwhile, remain committed so far to keeping Iowa first.
Both are big states dominated by urban areas in expensive media markets. The appeal of the traditional early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — is that they in theory are small enough to build grass-roots campaigns that aren’t just television productions.
Kleeb’s pitch is that Nebraska has inexpensive media markets in Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island; a recent record, unlike Iowa, of sending one of its electoral votes to Democratic presidential candidates; a mix of urban, suburban and rural voters; a significant Latino population at 11 percent; and plenty of Fortune 500 companies — and Warren Buffett — to help underwrite party-building in the state.
“We know that we will be going up against a big Midwest state like Michigan,” she said. “What we have going for us is that we are small — small but mighty.”
A shift from Iowa to Nebraska would keep rural issues front and center for an increasingly urban Democratic Party. Candidates would have to become fluent in pipeline and eminent domain politics, where Kleeb got her political start, and learn to embrace the runza, the unofficial state sandwich of Nebraska.
— Leah (Blake is on vacation)
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