Establishment conservatives are convinced Tuesday's Republican primary for the right to take on Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick will determine whether the general election is one of the most competitive in the country—or a dud.
When Arizona state House Speaker Andy Tobin entered the race in October of last year, many expected him to run away with the Republican nomination. Yet Tobin has been mired in a rough race with state Rep. Adam Kwasman and self-funding rancher Gary Kiehne, and he never had the funds to run TV ads to introduce himself to primary voters. After problems in the last few elections, the GOP has done a good job advancing solid general-election candidates through this year's primaries. But some Republicans say Arizona's conservative 1st District is a lost cause without Tobin.
"There's no way this race will be competitive if they win," U.S. Chamber of Commerce Political Director Rob Engstrom said, speaking of Tobin's primary opponents. "It's off the radar. It's not a competitive race, not a serious race at that point."
Last Thursday, the chamber gave Tobin a nudge toward the other side of the finish line, spending$300,000 to run a TV ad—although it raised his name identification by contrasting him with Kirkpatrick rather than fellow Republicans Kwasman or Kiehne. A "personal" super PAC funded by one of Tobin's biggest supporters, auto dealer and GOP donor Jim Click, also released a pro-Tobin TV ad, while the Washington-based group Main Street Advocacy began radio advertising. The same day, an independent robo-poll (the only public poll of the primary) hinted at why help was arriving: It showed Tobin and Kwasman basically tied, with Kiehne a bit behind.
Engstrom said the expenditure was not a reaction to the race being closer than expected and that the group planned its involvement early this year. But Engstrom was adamant that another Republican candidate won't cut it against the Democrat.
The 1st District will always be tough for congressional Democrats, having gone Republican in three straight presidential elections. But Kwasman and Kiehne have both received more attention for their gaffes than for their campaigns. Kwasman mistakenly claimed in an interview that he personally saw a bus of migrant children and was informed on camera that the bus he saw was full of American YMCA campers. And Kiehne claimed in a debate that "99 percent" of mass shootings have been committed by Democrats, for which he later apologized.
If Tobin loses the nomination, it would be the first major swing-district race in the House this cycle in which the establishment-backed candidate loses to a tea-party-affiliated candidate. The GOP opportunity in the 1st District is especially tantalizing because there won't be a Libertarian candidate on the ballot this year. Kirkpatrick won the seat with less than 50 percent of the vote in 2012 while a Libertarian took more than 6 percent.
Tobin campaign manager Bill Cortese said the chamber's ad—plus a robocall recorded by Mitt Romney last week—show that Republicans know they need to get Tobin through the primary. "The reason you see Republican leaders and other groups getting engaged in this race is because it's become clear that Andy Tobin is the best candidate to defeat Ann Kirkpatrick in November," Cortese said in a statement.
Kwasman, meanwhile, said the last-minute push is proof he has a real shot to win the primary. The chamber and Romney both endorsed Tobin earlier in the race, but they didn't do ads or robocalls for him until it became clear he could lose the nomination.
"They're panicking," Kwasman said.
Kwasman said he's "cautiously optimistic" that he can pull off the upset Tuesday. He said the chamber's TV ad isn't likely to sway many primary voters, considering that the district has a relatively high number of absentee voters who had already cast their ballot when the ad went up.
"Does $300,000 in spending scare me? Of course," Kwasman said. "But the question is if it's too little, too late."
The winner of Tuesday's primary won't have much time to raise money and consolidate Republican support after what Kwasman called a "ridiculously hard-fought primary." But Kwasman said he and Tobin have communicated almost daily and will support whoever wins the nomination.
"There's not going to be a lingering schism that could cost us the general election," he said.