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Leading social conservative trying to end bid by former senator to get seat back in LD 17

Posted 1/22/24

PHOENIX — The national war over who is a true Republican is playing out in Southern Arizona, with a leading social conservative trying to kill the bid by a former senator to get his seat back.

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Leading social conservative trying to end bid by former senator to get seat back in LD 17


PHOENIX — The national war over who is a true Republican is playing out in Southern Arizona, with a leading social conservative trying to kill the bid by a former senator to get his seat back.

Merissa Hamilton wants to clear the way for social conservative Justine Wadsack to be the Republican nominee this year.

“I respectfully ask Vince Leach to rescind his candidacy,” she said in a Twitter post on Sunday. And she even took a shot at veteran Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, for trying to help Leach get the signatures he needs to be on the August primary ballot.

“We have a one seat majority and you are supporting a primary in a swing district,” she told Livington on Twitter.

But Leach told Capitol Media Services he has no intention of dropping out of the race to represent much of northern Pima County and a bit of southern Pinal County. And he contends he actually has a better chance of winning the general election than Wadsack who, in her first year at the Capitol, made a name for herself sponsoring a host of measures pushed by social conservatives, ranging from protecting people from losing their jobs because the won’t wear a mask to requiring the state Department of Education to maintain a list of books schools can’t make available to children, a list that includes any reference to “gender fluidity.”

That’s not to say Leach hasn’t dabbled in social issues, such as a request — later dropped — for then-Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate a mandate by Tucson that city workers had to be vaccinated against COVID.

But Leach had been more focused in his time at the Capitol at issues of interest to the business community, like making it more difficult for voters to propose their own laws after the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to act, like a ban on paid circulators and increasing the signature requirement.

And Leach is counting on that business backing, saying he should be able to raise more money than Wadsack and keep the LD 17 Senate seat in Republican hands.

Wadsack declined to answer questions about the race, saying it is only “the media that wants to focus on Republican primary battles.”

And the first-term senator brushed aside the possibility that her being the party’s nominee could open up the district to being represented by a Democrat after this year, a move that could change the balance of power in the Senate where Republicans have just a 16-14 edge.

“I’m focused on serving the people of my district and ensuring the Republican majority gives them a government that works for everyone, regardless of their party,” she said.

The intraparty fight is in many ways a microcosm of what is occurring across the state and the country. It mirrors the battle over the future of the GOP, with traditional business Republicans trying to push back a wave of victories by the Trump wing.

Hamilton, whose feet are clearly planted in that wing, has her own take.

She is an ally of failed gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake, a critic of “pro-tyranny caucus Republicans,” and founder and CEO of EZAZ.org that tries to stir up grass-roots opposition to what it considers liberal issues like red-light cameras. And Hamilton said she believes nominating Leach could give the seat to Democrats.

Even assuming no other changes in the makeup of the Senate, that would create a 15-15 tie and force a bipartisan arrangement, something that happened for two years after the 2000 election.

“He’s like the Nikki Haley of Arizona legislative candidates,” Hamilton said of Leach, a reference to the continuing presence of the former South Carolina governor in the race to become the Republican nominee for president even in the face of overwhelming support so far for Donald Trump.

What makes LD 17 particularly interesting is that it was specially carved out by the Independent Redistricting Commission to create a “safe” district for Republicans versus one that was politically competitive. And there was evidence Leach was behind some of that effort to ease his reelection campaign.

Leach got the district he wanted, removing more moderate Casas Adobes from the district and adding Republican voters elsewhere. But it all backfired when Wadsack, who may not actually have lived in the district at the time — a judge concluded otherwise — slid past him in the 2022 GOP primary.

Now the question for voters is whether, after electing her to a two-year term, she still is really what they want.

Some of that goes to what could be considered her political gestures, like standing up and turning her back on Gov. Katie Hobbs during her 2023 State of the State speech, or posing in front of the Capitol in high heels and a semiautomatic rifle along with Rep. Rachel Jones, an LD 17 representative.

And then there are those social issues Wadsack championed.

The first-term senator pushed through a measure last year designed to force communities to dismantle homeless encampments and, in some circumstances, arrest those who were staying there.

“We are being infiltrated with tent cities,” Wadsack told colleagues. But she denied her measure was punitive, saying it would have provided an opportunity for city officials to figure out what people need — whether its dealing with drugs, mental illness or economics — and connect them with services.

Gov. Katie Hobbs wasn’t impressed, vetoing the measure, saying it did not understand there are multiple reasons people become “unsheltered” and remain that way.

“This legislation addresses none of those root causes, offers no pathways to assistance, and effectively criminalizes experiencing homelessness,” the governor wrote.

Leach agreed.

“I think that we have to take care of the homeless people,” he said.

“I don’t think that we consider them and try to pass a bill that (makes them) criminals,” Leach continued. “That doesn’t solve the problem.”

Anyway, he said, there’s simply not enough room in the Pima County jail to house them.

Leach also contends Wadsack, in pushing social issues, is not just out of step with district voters but also undermining what he thinks is their top priority: making Arizona an attractive site for businesses to expand and relocate. That included legislation to restrict “adult cabaret performances,” a measure widely seen as a bid to regulate “drag shows” even though it never actually used those words.

“I don’t think the (Republican) party is going there,” Leach said of focusing on social issues. “I think the party is still a party of business.”

That, however, remains to be seen.

Just this past week, Republicans on a Senate panel approved a measure to all but wipe out the Arizona Commerce Authority over the strong objections of the business community. Wadsack voted with the majority.

And the issues are deeper. Even Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, has questioned whether the agency should be providing incentives of public dollars to lure companies here.

Leach said while the Commerce Authority has issues — it got dinged for what Attorney General Kris Mayes said was an illegal use of public funds to entertain corporate bigwigs — it serves a valuable purpose in business development.

Hamilton has a different take.

“Vince supports a lot of crony establishment policies,” she said.

The primary is not until August. But Wadsack already is lashing out at Leach.

“Feel free to ask my predecessor why he refused to do anything about the border crisis in his eight years of office,” she posted online. “While you’re at it, ask him why he did nothing to secure elections, too.”

That focuses in on what has been an article of faith among some elements of the Republican Party that the 2020 and 2022 elections were rigged and stolen from GOP candidates. Wadsack said that could have been resolved had Republican lawmakers done something about election laws in 2021 and 2022 — when Leach was in office and they had a Republican in the governor’s office and not Democrat Hobbs who vetoed several such measures.

Wadsack said she has a record in her first year of supporting things LD 17 residents want.

That includes the one-time rebate of up to $750 for families with children, providing trade school opportunities at community colleges, and precluding the state from taking death benefits that would otherwise go to children in foster care.

And Hamilton, for her part, said Leach is mistaken if he thinks he is what LD 17 residents want.

“I have spent a lot of time talking to voters in her area,” she said.

“They like that Wadsack fights for them and listens to them,” Hamilton continued. “That’s why the recall effort against her failed.”

That refers to a bid last year by district resident Rolande Baker to gather 30,981 valid signatures on petitions to trigger a special election. Baker declined to say how many she collected in the four-month window allowed in state law. Nor did she turn in the completed petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Wadsack said at the time the outcome of that drive was no surprise.

“The voters of LD 17 don’t want me recalled,” she said.

“They want me reelected,” Wadsack said. “And that’s why not a single signature was turned in.”

So far this session Wadsack has not introduced any legislation on the same social issues as last year.

But she is proposing to turn school board races into partisan affairs, with candidates running the same as legislators and others complete with party labels and primaries.

A similar measure was introduced in 2022 by then-Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita.

“I’m not sure that parents know exactly what these school board members believe, what they think,” the Scottsdale Republican said at the time. She said requiring party affiliation would make a difference.

“Having to identify yourself with your party helps communicate to a potential voter where you stand,” she said.

That measure died on a 4-4 vote in the Senate Education Committee when then-Sen. Tyler Pace voted with Democrats. He said the idea is based on the faulty assumption that those who are registered Republican, as he is, will all vote the same.