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An Arizona Democrat Tries to Cling On in a Trump-Tilting District

By , in Politics , at April 12, 2022

Consultant Tom O’Halleran of Arizona is searching for re-election as his district leans additional towards Trump. His technique? Don’t change. “I’m,” he says, “who I’m.”

Arizona has a historical past of manufacturing lightning-rod members of Congress, like Representative Paul Gosar. However the Arizona politician you ought to be listening to — and who can doubtlessly inform us an amazing deal about Democrats’ hopes of avoiding a 2022 wipeout within the Home — in all probability isn’t in your radar.

That may be Consultant Tom O’Halleran, a Democrat who has been in workplace since 2017 and who began out his political profession as one thing few Democrats can declare — a Republican.

O’Halleran’s district was redrawn in 2020 and have become more durable and Trumpier. Many say he’s doomed to fail, however O’Halleran is unfazed. Regardless of all of the challenges Democrats face within the midterms this yr — President Biden’s low approval rankings, historic precedent for the get together in energy, overheating inflation — O’Halleran believes old style retail politics will come by means of for him. His method is an instance of the cussed but mandatory hope that Democrats can each localize and personalize their races with the intention to overcome a punishing nationwide atmosphere.

“I’m not someone that stokes the hearth,” O’Halleran, 76, stated in an interview final week. “I’m someone that tries to maintain it within the space the place it’s contained in order that we are able to proceed to make use of it successfully.”

Even earlier than it was redrawn, O’Halleran’s district, which incorporates most of jap Arizona, was extremely aggressive. Donald Trump carried it in 2016, the yr O’Halleran received his seat. He has held it since then thanks partially to recruiting issues by Republicans, who’ve put ahead an array of over-the-top and underwhelming candidates.

This yr, the Republican main discipline features a former contender on the truth TV present “Shark Tank” and a QAnon conspiracy theorist.

However now the district is even friendlier to Republicans: Trump received 53 p.c of its voters in 2020. Some Republicans argue that on this political atmosphere, any conservative candidate who wins the first will win the final election, so it’s much less essential for the get together than it has been previously to discover a famous person candidate.

“There’s a restrict to how far you’ll be able to outrun your get together earlier than political gravity ultimately catches up with you, particularly in a yr like this,” stated Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the Congressional Management Fund, Home Republicans’ tremendous PAC.

O’Halleran has solely a lot management over his electoral destiny, with the political world anticipating a Republican wave that flips the Home. Some Democrats merely hope that O’Halleran and some of the get together’s different candidates in robust races can maintain on and deny Republicans an amazing majority.

In that situation, O’Halleran is on the entrance traces of Democrats’ protection, defying the partisanship of his district as he has performed a number of instances earlier than. And the best way the Republican main is shaking out, it’s very doable that O’Halleran might find yourself with one other weak opponent within the basic election.

He feels assured both approach.

“I used to be a Republican, keep in mind?” he stated. “I’m the identical particular person then as I’m now. And so I believe individuals will keep in mind that.”

‘I’m who I’m’

You received’t discover O’Halleran speaking about progressive insurance policies on cable information or criticizing his Republican colleagues within the newspaper. It’s all a part of his political technique.

A former police officer in Chicago, he was first elected to the Arizona Legislature as a Republican in 2000, and served in each chambers by means of 2009. After dropping his State Senate seat to a extra conservative candidate, he unsuccessfully ran to return to the state Legislature as an impartial, then ran for the U.S. Home as a Democrat in 2016.

He claims to do extra city corridor occasions than anyone else in Arizona. And whereas he acknowledges that fame permits some members of Congress to fill their marketing campaign coffers and assist construct enthusiasm, he says that’s not for him.

When requested how he’d reply to issues from voters about fuel costs and inflation, he launched into a proof that included an outline of a chart introduced at a Home Power and Commerce Committee listening to, sprinkled with mentions of provide and demand. When requested how he’d match that message right into a 30-second advert, he responded, “What might be within the 30-second marketing campaign advert is my sincerity.”

He stated this race would come right down to how a lot his constituents belief him, the identical as in previous races. That’s one purpose he’s not altering his method, though he now has new constituents.

“I’m who I’m,” he stated, including, “If I begin altering due to that, that’s going to say to them I’m prepared to make adjustments primarily based on my potential to get elected versus my potential to assist lead.”

The competitors throughout the aisle

O’Halleran additionally dismisses the concept he’s been fortunate along with his Republican competitors through 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 confronted an Air Drive veteran who had already misplaced a couple of Home contests. In 2020, a challenger who struggled with fund-raising in 2018 struggled as soon as once more.

This yr, the crowded Republican main consists of Ron Watkins, a former web site administrator who’s extensively believed to have played a major role in writing the nameless QAnon posts. Republicans doubt that Watkins will make it far. He final reported having raised simply over $50,000, behind three different Republicans who’ve made federal marketing campaign filings.

However even the candidate perceived to be most interesting to the institution — Eli Crane, the highest Republican fund-raiser — has positions that will be robust 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 prime competitors for the nomination is likely to be State Consultant Walt Blackman, a adorned veteran who once praised the Proud Boys.

When requested concerning the main discipline, Republican strategists didn’t categorical a lot pleasure, however they had been additionally assured their get together would win the seat anyway. And even when a candidate who’s underwhelming at fund-raising wins the nomination, they count on outdoors teams to assist out.

The costly Phoenix media market may not have appeared definitely worth the funding in earlier years, however with such a promising nationwide atmosphere and the district’s new partisan composition, Republicans count on it’ll be definitely worth the effort this time.

“Candidates and campaigns all the time matter,” stated Brian Seitchik, an Arizona-based Republican marketing consultant. “Having stated that, with the redraw of that congressional district and a hyper-favorable atmosphere for Republicans, I’d say that race goes to be the Republicans’ race to lose in November.”

However O’Halleran’s group stays optimistic. Rodd McLeod, a Democratic marketing consultant who’s working with O’Halleran, maintains that the congressman’s relationships with constituents run deeper than partisanship.

“He might be the man,” McLeod stated, “who outlasted the wave.”

What to learn

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Walker Pickering for The New York Occasions

Nebraska needs to be the subsequent Iowa

For the final 50 years, Nebraska’s function in presidential primaries has largely been as a spot with a very good airport for touring to western Iowa.

Now, with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation spot in grave peril after the final two Democratic caucuses had been flubbed, Nebraska is able to enter the competition to knock its neighbor off the start of the Democratic presidential nominating calendar.

“Nebraska goes to go for it,” Jane Kleeb, the state’s Democratic Occasion chairwoman, instructed me.

She is going to foyer her fellow Democratic Nationwide Committee members to again Nebraska in leaping to the entrance of the nominating line, she stated. Republicans, in the meantime, stay dedicated to date to conserving Iowa first.

Among the many Democrats, Nebraska may have competitors. New Jersey offered itself final month to the D.N.C., and Michigan’s Democratic officers are also lobbying to go first.

Each are massive states dominated by city areas in costly media markets. The attraction of the normal early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — is that they in principle are sufficiently small to construct grass-roots campaigns that aren’t simply tv productions.

Kleeb’s pitch is that Nebraska has cheap media markets in Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island; a latest document, not like Iowa, of sending one among its electoral votes to Democratic presidential candidates; a mixture of city, suburban and rural voters; a significant Latino inhabitants at 11 p.c; and loads of Fortune 500 corporations — and Warren Buffett — to assist underwrite party-building within the state.

“We all know that we are going to be going up in opposition to a giant Midwest state like Michigan,” she stated. “What we have now going for us is that we’re small — small however mighty.”

A shift from Iowa to Nebraska would hold rural points entrance and middle for an more and more city Democratic Occasion. Candidates must turn out to be fluent in pipeline and eminent area politics, the place Kleeb obtained her political begin, and be taught to embrace the runza, the unofficial state sandwich of Nebraska.

— Leah (Blake is on trip)

Is there something you assume we’re lacking? Something you need to see extra of? We’d love to listen to from you. E mail us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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