U.S. Congressman Raúl Grijalva can count on Joe Sweeney to challenge him every election season—and sometimes even emerge victorious in the Republican primary, giving the Democrat an easy path to general-election victory.
But this year—following a contentious presidential election, a downturn in the economy, the rise of the Tea Party movement and growing anti-immigrant fervor—Sweeney was defeated in the primary. And Grijalva is on notice.
Rather than Sweeney, Grijalva's general-election challenger is political newcomer Ruth McClung, a 28-year-old who went to school at the UA and now works for defense-contractor Raytheon. Various Republican-leaning polls have cast McClung just seven points behind the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, or neck and neck—or even slightly ahead.
Grijalva says he began to see a change in the political climate when his district offices started to receive threats two years ago. Those threats grew worse after Grijalva supported the federal health-care-reform legislation.
Then came Gov. Jan Brewer's signing of SB 1070, and Grijalva's call for a convention boycott of Arizona. In late July, a bullet shattered a window at Grijalva's Yuma office.
"There's palpable hate and anger," Grijalva says about this election season.
McClung's new TV and radio advertising harnesses those feelings, painting Grijalva as a congressman who hurt his own state and district when he called for the boycott—even though jobs and foreclosures were problems well before Obama's election and Grijalva's boycott call.
"We need jobs. We don't need a hurtful boycott of our state as my opponent demands," McClung says in the TV ad. "He boycotted us—his own state, his own people."
At a debate in Yuma, Grijalva pointed out that the economy hasn't been helped by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's description of headless bodies discovered in the desert, or her claim that almost all suspected illegal immigrants who enter Arizona are drug mules.
"It was a strategic mistake on my part, and I've admitted that," Grijalva says about the boycott call. "I thought the threat of sanctions, i.e., no conventions and conferences coming here ... would have an impact on the powers that be. I was wrong. Their decision is ideological. They wouldn't care if nobody came to the conventions. The best route (to fight SB 1070) is the judicial route. We should have focused on that in its entirety, and I am now."
Grijalva says his call for a boycott not only provided McClung with ammunition; it gave the far right a "boogeyman."
"We need to take (the boycott call) off the table so we can talk about the real issue, which is immigration reform. It was an excuse for Brewer and (Sen. John) McCain and the rest of them to continue to talk about (fictional) bodies in the desert, the beheadings ... when the racial-profiling issue was the one that caused the division we are dealing with right now," he says.
Money has also come up as an issue during Grijalva's campaign. According to the latest campaign-finance reports, Grijalva had just $76,000 left out of the $500,000 he's raised. McClung had raised less than $70,000, and had less than $15,000 on hand in early August.
Grijalva says his campaign is doing an Internet push for small donations to help raise funds, and he's finding support from Chicano political organizations in Texas and California.
Congressional District 7, which covers parts of Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, is a majority-Hispanic district with twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. However, Grijalva says he doesn't think this election is a shoo-in: This time, the challenge is real, and Grijalva recognizes that he can't depend on 100 percent of the Hispanic vote.
But at the same time, he's heard from plenty of older Hispanics who are concerned about the state law.
"One gentleman told me, 'I'll be damned if I'm going to show my citizenship papers. I've had a son killed in Vietnam; I served in the Korean War, and I'm fifth-generation in this city. I've already proved my citizenship.' ... I think (people) are underestimating the insult and the inteligence of the people of Arizona. I'm counting on them to turn up (for the election)," Grijalva says.
Grijalva says McClung comes across as conciliatory, belying her true positions, according to the survey McClung filled out for Project Vote Smart. That survey shows her to be pro-life and interested in privatizing Social Security, Grijalva says.
McClung—who received an endorsement from Sarah Palin last week—posted on Palin's Facebook page on Monday, Oct. 11, says that she's a conservative because she believes there are traditional roles in government, and that more decisions need to be made at the local level rather than the federal level.
One example: education. On McClung's website, she says education can be strengthened without federal interference. She's a supporter of school vouchers that allow parents to send their kids to the school of their choice.
McClung says she brought up Grijalva's call for a boycott because of the need to focus on job development in CD 7. "We have to get jobs to stabilize Arizona. I believe we need to focus on small businesses. ... You need to look at what we can do to help small businesses in order to help them prosper."
Does McClung consider herself a Republican candidate, or a Tea Party candidate? She says she gets support from both groups, as well as some Democrats and independents.
"I'm a Republican, but I agree with the policies of the Tea Party—less spending, less federal government control, and getting the economy going again. Those are the common things people stand for."
Regarding SB 1070, McClung says immigration is a federal issue, but because of "Phoenix being the kidnap capital, so many drugs, the gangs coming in, the problems Mexico is facing with the cartels, we have to make sure they don't come in. We have to stop the bad guys," McClung says.
If she had been in the state Legislature, she says, she would have asked for the removal of the part of SB 1070 that allows people to be stopped if they are suspected of being illegal immigrants.
"It's a gray area, and I don't like gray areas. If a cop pulls someone over for speeding, they should ask everyone if they are citizens," McClung says.