The Latas Paradox

Republican Jesse Kelly's dream of unseating Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords may have hit a snag

After Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords dispatched former state Sen. Tim Bee by 12 percentage points last year, there weren't many A-list Republican candidates ready to challenge her in 2010.

Instead, four Republicans that few people have even heard of are sniffing around the race: Jesse Kelly, Brian Miller, Andy Goss and Tom Carlson.

Of the four, Kelly is off to the strongest start, raising about $150,000 as of the end of the last reporting period. That's a respectable haul for someone with no political experience, but it comes nowhere near the $1.3 million that Giffords has on hand already for the race.

Kelly, who spent four years in the Marine Corps before moving to Arizona to work for his family's construction business, says he got into the race because he was unhappy with the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress.

"I love my country, and I don't like the direction it's going in," says Kelly, who registered as a Republican earlier this year after not having a party preference.

"When I got out of the Marine Corps in August 2004, I was none too pleased with the Republican Party and how they were growing government (and) violating the Constitution ... so I just registered as 'party not declared' when I got down here," he says.

Kelly complains that the federal government "has grown too bloated" and needs to be cut back.

He'd start by chopping regulatory budgets by 20 percent and finish by eventually privatizing Social Security—people would have options to invest retirement accounts in the stock market—and eliminating Medicare as part of a health-care reform that wouldn't involve a government program. Instead, people would get tax breaks to buy their own insurance rather than getting it through their jobs.

"When individuals can start owning their own insurance, then they're in less need of Medicare in the future, thus getting off the public dole and staying on their own individual insurance," says Kelly.

He adds that the changes would have to take place over time. "To say you're going to do that instantly would be disingenuous and not realistic and not fair to the people who have earned it," he says.

Kelly has yet to take a stand on one of the more contentious issues in the district: The fight over whether Augusta Resource Corporation should be allowed to use federal land for a copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains. He says he doesn't understand why the federal government even needs to be involved in the issue, although the mine has asked for permission to use federal land as a dumping ground. If Kelly had his way, the federal government wouldn't even own that land.

Kelly says the one area of the budget that needs more money is the military, because the U.S. needs to put more troops in Afghanistan.

"We'd better win that war," he says. "We can't fight it halfway."

But Kelly faces a new obstacle on the road to a campaign against Giffords: The possibility that state Sen. Jonathan Paton may get into the race.

Paton says he's being courted by many within the Republican Party, because Giffords appears more vulnerable after the 2009 election cycle, which saw GOP gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia, as well as the toppling of Democrat Nina Trasoff in the Democrat-dominated city of Tucson.

"I've been talking to a lot of people in the district and asking what they think," Paton says. "They've been very encouraging, but Gabrielle Giffords is a political animal and a great fundraiser. I know that Nancy Pelosi will come out really strong for her. Obviously, we're taking that into account as well."

In any case, Kelly says he's prepared to take on Paton in a primary.

"I am the one who can and will beat Gabrielle Giffords," Kelly says. "If the senator wants to get in this race, by all means, the water's warm. Jump right in. I hope he's ready for battle."

But Kelly may become the victim of something you might call the Latas Paradox: As the unknown challenger's chances of knocking out a member of Congress increase, his chances of winning a primary decrease.

It's named for Democrat Jeff Latas, an Air Force veteran who launched a long-shot campaign against then-Congressman Jim Kolbe in 2005. Latas was hailed by Democrats as the guy who was finally going to unseat Kolbe, a Republican.

But after Kolbe announced he was going to retire, a half-dozen Democrats wound up in the race. On Election Day, Giffords walked away with 54 percent of the vote. Latas came in a distant third, with just 6 percent.

Margaret Kenski, a Republican pollster who has done extensive surveys in CD8 over the last two decades, says that Paton has clear advantages over Kelly.

Kenski points out that Kelly's main claim to fame is his military service, which Paton can match, because he spent a half-year in Iraq and is still serving in the Army Reserve. (Paton was at Camp Slayer when he won re-election to his state House seat in 2006.) Paton also has the advantage of legislative experience and an extensive fundraising base—which is key to remaining competitive in a seven-figure race.

"He's a broader-spectrum candidate in terms of background," Kenski says.

Kenski says that Giffords may well be vulnerable, because she has voted for the stimulus package, health-care reform and cap-and-trade legislation.

"I don't think her issue positions line up real well with the mood of district voters at the present," Kenski says.

But she warns that the incumbent still will be hard to take out.

"She's got a lot of money in the bank, and she's a personable candidate," Kenski says.

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