The Second Coming

In the race to replace Gabrielle Giffords, can Frank Antenori, Martha McSally or Dave Sitton defeat Jesse Kelly?

Jesse Kelly is holding forth in front of the Republican voters of Precinct 388 in the Catalina Room of the Voyager RV Park.

He expresses outrage that the Environmental Protection Agency is full of "unelected bureaucrats who control your light bulbs and your toilets." He complains that banks are too scared to loan money to businesses, because "the federal government has its eye on every penny of it." He tells the crowd that the anti-business, big-government idiots in Washington, D.C., make too much money and "couldn't run a car wash."

This is vintage Jesse Kelly: He roars against a federal government that takes too much from everyone's wallet and squanders the money on foreign aid, the National Endowment for the Arts and NPR. He blasts regulations he says are preventing businesses from creating jobs. He complains that liberals are stealing freedom and desecrating the U.S. Constitution. And the only way to fix all of this and restore America's glory is by sending a straight-talking patriot to Washington to cut it down to size.

This is the political routine that helped the former Marine win the 2010 Congressional District 8 Republican primary over a better-funded, more-experienced state lawmaker, Jonathan Paton. And it brought him within a few thousand votes of unseating Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in a hard-fought general election.

Kelly, 30, had been planning a rematch with Giffords and was on the verge of announcing his intention to get back on the campaign trail when, on Jan. 8, 2011, a gunman opened fire in a Safeway parking lot, killing six and wounding 13, including Giffords, who miraculously survived being shot through the head. Giffords became a national inspiration; Kelly vanished from the political landscape, moving to Texas to work for his family's construction company.

When Giffords stepped down in January of this year, it set up a special election in Southern Arizona's CD 8, which includes the retirement enclaves of SaddleBrooke and Green Valley, the Democratic stronghold of central Tucson, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Fort Huachuca, and small towns such as Sierra Vista, Bisbee and Douglas.

It's a district with a Republican edge, but Giffords had held it since winning election in 2006, after Republican Jim Kolbe retired following 11 terms.

Candidates don't have much time in this race: Early voting in the April 17 Republican primary is under way as of Thursday, March 22. The winner of that contest will go on to face Democrat Ron Barber, a former aide to Giffords who has her endorsement, in the June 12 general election.

Thanks to the name ID he established in 2010, Kelly started out ahead of his potential GOP rivals. A poll by the political arm of the conservative nonprofit Citizens United, which has endorsed Kelly, showed that in mid-February, he had the support of 43 percent of likely Republican voters. That put him well ahead of state Sen. Frank Antenori (18 percent), businessman and sportscaster Dave Sitton (10 percent) and former Air Force fighter pilot Martha McSally (8 percent).

Early ballots are going in the mail this week, and given that this is a special election with nothing else on the ballot, an enormous percentage of the votes will probably be cast by mail.

Kelly's biggest challenge at this point is running out the clock before his opponents can introduce themselves to voters.

Despite his rhetorical gifts on the campaign trail (or perhaps because of them), Kelly is not the sort of candidate who has many conversations about policy with reporters. While he was happy to sit down with the press when he first hit the campaign trail in 2009, he now prefers brief email responses when interacting with newspapers, including the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Weekly.

His tax policy—"If 10 percent is good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for the federal government"—is a prime example of his approach: Kelly says the national debt needs to be tamed, but he also calls for dramatic tax cuts that would blow the deficit wide open. Kelly's tax plan calls for a flat 10 percent income tax on all Americans, so that everyone would get a tax cut.

However, since nearly half of all Americans don't pay any income taxes, a 10 percent income tax would actually constitute a tax increase on low-income and middle-class citizens, unless payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare were included (and even then, 10 percent might be a hike). Asked whether he'd include those taxes in the 10 percent, Kelly said, "A simple 10 percent flat tax will take care of everything."

There's no easy way to score the fiscal impact of Kelly's plan, because the details are foggy—for example, he's under the mistaken belief that getting rid of the mortgage deduction would lower the average tax bill, when instead, it would increase it. On top of that, there's no serious proposal along those lines in Congress. (Even the king of supply-side economics, Arnold Laffer, says that to bring in the same amount of revenue as today's tax system, we'd need to pair an 11 percent flat income tax with an 11 percent sales tax.)

Kelly defended his tax plan in 2010 by promising to lower federal spending to fit whatever funds are raised by the tax. At a forum in Green Valley, Kelly explained: "And we constantly hear this lie that—well, I guess it's not a complete lie—that 10 percent wouldn't fund the government at its current levels. That's the idea! It doesn't need to be at its current levels."

But those are wonky details—and Kelly counts on voters not thinking too hard about his proposals. He hopes they like the sound of "10 percent flat tax" and don't stop to realize it would be a budget-busting giveaway to America's wealthiest citizens.

The thrust of the tax plan goes along with the central theme of Kelly's campaign, which has a powerful lure for GOP voters and independents: The federal government is too big, and needs to be shut down, because the United States is so diverse that the same rules should not apply from sea to shining sea.

Or, as he boiled it down at press conference announcing his new candidacy in February: "We need lower taxes (and) a strong economy. We need more jobs. That's what this campaign is going to be about."

But the same anti-government talk that helped Kelly in the GOP primary cost him the election in 2010. Team Giffords was able to paint him as an extremist who wanted to privatize Social Security and sock middle-income soccer moms with a new national sales tax of 23 percent.

Kelly griped that his positions were being distorted, but his loose words on the campaign trail and scattered policy proposals made it easy for Team Giffords to cite its claims, often with video evidence courtesy of YouTube.

On Election Day 2010, Kelly came closer to beating Giffords than either of her previous GOP opponents. She skated past the conservative Randy Graf in 2006, and the more-moderate Tim Bee in 2008—both of whom had been state lawmakers with campaign experience—by double-digit margins. Against Kelly, she won by 4,156 votes—little more than a single percentage point.

With the special election under way, Kelly tells voters he's ready to "finish the job." However, he has noticeably adjusted his tone on the campaign trail. This year, he's not likely to repeat a 2010 fundraiser at a shooting range—complete with the opportunity for supporters to fire an M16 rifle—that was billed as a way to "help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office." He's also less personal. Instead of saying things like, "Stay out of my toilet, Gabrielle Giffords!" (in reference to federal regulations about water pressure), he complains that nebulous Washington bureaucrats have no business in his toilet. And you're not likely to hear him say something, as he did at a 2010 forum, like: "Gabrielle Giffords, your time's coming, because you've had patty-cake played with you twice. We play to win. ... We're coming."

State Sen. Frank Antenori was not pleased when he heard that Kelly was returning to Southern Arizona from his Texas home to run in the special election.

"What's really astonishing is that he had no intentions of running in the normal election, and he had already started cutting staff away, and all of a sudden, Mr. Opportunity is back in town," Antenori told the Weekly.

Antenori, 45, who backed Kelly's campaign in 2010, complains that Kelly left in the wake of the Giffords' shooting, while Antenori remained here and fought accusations by pundits that the shooter was motivated by Tea Party political talk.

Kelly—whose family construction business has received tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts linked to stimulus and earmarked contracts—said he had to move to Texas because that's where his job was.

It's easy to see why Antenori was annoyed by Kelly's reappearance in Southern Arizona: Antenori has been thinking about serving in Congress for a long time.

While still serving as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army, he traveled to Capitol Hill to testify before a subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee. He remembers being stunned at the type of questions his team faced: "They asked, 'Was there lots of snow?' Another guy asked if it was tough leaving your family for so long."

Antenori's conclusion: The members of Congress were out of touch.

"I thought, if that's all there is to being a congressman, I could do that," Antenori said. "They didn't ask the right questions."

Antenori retired after 20 years in the Army and moved to Tucson in 2004 to take a job with Raytheon, where he still works today. He made his first run for Congress in 2006, when Kolbe's retirement opened up the seat that Giffords eventually won. Antenori came in second-to-last in a five-way primary—with just 4 percent of the vote—but he learned a lot about campaigning, built a political network and established name ID.

Antenori remained involved in politics and won a state House of Representatives seat in 2008. He was elevated to his Senate seat by the Pima County Board of Supervisors after Paton stepped down to run for Congress in 2010. As as the supervisors were deciding which of the candidates to name to Paton's seat, Antenori said he was the ideal choice, because he would win the seat eventually anyway, and the board was better off with "a happy Frank Antenori rather than an angry Frank Antenori." (He was quick to add: "I'm not trying to threaten anybody—don't say I'm trying to threaten anybody.")

In his years in the Legislature, Antenori has become one of the better-known local state lawmakers—not an easy trick, given how little attention lawmakers get from the average Southern Arizonan.

Antenori has gotten the attention by speaking his mind. He told a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times that he didn't feel comfortable allowing gays to serve openly in the military, because "I can't even tell you how many times I was spooning with some other guy on the side of a mountain under a poncho in fricking Pakistan in the middle of fricking winter freezing my ass off. I would not want to say, 'Is that your pistol that's sticking me in my back?'" He vowed to bury his 2010 Democratic opponent in the state Senate race "in the backyard like a freakin' fish." He showed how little he thought of the citizens of Tucson—including many of his would-be constituents in Congressional District 8—when he told Inside Tucson Business he was in a fight with Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik because "he doesn't represent the people I represent. The majority of the people I represent pay taxes; probably the majority of people he represents don't—or receive some government subsidy."

He's also clashed with local officials and media. Antenori has pushed legislation to weaken the city of Tucson's ability to deliver services, with the exception of police and fire protection, and helped Marana seize a sewer plant from Pima County. He's led a revolution by Republican lawmakers against the Arizona Daily Star editorial page, boycotting the paper's endorsement interviews.

Antenori's approach has won him supporters—this year, he was named whip of the GOP caucus by his colleagues, tasked with bringing other lawmakers in line with leadership—as well as detractors. He took on his critics at the Precinct 388 forum right off the bat.

"I don't go to Phoenix to make friends," he said. "I go to Phoenix to do a job. ... I do have, sort of, a gruff attitude. ... I'm very effective. ... You have to decide whether you want a lap dog to represent you, or a guard dog."

After the debate, Antenori sat down for an interview at the Triple T Truck Stop. Although he started off the legislative session with an impassioned defense of his right to enjoy a 24-ounce piece of "charred mammal flesh" without the interference of "food police," Antenori ordered a simple salad as a post-debate meal.

As he poked at the lettuce and tomato, Antenori argued that he's the only candidate in the race with the experience to go to Congress. He's learned the legislative ropes. He's made connections. He's helped close the budget deficit by actually cutting spending.

Antenori was happy to engage in policy talk, expounding at length on his plans for health insurance (eliminate government mandates—including those for birth-control meds—and allow people to buy simple plans that cover whatever they think they might need coverage for), Iran (Obama missed a golden opportunity by not supporting an uprising in 2009, but Antenori is in no rush to send in ground troops, although he would back quiet efforts to overthrow the current regime) and the border (bring in troops, but don't build a fence in rugged areas where it doesn't make sense).

Antenori's basic pitch to voters: He's earned the chance to go to Congress and has demonstrated that he can get the job done.

"I think Arizonans are looking for a leader," Antenori said. "Leaders don't turn tail and run. They take on challenges."

Antenori pointed to the wake of the Safeway rampage, when he took to talk radio and other venues to defend against accusations that the shooter was influenced by Tea Party rhetoric; meanwhile, his opponents in the CD 8 race "did nothing."

"Why did they do nothing? Well, one of them was in the Alps and probably didn't realize what was going on," Antenori said. "One of us was in Texas or was told by their campaign team not to say anything and to lay low and to leave the state. And the other guy was literally sitting on the sidelines, keeping quiet. For political reasons, that's sometimes the safest route: Just keep your mouth shut."

Antenori's biggest challenge has been raising funds. While campaign-finance reports for the special election aren't due until early April, sources close to the campaigns say that the local business community is not putting its weight behind Antenori.

That's partially because Antenori, in his push to be outspoken, has alienated some members of the business community, who would prefer someone who is a little more judicious with his words.

That's where Dave Sitton comes in.

Sitton, 57, has made a living with his words. He's at the center of UA sports circles as the guy who calls Wildcats basketball and football games. He's had a long association with the university, dating back to when he first came to Arizona from California more than three decades ago to play college baseball. And he has been a rugby coach for most of those years.

But Sitton's other jobs—not counting a gig washing dishes in the family restaurant business when he was 8 years old—have been in marketing. Beginning with Golden Eagle Distributors after he graduated from college, Sitton has worked to tailor messages for a variety of clients. One of his more high-profile political gigs was representing Clear Channel Outdoor Advertising while the billboard industry was battling city and state regulations.

Sitton's job title now is global marketing director for the Arizona Cancer Center—a job he picked up after beating lymphoma in 2005.

Sitton has emerged as the pick of members of the business community with big checkbooks.

Duff Hearon, who supported Jonathan Paton in the 2010 GOP primary and Jesse Kelly in the 2010 general election, called Sitton's appeal "Reaganesque."

"He truly understands the economy and what it takes for businesses to create jobs," said Hearon, who is CEO of the Ashland Group, an investment company. "He can attract not only the conservative, but the moderate Republican and the crossover Democrat."

Sitton said running for Congress has long been in the back of his mind, "but I never was in a place where I thought I should or could do it," he said.

But with his kids now grown, he has decided the time has come.

"I really do feel that we need to get some adults in the room," Sitton said. "That's my motivation. It really is about community service. I'm not going to be there for 60 years, or if I am, I'll be sold to the circus."

Sitton has been involved in the community, with efforts like the DM50's support of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. But his activity in party politics has been in the background.

At the Precinct 388 candidate forum, Sitton worked to establish his conservative bona fides by citing the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. He called for lower spending and an audit of the entire federal government to expose fraud, waste and abuse. He recalled how heartbroken his father was when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in 1964, ushering in the package of legislation that became known as the Great Society.

Asked the following day about the Great Society, Sitton said he didn't object to the biggest expense of the federal expansion: Medicare. But he believes that welfare programs were a step in the wrong direction and was happy to see them reformed during the Clinton administration.

"There are some scholars of the African-American experience in this country who will tell you that when we started making welfare more available to certain segments in the society, we just exacerbated behavior we wanted to avoid—and that would be families without full parentage, etc., things like that," he said.

He was more nuanced when it comes to the question of whether funding for the arts or public television should be eliminated.

"I can assure you of this: In times of record-setting deficits, that's a fair question," said Sitton, who claims that he loves the arts and, in particular, live music, but believes that groups should be looking for private patrons rather than federal aid.

Sitton's cautious rhetoric helps him navigate between the Tea Party and those members of the GOP who are growing uncomfortable with the party's turn toward an increasingly fundamentalist view on the national level.

He's generally supportive of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to cut federal spending. He likes Ryan's proposal to reform Medicare by putting future generations—beginning with people in their mid-40s—on a plan where they would receive vouchers to purchase private health insurance rather than have their costs covered by a government program. Sitton says Social Security needs to be reformed. But he remains open to a number of solutions, including raising the retirement age, increasing the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes, means testing, and allowing younger workers to invest in a private plan and get out of Social Security.

"There's give and take throughout the plan," Sitton says. "So if you're going to move a number here, it may affect a number there."

The central argument from Team Sitton is that its candidate is more electable in a general election than Antenori or Kelly. But Sitton faces the same challenge that Antenori does: He started out way behind Kelly, and with early ballots hitting mailboxes this week, he's nearly out of time to even introduce himself to Republican voters, much less persuade them that he's the one who can win against a Democrat.

The political newcomer in the race is Martha McSally, whom most voters had never heard of before she announced her plan to run for Congress in CD 8.

McSally, who is turning 46 this week, has an impressive résumé. She was the first female fighter pilot in the Air Force, flying combat missions over Iraq. She was the first female squadron commander when she took over A-10 Thunderbolt II planes in the 354th Fighter Squadron, which was stationed at D-M and saw action over Afghanistan. She earned a master's degree at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

In 2001, McSally made headlines—including an appearance on 60 Minutes—when she sued the Pentagon over a regulation that required her to wear native dress while traveling off-base in Saudi Arabia.

McSally retired in 2010 at the rank of colonel and was teaching international security courses at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany when she heard that Giffords was stepping down.

"We're at a critical time as a nation and as a community," McSally said. "Our government needs leadership; our government needs direction."

McSally got a burst of publicity in mid-February during an appearance on Fox and Friends, when she told host Steve Doocy that she'd like to kick Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum "in the jimmy" for his comments about the role of women in combat.

When it comes to military issues and international affairs, McSally's expertise comes across. She has no heartburn over the decision to rescind "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. She believes women should be able to serve in combat. She appreciates the complexity of navigating the politics of the Middle East and refrains from criticizing every move the Obama administration makes in the region.

But McSally admitted in a February interview that she had plenty to learn about a host of civilian issues, ranging from Social Security and Medicare reform to the proposed Rosemont mine.

"As I'm getting my campaign off the ground, there's a myriad of issues that we need to look at. And I'd like to hear from all sides on many of these issues, to try to come up with a thoughtful, analytical approach that looks at the math of what we're facing right now with our national debt, and figuring out how we can get our national debt under control." McSally said. "So as I hear from different experts on their proposals in order to deal with a variety of these different issues, including Medicare, I'd be happy to listen to them and make an assessment."

Asked under what circumstances she believes abortion should be legal, McSally had a simple answer: "I believe in the sanctity of all human life."

When pressed on whether she believed that women who are the victims of rape or incest should be allowed to have an abortion, McSally said she doesn't believe it's an issue she needs to worry about as a member of Congress.

"The legislators are not really involved in this issue right now," she said. "We have a Supreme Court decision, and so I'll be focusing on things that the House of Representatives needs to be doing."

While McSally stumbles on some policy points and tiptoes around others, it's yet to be seen whether she'll start engaging on policy matters or buy into the Kelly method of tossing red meat to the base.

But last month, she demonstrated a willingness to provide a reality check on one of Kelly's more-fantastical positions. Kelly was speaking at a Tea Party rally on the day of Arizona's GOP primary when he declared that there was no reason for an energy crisis in America.

"I do find it laughable when they talk about the energy crisis, the energy shortage, when we have so much here in this country," Kelly said. "We have so much coal, so much oil, so much natural gas. We have everything we need right here. Three decades ago, they told us there were 800 millions barrels of oil existing in the world. Today, because of technology, there's over a trillion. So apparently it is the renewable resource we've all been talking about!"

McSally challenged Kelly's joke in a statement to the press.

"We need to secure our energy future now, not make jokes about it," McSally said. "Folks, this is a serious issue that is affecting everyone in our country. Gas prices are rising at a record rate. Consumption of petroleum products around the world is increasing rapidly—and will continue to increase long into the future."

McSally added that she supported more domestic production of oil, but said the real solutions were more complex than Kelly made them out to be.

"We also have to work with our allies across the globe to ensure the stability of key oil-producing regions elsewhere," she said. "This is a complex issue, and no one is going to solve it with a one-liner. We need real solutions. We need leaders with the strategic national and international experience to address these problems swiftly and logically. Leave the jokes to Leno."

McSally's push-back against Kelly was a rare moment when one of the other candidates has challenged him for being an unserious—and essentially immature—candidate.

It could be a fertile line of attack in a general election, but it may not have much payoff with the GOP base—and that's one reason you don't see more of it.

At a series of debates and forums last week, the candidates continued making their cases for themselves—but they did little to knock down Kelly. It's a stark difference from the GOP presidential debates, during which White House hopefuls have torn into each other's records on health care, earmarks and other policies.

As long as the other candidates lay off him, Kelly can make the argument that he came close to knocking off Giffords in 2010, and that he's now ready to "finish the job."

But Kelly's strong showing had a lot to do with the mood of the district, which reflected the mood of the entire country, which handed over control of the House of Representatives to the GOP. It remains to be seen how that mood has shifted in Congressional District 8 in the wake of the January 2011 shooting rampage.

Over the next few weeks, the focus—such as it is—will be on the GOP candidates and how voters respond to these last few weeks of debates and persuasion attempts. Will they stick with the guy they know in Jesse Kelly? Will they move on to Frank Antenori? Will those two divide up enough of the Tea Party vote to allow Sitton to get through? Or will they gamble on the new face of McSally?

Whoever wins the primary will face Democrat Ron Barber just two months after the primary. Barber will have a solid Democratic Party unified behind him, as well as the endorsement of Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly.

Barber, a longtime aide to Giffords, was also shot on Jan. 8. He's lucky to be alive; bullets missed major arteries when they ripped through his face, neck and an upper leg while he stood talking with federal Judge John Roll, who was killed.

Barber's experience in the district, combined with Giffords' endorsement, makes him a formidable candidate. He's already picking up crossover support in the CD 8 race from Republicans, including Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik, former Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, former Sahuarita Mayor Lynne Skelton and former Sierra Vista Mayor Bob Strain.

Barber will also benefit from the deep experience that Team Giffords built with early-voter lists and other get-out-the-vote machinery.

Earlier this week, Barber announced that he was not only seeking to complete Giffords' term as a placeholder—he's also going to run for the new Congressional District 2 seat in the fall.

While CD 2 covers much of the same area as CD 8, the Republicans lose almost their entire voter-registration advantage as GOP-leaning precincts in Marana, Oro Valley and SaddleBrooke move over to CD 1, and Hispanic and Democratic precincts from Congressman Raúl Grijalva's district slide into CD 2.

In other words: The district, which now leans Republican, will get a whole lot more favorable to Democrats—and those voters probably aren't going to be persuaded by the same speeches that light up the Republicans in Precinct 388.

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