By Ethan McSweeney
Candidates in the crowded Republican primary field for Arizona’s first congressional district laid out their plans and qualifications — most keeping with traditional GOP positions — during a debate Saturday morning at the UltraStar Multi-tainment Center.
Republican participants included: state Sen. Carlyle Begay, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, businessman Shawn Redd, retired Air Force officer Wendy Rogers and rancher Gary Kiehne. State House Speaker David Gowan did not attend.
On the Democratic primary side, business Miguel Olivas was the sole participant, with former state Sen. Tom O’Halleran skipping the debate for another event.
The debate was sponsored by the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce, the Maricopa Monitor, InMaricopa and the UltraStar Multi-tainment Center. The congressional debate was moderated by Bruce St. James, a radio host at KTAR.
The six Republican candidates avoided taking direct shots each other during the debate, instead attacking the federal government and federal policies they say have hurt Arizona on issues such as immigration, spending and taxes.
Babeu, who previously ran for the seat in 2012, took on the issue of illegal immigration, which he has spoken out strongly against. He also said his office has brought “heavy-handed enforcement” against drug cartels operating in the area, and criticized the federal government for its lack of response.
“We need to change that response from our federal government,” Babeu said.
Begay, a former Democrat turned Republican, said he would reach across the aisle to work with Democrats because he is running to represent all voters in the district.
“No one party has a monopoly on good ideas,” Begay said. “Unfortunately, we have lost all civility in the way that we govern and the way that we represent constituents.”
Redd seemed to address this when he repeated that he was the first Native American to seek the Republican nomination for this district. Redd and Begay are Navajo.
“As the first Native American to ever seek the Republican nomination, I have an opportunity to go into areas where the Republican Party has been extremely unsuccessful in the past, and I will get those votes,” Redd said.
Begay said he would support Donald Trump as his party’s nominee and would meet with him at his rally later Saturday in Phoenix.
Rogers pointed out she was the first candidate to endorse Trump, introducing him at a December rally in Mesa. Rogers said she was not concerned by controversial comments made by Trump on the campaign trail about women, minorities and the disabled.
“I see him as someone who has tapped into the vein of how most of us feel in this room,” Rogers said.
“Regardless of how colorful or abrasive Donald Trump is, he is on to something,” she added. “He is going to lead this country and handle the media, refreshingly, better than anyone else has.”
Since redistricting, voters elected Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in 2012 and 2014. This election cycle, Kirkpatrick is mounting a challenge for the U.S. Senate seat, leaving the district with no incumbent running.
Kiehne said it’s important for Republican voters to select a candidate who lives in the district in order to win the general election in the fall. Gowan lives in Sierra Vista, outside the district, and Bennett recently moved to Maricopa from Phoenix
“If you need to get hit a third time, go ahead and elect somebody who is not from the district,” Kiehne said.
Bennett said he has lived in District 1 for most of his life. The only time he hasn’t lived in the district, he said, is when the Independent Redistricting Commission redrew the congressional lines, and that he had to move to Phoenix in order to serve as Secretary of State, as required by state law.
“I’ve lived in CD1 all my life,” he said. “I live in CD1 right now.”
Kiehne also addressed the lack of any hotels in Maricopa in his closing statement, saying they would have the potential to create new jobs.
“Maricopa needs a hotel so bad, it’s incredible,” he said. “Fifty thousand people here, and they don’t have a hotel. There’s an example, folks, right there, you got to have financing to make it happen.”
Olivas took the stage after the Republicans. He said one of the areas he wants to focus on is veterans’ issues, and he also criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“My candidacy, in part, is to honor those who have sacrificed all and those that got to come home,” he said.
St. James pointed out that the Sabato Political Report recently changed the outlook for the district’s race to leans Democrat in April.
“Democrats will retain this seat, no matter how much Republicans spend,” Olivas said. “Look at the voting records. Republicans do not win this district.”
The primary election will be Aug. 30.
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