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Dems' best hope to beat McSally could be a complete nobody

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What the Devil won't tell you

Dems' best hope to beat McSally could be a complete nobody

Harnassing midterm anger isn't in establishment Democrat DNA

  • McSally
    Paul Ingram/ McSally

So apparently if you like your Obamacare, you can keep it.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time pontificating on the national failure of "repeal and replace" other than to say Republicans are good at the community theatre of state governing. When it comes to the red carpet of national politics, the GOP keeps showing up looking like Fat Elvis on a hot day.

They whiffed on doing something — anything — to Obamacare because apparently drafting a ready-to-go bill was too much work for Republicans during the seven years they railed against the Affordable Care Act as a freedom-destroying, job-killing socialism. I guess they had other things to do.

It's going to take more than a golden retriever in a pickup truck to get U.S. Rep. Martha McSally out of this one. We can all agree that Boomer is, in fact, “a good boy,” but Obamacare was supposed to be the easy victory.

Republicans run the risk of failing to get any real changes through Congress before the 2018 midterms as President Donald Trump seems to prefer pissing off the losers across the country who don't see his genius.

They would be smarter to move the goal posts to the 45 than try to deliver “comprehensive tax reform.” The idea of border adjustment tax is likely political hokum at best and the trigger of a trade war at worst. They gotta win something so they might just pass a standard-issue tax cut and call it The New Deal.

If they don't, then they're looking at an 0-Fer and they can't be (deep breath) that stupid. The 2018 midterm was going to be hard for McSally when it looked like the GOP could run the legislative table. Political failures only make her prospects worse.

McSally is in trouble but to do something about it, the Democrats – the national Democratic establishment – may have to break form and follow their base. By national Democrats, I mean the big Washington money and shiney-shoed consultants who decide what's what out here where plants bite.

The obvious candidates don't yet inspire much fear in the GOP. Former state Rep. Matt Heinz suffered a double-digit loss to McSally and former state Rep. Victoria Steele couldn't raise any money or beat Heinz in the primary. State Rep. Randall Friese might be an interesting choice but he's just in his second term.

Why does it have to be a state lawmaker? Because that's a safe bet and national Democrats will only dance with a safe bet.

I guarantee you that D.C. establishment looks at Martha McSally and doesn't see a woman who won her seat in 2014 by a few hundred votes. They don't see her serving a district Hillary Clinton won by five points. They see a congresswoman who raised a stupefying $7 million in 2016.

Then they look at the Democratic landscape and see no obvious candidate who can raise enough money to match because all the obvious candidates can be “called a liberal.”

They may try to coax Green Valley pecan grower Nan Walden to run for office (again). She'll probably play coy and then say no (again). They may even try to get Ann Kirkpatrick to move from Flagstaff to Tucson to take on McSally (a lot of Dems seem giddy about this possibility). In which case, McSally may just be able to land this thing on autopilot.

A nobody may be their best bet but "nobody" will be a tough candidate for the D.C. types to swallow.

An insider's look

I'm going to riff some about my experience working campaigns and every political journalist should do a turn on that side of it to understand the machinations.

You have to be inside the machine to see its ghosts at work and having been there I can tell you two things. They who run those say-nothing, promise-nothing, mealy-mouthed campaigns do so on purpose because they hold their base in absolute contempt.

If Republicans are the King in Vegas, the Democratic establishment is Khloe Kardashian. They seem to be successful but they can't explain why. They insist they know the way but all they have proven good at the last decade or so is lining their pockets as they have lost 12 U.S. Senate seats, 12 governorships, 63 U.S. House seats and 900 seats in state legislatures. They also coached the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.

They don't assign the hinterlands a candidate. They don't lift a finger to help the Democrat who wins a primary if that candidate doesn't pass muster. I've been in one of those campaigns and you may as well be selling Amway. There's no access to money, institutional support, policy support and if there is, then the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (in the case of McSally's opponent) demands to sign off on every ad and press release.

Beltway-approved communications directors work with ad consultants to develop the message dictated by pollsters to make sure a candidate says nothing that falls on the wrong side of public opinion.

Their worst-case scenario is the civics class. It's nothing short of doomsday for the Beltway types have to rely on the yokels to pick a viable candidate to go up against McSally – at least not a candidate who hasn't made a name for themself with the money-bags.

What they want is this a candidate without a core, who will say (tell me if you heard this before) “I don't care if it's a Democratic idea or a Republican idea, so long as it's a good idea for the people of Arizona.”

How about this: “My name is Jose Smith and I will build bridges to work across party lines and find the solutions that will move Arizona forward again.”

I wrote a lot of that copy, and I can tell you from experience that's the kind of talk that loses you the girl to the dude on the Harley with nine other women texting him.

The wrath of you

This column is not about “will” and “should.” It's about “how?” and “can?”

The argument goes: You can't beat someone with no one, see, and the people want to hear a positive message. Voters say so when pollsters ask the which the prefer. If voters actually responded to it, political campaigns would be six months of Socratic debate.

I remember the advice former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm gave to soon-to-be U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth in his 1994 race against then incumbent Rep. Karan English: “They want to hear two things: 'I'm not her and I'm not a kook.'”

This is where Democrats run off the rails because IMHO, they try to be too clever. Midterm elections aren't about surgical strikes. They're the season of the meat ax.

Midterm elections with an unpopular president turn on one message: Wrath.

Voters don't want to hear about a 10-point plan for inter-modal transit that moves Southern Arizona forward again. They want to hear “I'm pissed too and I'll stand up to Donald Trump in Congress.”

Democrats have long preferred the resume to the voice and that has cost them.

The Kelly file

That brings us to Jesse Kelly.

Kelly was a no one, politically. He was a 26-year-old Marine Corps veteran who never ran for anything before he decided to stump for Congress against U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords had bested conservative favorite Randy Graf in 2006 and then whomped on former state Senate President Tim Been two years later.

She was almost certain to face state Sen. Jonathan Paton in 2010. Paton was a good guy and a serious conservative who would give Giffords the run of her life.

But h never got the chance because Kelly gave voice to the Wrath. The Wrath grew from 10 percent unemployment, Obamacare that went too far for Republicans and nowhere near far enough for liberals. The Wrath of bailouts on Wall Street, while Main Street floundered.

Kelly stood up – all six foot eighteen of him – and declared each of his Republican opponents Republicans In Name Only. He was the only true conservative bold enough to say Social Security should be privatized and then eliminated, and that the Food and Drug Act was just the nanny state protecting us from poison when we should be able to do that for ourselves.

It worked. He won the GOP primary in a split field.

The state Democratic party helped Kelly along by tying Paton to the payday lending industry. Their thinking: Payday Paton could beat Giffords. But she'd annihilate Kelly, conventional wisdom dictated. Who runs to represent Green Valley by promising to eliminate Social Security?

Kelly didn't just touch the fatal third rail of American politics. He grabbed it with both hands, lifted it over his head and wielded it like a claymore.

The 2010 election wasn't about Jesse Kelly. Midterms aren't local anymore. It wasn't about Gabrielle Giffords. It was about dampened enthusiasm for President Obama on the left, outright rage at him on the right and buyer's remorse in the middle.

Kelly lost by just 3,500 votes out of 262,000 cast. Last we heard, he was selling  RVs in Texas.

Kyl escapes

McSally remains a 7-point favorite. Her position is similar to former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl's in 2006, the last time the Democrats romped through a midterm, after Katrina and during the Iraqi unraveling.

Kyl went up against Jim Pederson, a shopping mall magnate who shoveled millions into the state Democratic Party and then decided, thank you very much, that he got to be a candidate for U.S. Senate.

Pederson ran on a positive bridge-building message and lost to a vulnerable incumbent.

I had a weird moment with Kyl after the election when we dished about the campaign. He asked if I thought he'd lose. I told him Pederson wasn't going to beat him but the deteriorating condition in Iraq could have.

The political junkie in Kyl knew this.

The senator told me afterward that he'd been dreading the killer ad to link him to Iraq that could take him down. Then he saw it for 20 seconds but the last 10 seconds of the spot was Pederson advocating for himself. That's when Kyl knew he'd win.

His team allowed themselves to be unguarded during conversations with me as they just could not believe Pederson was making the campaign about everything from Forest Health to Clean Energy but seemed to ignore Iraq. Republicans would not have talked about anything else if roles were reversed.

“This really isn't that hard,” a Kyl spokesman told me then – just between us.

When the winning stops

An improving economy would improve the 2018 climate for the GOP, if Trump could stop creating his own weather. Yet all he seems to know is how to be a one-man pressure front happiest in storm and squall.

Those are the elements McSally is left to and her tenure in Congress could fall victim to the exposure.

Democrats don't need a Latina, business-owning combat veteran who “can't be called a liberal” who will drive out the base on identity alone. What they need is The Voice promising to be The Wrath. See: Sanders, Bernie.

Who can beat McSally? It may be a nobody out there thinking “I'm sick of this … I'm gonna run without apology" because no Democrat will beat McSally.

Donald Trump might.

If Republicans keep splattering against the hard rock of the status quo, Trump voters could see little value in propping up a congresswoman acting as a thorn in his side. If she keeps supporting him 100 percent of the time, then she could lose swing voters. Meanwhile, Democrats will turn out just for a do-over of 2016, and all the Hillary haters on the Left won't have a Clinton to kick around anymore.

The obvious candidate? Sure, maybe a guy like Randy Friese could make a go of it. But anyone who says a loudmouth outsider channeling voter anger can't win federal office against an establishment type has been living in a glass jar the last two years.

Donald Trump said we'd be tired of all the winning we would see out of his administration. We win too much! Make it stop!

I imagine Team McSally is starting to think “any time now, Mr. President" — because "nobody" is out there.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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