In spite of a more than two-to-one registration advantage for tuskers in Legislative District 23, Republican-turned-Democrat Paula Pennypacker's been all over GOPer John Kavanagh like white on rice in the general election contest for the district's open state Senate seat.
Pennypacker was on fire during a recent Clean Elections debate, calling out the veteran state representative on a host of issues, from his support for the private prison industry to his backing of anti-gay state Senate Bill 1062 to state Republicans' poor record on the economy and education.
In her closing statement, which you can watch on YouTube, the Scottsdale businesswoman smacked Kavanagh around like a volleyball.
"As voters, you have a choice to make," she told the audience. "You can elect someone who has built a successful global company and understands first-hand how business and government must work together.
"Or, you can elect someone who has a demonstrable record of making business conditions worse, shrinking markets and damaging Arizona's brand."
Kavanagh reacted by calling her remarks "a rant," and sniffed that he would not sink to her level.
Since then, Kavanagh's hit voters with a hyperbolic hit-piece, quoting Pennypacker out of context, from a 2004 op-ed in the Arizona Republic, where she made an argument against America's failed drug war.
At the time, Pennypacker wrote:
"Today more than ever we need a government policy that sets up a tightly controlled legal market for all drugs, as we do now for cigarettes and alcohol. Adults should be able to ingest anything they want, as long as they do not harm others. Children under age 21 would not be able to purchase any drug, including over-the-counter medications."
Thing is, cogent, intelligent opinion pieces generally don't fit on attack mailers, so her argument got boiled down by Kavanagh to, "Paula Pennypacker wrote an op-ed manifesto calling for a `legal market for all drugs.'"
The flier also lists various illicit substances with a skull and crossbones next to each one. Stock photos show images of a dealer, a hypodermic needle, and someone smoking pot.
"Paula Pennypacker," screams the headline. "Wrong for our kids."
When I caught up with Pennypacker recently, she cried foul on Kav's attack, sticking by her original op-ed piece.
"This needs to be handled by the surgeon general, not the attorney general," she told me. "It's not a crime problem, this is a health crisis and this country needs to wake up and face the music."
As far as the race itself, she admits to being "a long-shot," but she's got her signs out, promising to "restore sanity" to the state legislature, and her campaign's produced a TV commercial that recently ran 80 times on local cable, a rarity for legislative races.
"We will not be outdone," she promised. "LD 23 is one of the most organized districts in the state for Democrats. I am so proud to live here. They are working it. We are on the phone, we've got boots on the ground, I don't know if Kavanagh will have the same ground game."
For his part, Kavanagh admits that most of his campaign resources went to fending off a vigorous primary challenge from local businessman Jeff Schwartz.
Pro-Schwartz independent expenditure committees spent about $100,000 trying to knock Kavanagh out, and Kavanagh says he was targeted by so-called "dark money" as well, making him a proponent of declaring all cash spent on political campaigns.
In the end, Schwartz lost to Kavanagh by six points, hardly a blowout, considering that Kavanagh's a longtime legislator with high name ID.
Needless to say, when I contacted Kav, he wasn't buying Pennypacker's criticism of the attack flier.
"That's like me saying I want to legalize prostitution as long as they have a license," he told me. "And then claiming that I really don't want to legalize prostitution, I just want to regulate it. What a joke."
I wondered why Kavanagh even bothered to do the hit piece, considering the overwhelming registration advantage Republicans enjoy in LD 23. Did this indicate some concern on his part?
"I only sent that mailer out to Independents," he explained. "I don't think Republicans or Democrats who turn out are going to be much-influenced by anything. But Independents are in play.
"I didn't have much money because I had to spend everything on my contentious primary, so we just [sent] it to Independents."
Kavanagh said he didn't want to seem "arrogant," but that he would be "surprised" if he didn't win, given the makeup of the district and Pennypacker's stance on the drug war.
The other side of Kavanaugh's flier touts his record on "creating jobs," "cutting taxes" and "growing our economy."
But given that Arizona trails most of the nation in consumer spending, and has only replaced about 60 percent of the jobs lost to the Great Recession, the only part of Kavanagh's pitch that rings true is the "cutting taxes" part.
Which is one reason why Pennypacker's "rant" from the Clean Elections debate made so much sense.
"If [Kavanagh's] economic policies are so great, then why are economists predicting we're a year or two from recovery--five years after it ended?" she asked at one point.
"He cut taxes every year with promises of attracting investment and creating jobs. So where are they? Why are 17% more people leaving Arizona than moving in? Where's the larger tax base? Nowhere. Why? Because what he keeps selling, no one is actually buying."
You can't see Kavanagh's face when Pennypacker reads the following zinger, but it wouldn't surprise me if he winced:
"If my opponent worked for the private sector and promised market share and sales growth yet delivered the polar opposite, who here thinks he'd keep his job? Maybe that's why he's only worked for government--he's harder to fire."
Pennypacker may not win, but she is doing something very significant: She's making Kavanagh work for his seat. Which is something Democrats should do more often in districts unfriendly to them.
"This is the only way we can take on these primary protected politicians," she told me. "He would already be the senator, if I hadn't thrown my hat in the ring. It would be over. Well, he thinks it's over now."
Actually, I disagree on that last point. If Kavanagh truly believed it was over, that he had his move from the state House to the state Senate in the bag, he would not have spent any money on that mailer.
Evidently, Pennypacker's caused Kavanagh a bit of anxiety, forcing him to purchase a little additional insurance in the form of the hit piece.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
It's not victory, true, but in blood red LD 23, it's something.