In Legislative District 25, where the Republican primary is what primarily matters, the word on the street has been that orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ralph Heap, GOP primary challenger to state Senator Bob Worsley, is the cat's paw of Mesa's Pearce clan.
Back in 2012, Worsley bested recalled, disgraced former state Senate President Russell Pearce by 12 points, effectively putting a stake through Pearce's desire to return to the state Senate after being defeated in the 2011 recall election by fellow Republican Jerry Lewis.
Unlike Pearce, who comes with baggage galore, Heap is a relative unknown, save for his being a well-off doctor, a factor that no doubt increases his appeal to country club Republicans, who regard Pearce as a caged gorilla.
So is Heap really Pearce's "revenge candidate"?
That's what some in LD 25 have been telling me. The evidence? His campaign allegedly was being "managed" by Pearce's nephew Talmage Pearce and advised by that vision of Republican darkness Constantin Querard, who ran Pearce's disastrous 2012 campaign and also, um, "helped" Pearce to defeat in the recall.
Arizona Republic's Mesa columnist John D'Anna seemed to confirm what I'd been hearing when he wrote in a January 17 piece that, "I'm told that Heap's day-to-day campaign operations are being managed by Talmage Pearce under the tutelage of controversial GOP operative Constantin Querard."
Heap's first campaign finance report was filed January 30, and recorded a $250 cash payment to Querard's Discessio, LLC for "Professional Services - Consultants."
And there is evidence that Talmage had been stumping for Heap, forwarding news of Heap's candidacy to Tea Party stalwarts with the following message:
"I am very excited to tell you that Dr. Ralph Heap has announced his candidacy for the Arizona State Senate in LD25. I encourage you all to attend Dr. Heap's campaign kickoff tomorrow night at the Red Mountain Tea Party.
"He would love to meet all of you and I encourage you all to support him in his campaign for the Arizona State Senate. He will do an excellent job of representing those of us who live in Legislative District 25 and I support him 100%."
When I contacted Talmage, he admitted to helping Heap by posting supportive messages on Facebook, and 'fessed to the e-mail when asked about it, but he denied any official role.
"I'm not managing Ralph's campaign," he told me. "I don't work for Ralph."
The phone number I had for Heap was not responsive, so I sent him an e-mail.
The reply came from Chris Baker of the Blue Point consulting firm. Baker has worked for Congressman David Schweikert and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, among others.
"Querard and his companies are no longer involved with the Heap campaign," Baker wrote. "Same goes for Talmage Pearce, who is not, nor has ever been, managing the campaign. The campaign has been managed by Barbara Parker from the get go.
"Ralph was not recruited by Russell Pearce to run. As for Pearce supporting him, I can't say that he's not. I would assume that given a choice, he probably would vote for Ralph because he's not a big fan of Worsley. But he does not have any role in the campaign formally or informally."
When I called Baker, he stated emphatically that, "[Talmage] is not going to have any role in the campaign."
Baker confirmed that Parker, also a big supporter of Russell Pearce, would continue to manage the day-to-day campaign, while Blue Point did the consulting.
Baker and Querard go back a way, so I had to wonder if Baker was acting as Querard's "beard," so to speak, allowing Querard to manage Heap sub rosa.
"I've never spoken with him about this race," Baker said of Querard. "I was hired by the Heap campaign. Constantin has no involvement in the Heap campaign. None."
Though Querard did have something to do with Heap up till December 23, the date Heap gave CQ $250 for services rendered.
So why did Heap drop Querard a few weeks ago?
Baker declined to answer this one.
Yet, according to more than one GOP source, Heap's Querard connection had to be severed so Heap could still have hope of peeling off Worsley voters.
"The nuts are running Heap by committee," said one LD 25 wag. "Now they're trying to pull off Operation Chris Baker."
For this LD 25-er, Heap remains the Pearces' Manchurian Candidate.
Still, there others in LD 25 who swear that Congressman Matt Salmon is Heap's real puppetmaster.
"Matt Salmon was probably more involved in recruiting Heap than the Pearces originally," one insider said. "In a weird way, I believe Salmon is trying to 'kill Bob in the cradle.' He sees him as a long term threat to Salmon's `King of Mesa' status."
Heap became a "convenient recruit," a wealthy doctor who could challenge Worsley on his controversial (in GOP circles, anyway) vote to expand Medicaid last year.
But Baker denied the Salmon-as-Svengali accusation.
"It's my understanding that Ralph wasn't recruited to run by anyone," Baker e-mailed me. "He told me when we first met that he'd been thinking about getting involved in politics for a long time. He felt that his medical practice was in very good shape and as a result, now was a good time to make a go at it.
"He said he talked to a lot of friends, Matt being one of them, and that was how he came to decide this is what he wanted to do. Matt hasn't endorsed him. He does like him though. They've been friends for a long time. But that friendship has not been politically oriented. They've just known each other for a long time. Ralph said he went to Matt, not the other way around.
"When Matt and I spoke about Ralph, Matt told me as much. Said he was a good guy and a friend and that he was thinking of running and would I be interested in talking with him. That was about the extent of it. Would I like Matt to endorse him? Of course. Have I had that conversation with him? No."
This said, there's no doubt that Salmon, Heap and the Pearces will be toasting Dixie cups of Kool-Aid should Heap eke out a win over Worsley, whose Medicaid vote has made him a Tea Party target.
Heap raised nearly $29,000 during this past reporting period, though $20K of it is in the form of Heap's loans to himself.
By contrast, Worsley has raised more than $154,000, $110K of it in loans from himself. He has about $132,000 on hand.
Worsley has cash, incumbency, and more name recognition that Ralph Heap, certainly.
But Heap is no troglodyte like Pearce, even if the Pearces are cheering him on 100 percent. And Worsley's Medicaid vote will remain a point of fanaticism for his far-right critics.
What I find amusing in all this is that Russell and Lester Pearce are now such pariahs in their own back yards that Heap has to worry about hiring Querard or having nice young man like Talmage volunteering for him.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Sure, ol' Russ, in his capacity as First Vice Chair of the state Republican Party, is still a hero to the filberts and roasted pecans that populate the ranks of state and precinct committeemen.
But outside the big Planters bag that is the Arizona GOP, Russ gives the average voter a bad case of acid reflux.
As a doctor, Heap seems to understand.