We're not going so far as to predict another Thrilla in Manila, but we will say this: the fight for the chairmanship of the state Republican party is getting good -- in a juicy, knockdown, drag-out kind of way. Just how we like it!
Here's the background for all you non-political animals. Every two years, the party's "state committeemen" -- the GOP faithful, one step up from the precinct level -- gather to elect the state chair. This year's vote, scheduled for this Saturday at Camelback High School, features a rematch from 2007: Lisa James versus Randy Pullen.
Last time around, Pullen beat James by just four votes. It was seen, at the time, as a repudiation of John McCain. But, in retrospect, it was oh-so-much more: a victory of the nutty, anti-immigration wing of the party over anything resembling professionalism and the very idea of a Big Tent.
From that point on, the xenophobes were running the show, and anybody who dared to question them was derided as a Republican In Name Only, aka RINO.
Naturally, during Pullen's tenure, donors have largely avoided the state party. Democrats now handily outpace the GOP in new voter registration. And even many lifelong conservatives -- including, in fact, your humble correspondent -- have abandoned the party they once called home.
We reached out to James recently to get her take on this weekend's rematch. Admittedly, we're a little biased in this: While we've never met her or Randy Pullen. we'd like to see the GOP repudiate the Arpaio-style nastiness that's pervaded the Pullen years. So when we reached her by cell phone last week, we asked about her take on that.
The following Q & A is our wildly condensed version of our chat.
New Times: So you lost by four votes in 2007. What's going to be different this time around?
James: There are a couple of things. For one thing, we've got a bigger voting pool. 1,018 people will voting this time around. [Editor's note: that's an increase of about 200.] A lot of new people are involved. Are some of them the same? Yes, but still, it's a different group overall. Second, we've got a chairman running for reelection who has a record. People have seen what he can do and what he has done. There's something to vote on. And the year we're coming off is one where we've had mixed success.
New Times: Pullen has made much of the fact that the GOP actually gained a few seats in the Legislature, but the party actually lost two seats on the corporation commission -- and nearly lost a third.
James: The corporation commission is a prime example. We've got to be able to play statewide.
New Times: A lot of Republicans, including me, were horrified by Pullen's decision to use party funds to finance a nasty, disgusting ad that accused the Democrat running against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of masturbating on the job.
James: Yes, and you've got two issues there. One, the sheriff was never in danger of losing his seat, ever. When we've raised half as much money as the prior election cycle, to use the money you've raised on a race that was never in danger, that is not showing a wise use of money. Two, I've got four kids. And for the Republican Party, which is supposed to be the party of family values, to run ads that can't be aired before 9 p.m. -- I think that's a judgment call there. It's not something I would have done.
It has nothing to do with the sheriff. You don't spend money on races where you have double digit leads. And then, of course, there's the content of it on top of that.
New Times: The party is badly divided on the issue of illegal immigration. You've got the Pullen crowd basically saying we're all RINOs if we're in favor of amnesty or even comprehensive reform. Do you think the two sides can ever come together?
James: You have to bring everybody to the table. My job as party chairman, whoever the Republicans elect in the primary process, I'm there to support them. And the party cannot be a single issue party. We need to be a conservative party -- but it's not just about one issue, it's about the entire platform.
New Times: You've been painted as moderate on abortion because you worked for Rudy Guiliani in the '08 election.
James: I am 100 percent pro-life. The Arizona Right to Life came out as neutral on this race because we are both pro-life candidates. My husband met Mr. Guiliani when he was working for President Bush, and he was incredibly impressed with his leadership. We felt he had the best opportunity to beat Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Now, as soon as he dropped out, we offered our support to John McCain.
Two years ago, they opposed me because I was supposedly McCain's lackey. This year, they're saying, 'Don't vote for her because she didn't even support John McCain.' Well, I think the overall lesson is, I'm nobody's lackey.