Longform

Stealth Zealot

Page 3 of 8

How can I get all the U.S. citizens in that crowd to a voting booth in November?

Considering it brought North 24th Street to a standstill, the march (and those like it in other U.S. cities) will do little to sway opinion that hordes of undocumented Mexican nationals are overrunning America.

But for Kyl's opponents, the protest says there is an issue in this election cycle capable of bringing the Hispanic voters to the polls en masse. And a strong Hispanic turnout is the stuff of nightmares to right-wing Republicans.

Pederson himself is trouble for Jon Kyl.

He is a legitimate threat, a successful Valley real estate mogul who made a minor legend of himself by taking over the chairmanship of a hapless Arizona Democratic Party in 2001 and infusing $2.4 million of his own money into a successful push to refocus the party apparatus on demographic groups within Arizona's massive untapped center. The year before he became party chairman, the Democrats couldn't even come up with an opponent for Jon Kyl. In 2002, after Pederson and his money arrived, Janet Napolitano and Terry Goddard won the state's two highest offices.

And Pederson is getting good at this candidate shtick. Generally perceived as a milquetoast, Pederson has picked up energy in recent months. He speaks with believably rousing conviction. He's pounding issues, rattling off stats.

It helps that Kyl is a pretty easy target.

"Without any real competition, Jon Kyl has been able to indulge his extremes," Pederson tells New Times. "He has a voting record to the right of Rick Santorum, for goodness' sakes! Is that Arizona? Absolutely not. Jon Kyl has nothing to do with Arizona."

Kyl and his staff argue that his voting record is more moderate than Pederson insists. They also say Kyl has strayed from the Bush administration on several votes.

Study his voting record, though, and Kyl has voted against the administration, or against what would be considered conservative legislation, in only a smattering of instances. And Kyl never went against the administration or the party's power elite on close votes. And never when his vote mattered.

This wouldn't be an issue if Dubya were still a popular president with a popular administration. But his numbers have plummeted, and mini-scandal after mini-scandal has ground at his credibility. Analysts say those in the Senate, like Kyl, who have pushed his agenda and the people he has chosen to hire have made themselves vulnerable.

That said, Kyl is still in the driver's seat.

For starters, Arizonans rarely toss out a sitting senator. Indeed, Arizona is known nationally as the state that treats its congressional delegates like lifelong appointees. Hayden, Goldwater, Paul Fannin and DeConcini, for example, with their combined century of service, all had to decide not to run to not get elected again.

And as Arizona State University political analyst Bruce Merrill points out, Kyl is not unliked. Indeed, he is respected "by both sides of the aisle . . . he is a hard worker . . . he has no integrity issues [and] he has as much money as he wants at his fingertips."

Also, it's an off-year election, which, in Arizona, tends to keep working moderate Democrats away from the polls while Arizona's vast swath of retiree Republicans keep coming out.

Also, Senator Paul Fannin's son, Bob, the former Republican Party chair, is Kyl's powerhouse campaign finance manager.

"If Jon needs $20 million to win," Merrill says, "Jon will get $20 million to win.

"But if anybody can put up a fight, it's Pederson. Kyl has a four or five percentage point advantage right out of the gate as a Republican, then add his money and that he's an incumbent, well, that's tough. But Pederson knows the odds and has proven he can find and make up the difference by counting noses and getting people to the polls."

The trick for Pederson, Merrill and others say, is to effectively tie Kyl to the unpopular administration he has pimped. And, beyond that, it is to explain how Kyl's voting record has adversely affected average Arizonans, particularly senior citizens and parents with kids in school.

"There is no question his voting record is quite conservative," Merrill says. "Is that what Arizona voters want out of their senator? I don't know. The trick will be to get [voters] to answer that question at the polls.

"With all these interesting elements coming together," Merrill says, "I really do believe this will be the featured race in the United States. For Arizonans, that will mean they're about to get every major Republican and Democratic celebrity in the country out here talking to them. It's just going to be a fascinating race."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Nelson