The Clash of '98

In an otherwise ho-hum political season, the GOP attorney general primary has emerged as the race to watch--as much for its pure entertainment value as for what it divulges about the condition of Arizona's Republican party.

Tom McGovern and John Kaites both want to be Arizona's top law enforcement officer, responsible for a staff of 900 and two heartbeats away from the governor's chair.

But there's more to it than that. The AG race has become a popularity contest between dueling Republican cabals. Behind McGovern stand current Attorney General Grant Woods and his pals; lined up for Kaites are U.S. Senator John McCain and his.

The winner and his friends will lead Arizona Republicans into the 21st century.

John Kaites is a conservative who spent his three terms in the state Legislature carrying water for law enforcement and the Symington administration.

His champion, John McCain, is the self-anointed kingmaker of the Arizona Republican party. He usually manages to strong-arm stray members of the GOP flock who dare to challenge the senator's pick for a particular office. Traitors get trounced. As you read this, Republican state officials are quietly twisting arms and bending ears, suggesting that there might be repercussions for GOP loyalists who don't support Kaites, clearly the Party Boy. McCain ally Fife Symington has not endorsed a candidate, but given his convict status, that's a gift to Kaites.

Tom McGovern is a long, tall political novice and neopopulist in the mold of his friend and former boss, Grant Woods. Woods has made a career out of defying the likes of John McCain and Fife Symington, and has emerged as a wildly popular maverick. McGovern hopes to do the same.

The stakes for the GOP are high. The party needs new leaders. Consider: Fife Symington has been convicted. Grant Woods is retiring. John McCain wants to be president. If reelected, Jane Hull has only one term left to serve.

The pressure to emerge as the more popular Republican is making this campaign as childish and nasty and void of substance as a race for Prom King. A Kaites/McGovern debate registers as much sophistication as a cafeteria food fight.

As of press time, the race is a dead heat.

Except for height, McGovern and Kaites are evenly matched. They're white guys in rep ties with good hair and a soft spot for the death penalty. They've raised the same amount of campaign cash, around $300,000 each. The Arizona Republic endorsed McGovern. Kaites got the nod from the Tribune. They both have experience in public and private law. Each can say he's backed by law enforcement--Kaites, by the state's police unions, and McGovern, by ever-popular Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Each has his own clique of GOP operatives and officeholders, centerpieced by hired guns. Kaites has hired HighGround Inc., a consulting firm run by former McCain-Symington staffers Wes Gullett and Chuck Coughlin. Contrary to its name, HighGround and its staffers are renowned for mudslinging. Newer to the scene but quickly gaining a similar reputation is McGovern's consultant, Rose and Company, run by Jason Rose, who formerly partnered with consultants Bob Robb and Kevin DeMenna.

Both HighGround and Rose and Company have other clients this season, but no race is as likely to tax the appreciable energies of both camps as much as McGovern v. Kaites.

Or promise as great a return. The winner will be the bellwether that signals which way the GOP is going. That means more business for either Rose or HighGround, and possibly jobs and favors for others lurking in the shadows of the two camps. Former Symington chief of staff Jay Heiler is behind McGovern. Cassidy "Daughter of Sam" Campana, who works for Rose, is his campaign manager. Kaites' campaign manager, Bettina Nava, works for HighGround. Kaites also has a handful of lawyers from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office offering cash and stump speeches. Their boss, Rick Romley, has stayed away from the race.

Beyond the spoils of primary victory, the race is crucial because the winner will face the Arizona Democratic party's most formidable candidate on the ballot this year, former U.S. attorney Janet Napolitano.

It's usually the Democrats who pants each other in the primaries, leaving the GOP's preordained candidate cash-laden and unscathed, ready to sail through the general election to near-certain victory.

This year the Democrats got lucky with an unopposed slate of candidates for statewide office in the primaries. Although the top Republican primaries are all contested, all but one are dramatically lopsided. The AG race is the wild card.

Most of the other races have remained moribund. This one's been hot and heavy since last February, with Tribune reporter Mark Flatten's curious discovery of a 1983 Sea Isle, New Jersey, police report detailing Tom McGovern's detention, and almost immediate exoneration, in a minor incident involving an air gun and an ashtray smeared with pot residue. Since then, McGovern has hammered back at Kaites about everything from the guy's days as a TV weatherman to his stint as a professor at Lamson Business College at Tri-City Mall to his hallmark campaign slogan: "20,000 police officers have endorsed me."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.