The mud-slinging in the Republican gubernatorial fray has gotten so bad that party Chairman Robert Graham has told the contenders to just cool it — or risk electing Democrat Fred DuVal in November.
In a letter this past week to the candidates, Graham said he is receiving “an increasing volume of phone calls, emails and physical letters voicing Republican voter disappointment with the level of negative campaigning.”
Graham said Republicans “expect an aggressive and vibrant exchange of ideas” on issues. And he said voters anticipate there will be “tension between candidates” during a campaign.
“But their feedback regarding the personal attacks is overwhelming disappointment,” he told the six contenders.
Graham said this isn't just an idle worry about tarnishing the GOP brand.
He told the candidates that one of them will become the party standard-bearer for the Nov. 4 general election. And he said the attacks that are occurring will have an effect long after the Aug. 26 primary.
“I worry our nominee will have such high unfavorability ratings that we will have a tough time winning, even with many favorable headwinds,” Graham wrote.
Graham told Capitol Media Services there was no one single event that caused him to send out his admonition — and warning of dire results in November.
The battle for governor has been not just pitched but oftentimes negative, particularly among the front-runners in the race.
Scott Smith and Christine Jones have targeted what he said was Ducey's lackluster performance as chief executive of the Cold Stone Creamery franchise before he sold it.
Ducey has responded in kind, questioning Smith's own business record as a homebuilder. And he has said that the job Jones held at GoDaddy was that of a “line employee ... with no leadership experience.”
Meanwhile Andrew Thomas, running dead last or at least close to it, has attacked everyone else in the race, calling Frank Riggs a “carpetbagger,” Jones a “committed feminist,” and said Ken Bennett “buckled to pressure from media elites” because he stopped helping Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio with his investigation into Barack Obama's birth certificate.
He said all five of his foes “supported the gay-rights agenda” because they all urged Gov. Jan Brewer to veto SB 1062 which would have expanded the ability of private businesses to discriminate based on the owners' religious beliefs.
“Were right in that heated spot where emotions are at the pinnacle,” said Graham who has seen the mailers and the TV commercials. The letter, he said, is his effort to deal with all that.
“The idea was just to kind of call it out right now,” he said.
He said, though, it is up to each candidate to determine exactly what is fair game — and when it crosses the line and become counterproductive, at least for the party and its brand.
Graham said he is trying to sell the idea that voters “want to hear messages that a relevant” to the things that affect them.
“And so a lot of times when people start slinging mud, it's not relevant,” he said.
“They see the fight, they understand the tension,” Graham continued. But he said if it's not relevant to the listener, “it's not going to compel them to vote.”
Graham conceded he has one big thing working against candidates and their handlers honoring his plea: Going negative in a campaign seems to work.
“As much as I suggest, campaigns are going to do what they believe is in the best interests of their candidate's race.” he said. “But we're trying to get them to do it in a way that demonstrates style and legitimizes the whole process for all the other voters.”
Ducey spokeswoman Melissa DeLaney said her candidate wants to focus on the issues and will respect Graham's request “as long as our opponents do the same.”
Jones is unlikely to back off.
Spokeswoman Anna Haberlein said Ducey is campaigning “on his record at Cold Stone.” Haberlein said Jones wants Ducey to be “transparent and honest about that record.”
Smith, in a letter to Graham, said he has no problem sticking with the issues, but he said the chairman needs to make the same request to “outside supporters” who have been doing commercials, mailers and “push” polls.
The dialog in the race has been at least partly hijacked by outsiders with the own committees which are not responsive to — and legally cannot coordinate with — the candidates themselves. And they're spending a lot.
Better Leaders for Arizona has spent nearly $1 million attacking Ducey and more than $225,000 in support of Jones. Meanwhile Concerned Leaders for Arizona has spent close to $220,000 to elect Ducey with more than $34,000 in efforts against Jones and another nearly $60,000 attacking Smith.
Then there's the 60 Plus Association which has put more than $330,000 into efforts against Jones and another more than $280,000 going after Smith.
None of that considers the commercials being run by Veterans for a Strong America which insists it not only doesn't have to disclose its donors but also is exempt from reporting its spending on its attacks on Jones.