Plans by Republicans to craft their own alternative to an open primary initiative blew apart late Friday as some party members balked.
Matthew Benson, press aide to Gov. Jan Brewer, said his boss believes there is a key weakness in the proposal submitted Thursday to go on the November ballot: It would allow candidates to run for office without disclosing their party affiliation.
Benson said letting people hide their true party affiliation would allow candidates to "game'' the system. He said that could give a leg up to Democrats in heavily Republican areas like Mesa -- and vice versa in Tucson -- as many voters cast their ballots based largely on a candidate's party.
So Brewer was prepared to call a special session for this week to offer an alternative to the initiative, one that kept the essence of the "open primary'' but with the disclosure requirement.
But Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, said that was not the deal sought by many fellow GOP lawmakers. So they refused to go along, leaving the Brewer-preferred modification without the votes.
The fight is over an initiative to create a system where all candidates run against each other in an open primary. Then, the top two finishers would face off in the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
Backers say that requiring all candidates to appeal to all voters will mean they have to have broad appeal rather than simply catering to those who tend to vote in party primaries.
The alternative Brewer favored would keep that "top two'' system, but with the added requirement of candidates listing party affiliation. But she needed the support of the Republican-controlled Legislature to put that on the ballot, alongside the initiative.
Antenori, however, said that wasn't the deal Senate Republicans wanted. He said if the Legislature were going to offer an alternate, it should be vastly different than the initiative.
One plan would spell out that if the top vote-getters in any open primary were both from the same party, the general election would also have to include whoever got the most votes from each other party in the same race. So the general election might include two Republicans -- if they were on top in the primary -- as well as a Democrat, a Libertarian and a Green Party candidate.
Another would go completely in the reverse direction, having parties run their own primaries -- at their own expense -- or nominate candidates by caucus. Anyone else who wanted to run in the general election would have to circulate nominating papers.
Benson said both were unacceptable to his boss.
"The governor was not interested in taking on a much broader proposal that could have been seen as thwarting the will of the voters,'' he said. Benson said her plan preserved the essence of what the initiative wanted, but with only a minor tweak.
Brewer's limited alteration did not keep former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson from accusing the governor of trying to undermine the initiative.
"This is about trying to split the public vote so that both measures don't get 50 percent'' and are defeated, he said.
Nothing precludes people from voting for both measures. And if both were to pass, the version with more votes would take effect.
But when multiple versions of a measure have been on the same ballot in previous years, some voters apparently pick one over the other. And in some cases, like a measure to create a state holiday to honor slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., both went down to defeat.
Antenori, by contrast, said he had no problem offering voters a more radical change in the initiative, saying it would provide a real alternative. He said the governor's plan really did nothing at all.
"It's lipstick on a pig,'' he said.
Benson disagreed, saying Brewer believes the listing of party affiliation is important because many Arizonans use that as a guide on how to vote.
"That party label says a lot about a person,'' Benson said. "It identifies what their values are, what their morals, their governing philosophy, what lawmakers they would align with once elected.''
Johnson said the Republican-controlled Legislature had "no interest in reform'' of the existing process until members of his group turned in more than 364,000 signatures on Thursday.
He said the whole purpose behind the initiative is to alter the process where members of each party get to nominate their own candidates, a process he said results in nominees who represent the extremes. By having to appeal to voters across party lines, even in the primary, Johnson said that gives an edge to those who espouse more moderate views.
Benson said Brewer finds nothing wrong with the current system.
"She is a long-time registered Republican, she's a party person,'' he said. "As a Republican and as a former secretary of state, she believes in the party process and the primaries that Arizona has in place.''
And Benson said there's nothing wrong with people choosing their candidates based on party registration.
"Anybody who spends five minutes at the state Capitol understands that this is partisan place and that's not a bad thing,'' he said.
"This is a system by which things get done in the state of Arizona,'' Benson continued. "Elected officials get together with people of like minds and work to achieve things for the state.''
Johnson, who ran for governor in 1998 as a Democrat but now is registered as an independent, said it's precisely that sort of division which results in an inability to compromise across party lines to get things done. Benson, however, was unapologetic for that.
"The system was set up intentionally to move slowly,'' he said. "It's a system of checks and balances intended to ensure that we don't have drastic change that upsets the apple cart.''