As the polls narrow in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race, the political showdown has drawn unexpected interest from national pundits and power brokers. On Jan. 23, two-term Republican incumbent Jon Kyl held a 29 percentage point lead against Democratic challenger Jim Pederson, according to a survey of registered voters conducted by Behavior Research Center, a Phoenix-based public opinion research firm.
By May 19, Kyl’s lead has slipped to 7 percentage points, according to Behavior Research.
The National Journal, a weekly magazine that covers politics and government, boosted the Arizona race to ninth on its “Hotline” list of Senate races Tuesday.
The magazine’s editors rank the country’s 33 Senate races by their likelihood to switch party control in November. National Journal moved up the Arizona race three spots from its 12th-ranked position the previous week.
“The most engaged race in the country right now, after Pennsylvania, is Kyl vs. Pederson,” wrote Hotline’s editor-in-chief Chuck Todd.
“Some days, not an hour goes by without one of the campaigns sending out a release attacking the other. The state’s still a bit too red, and Pederson can come across a bit green as a candidate, but the Democrats got what they wanted — a real race,” Todd wrote.
The Pennsylvania race features two-term Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and Democratic state treasurer Bob Casey Jr.
The C-SPAN cable network featured a segment on the Kyl-Pederson contest throughout the day Thursday.
Meanwhile, reporters and producers for The New York Times and “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” have been gathering information for features on the race, according to officials with both campaigns.
“Coverage begets coverage,” said Pederson campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis. “It sort of feeds on itself.”
Coverage also begets campaign contributions. At last count, Kyl and Pederson had raised a combined $14.2 million, according to U.S. Federal Election Commission reports.
There’s still plenty of time to collect more. Election Day is Nov. 7, more than five months from now.
By comparison, Democrat Janet Napolitano and Republican Matt Salmon spent a combined $4.4 million on their campaigns during the entire 2002 governor’s race.
For the current Senate race, Kyl had collected $9 million and Pederson $4 million by the end of the last reporting period, which ended March 31.
Since then, Pederson contributed $1.2 million of his own money to his campaign, according to a subsequent federal filing. That brought the shopping center developer’s total personal contributions to $3.2 million.
Contributions from other sources since March 31 have yet to be reported for either campaign. The next quarterly filings should be telling, though. Political heavyweights from both parties are lending their star power.
Former President Bill Clinton headlined a $500-a-ticket fundraiser for Pederson on Thursday.
First Lady Laura Bush is scheduled to appear at a $500-a-ticket fundraiser for Kyl on June 16. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney previously headlined Kyl fundraisers.
Until the Kyl-Pederson race, Arizona hadn’t experienced a genuine Senate race this decade.
In 2004, Republican Sen. John McCain faced only token opposition by Democrat Stuart Starky. McCain spent $4.6 million to be re-elected; his opponent less than $13,000.
In 2000, Kyl faced no Democratic opposition. He still spent $2.8 million to win his second Senate term.
Examples abound that the Democratic candidate, who happens to be the former state Democratic Party chairman, is running a real race this year.
• Pederson, born and raised in Casa Grande, hired Griffis, an out-of-state campaign strategist, to serve as his spokesman. Griffis most recently worked on behalf of Tim Kaine, a Democrat, who won the Virginia governor’s race last year.
• Pederson’s personal contributions send an obvious signal to national party leaders that his race is worth their attention, and more important, their financial assistance.
The Washington-based Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has anointed the race as one of its featured contests in its “Take Back The Senate” fundraising campaign.
The Washington-based organization assesses the race this way:
“The Senate race in Arizona is one of the most talked about in the nation and with the first ads recently being launched, the race is heating up. Once solidly Republican, Arizona is trending Democratic, electing Janet Napolitano governor in 2002. Sen. Jon Kyl holds a conservative voting record that will not play well with his moderate constituency.”
Kyl’s campaign spokesman, Andy Chasin, offered a different opinion about the apparent trend toward Democrats.
“I’ll give you 3.2 million reasons why the polls have narrowed,” he said. Pederson simply has demonstrated a willingness to spend whatever it takes to “buy” a Senate seat, Chasin said.
Still, statewide races in Arizona present inherent difficulties for Democrats, because Republicans have the edge in the number of registered voters.
Overall, the state had more than 2.6 million voters on March 1, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Republicans accounted for 39.2 percent and Democrats 33.9 percent. The remaining are independents, Libertarians and other parties.
Napolitano discussed another aspect of her campaign strategy during the Clinton event Thursday.
“If you want to lose weight, the best thing you could ever do is campaign in Arizona in the summer. So, I’m going to get a contract with Jenny Craig,” she said.
It will be difficult, but not impossible, to unseat Kyl, said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz.
“Sometimes the moon and stars all line up and it gets done, so everybody is expecting this year to be that sort of year,” he said.
Voters hold the president in low esteem, which makes other Republicans vulnerable on Election Day, said Pastor.
“I’m told by people that are smarter than me that the conservatives may stay home because their issues aren’t being addressed and the Democrats are energized by the situation that the Republicans are in. And independents will probably vote Democratic this year,” he said.
In contrast, the race likely will not be a referendum on Bush, Chasin said.
“It’s going to be about Sen. Kyl and his record of getting things done versus Jim Pederson,” he said.