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Arizona's 1st: Where Retirement Is a Good Thing

The decision by Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) not to seek re-election in 2008 is the rare instance where an incumbent stepping aside increases his party's chances of holding the seat.

Renzi had been beset from ethical questions and legal woes since shortly before the 2006 election and the problems worsened considerably following his victory last November.

Republican strategists said privately that Renzi could not win the seat again given the controversy surrounding him and believed their only chance would be if he stepped aside.

So now that Republicans have gotten their wish what does the playing field in Arizona's 1st District look like? Here's our sketch.

Geography: This vast northern Arizona district is larger than Pennsylvania, a size that makes it very difficult to traverse -- much less communicate a message to voters. Flagstaff (population. 52,000) and Prescott (pop. 34,000) are the population hubs but most of the district's residents are not in easily targetable cities.

Election Results: The seat tends to favor Republicans at the federal level, having been carried by President Bush by eight points in 2004 and five points in 2000. But as of July 2007 there were 141,608 registered Democrats to 118,702 registered Republicans living in the 1st, The district also has a large Native American population (22 percent of the district according to the 2000 census) that should supply Democrats with a strong base of support. Renzi won it in a close race in 2002 and, despite Democrats' best efforts, managed to hold on in 2004 and 2006 -- wins that had as much to do with the poor quality of the Democratic candidates than Renzi's native strengths.

Candidates: Three Democrats were already in the race against Renzi including early frontrunner Ann Kirkpatrick who resigned from the state House at the end of July to focus on her run for Congress. Attorney Howard Shanker and former television personality Mary Kim Titla are also in the race for Democrats but the field could grow now that the seat is open. One named mentioned is Steve Owens who ran against then Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) in 1996 and 1998. The Republican race is less developed as most state lawmakers and aspiring pols were waiting for Renzi to make his decision. The leading names appear to be state Sen. Tom O'Halleran, state Rep. Bill Konopnicki and Syndey Hay, a conservative who placed third in the 2002 Republican primary.

Outlook: This seat is problematic for Republicans but the outlook is not nearly as bad as it would have been if Renzi had stayed. Democrats must not repeat their recruiting errors of years past -- putting up candidates that were easily painted as liberals and/or underperformed in the Native American community. Much will depend then on the identities of the two nominess. In any district where Democrats carry a 30,000 person registration advantage they should begin with an edge. But, given the district's short electoral history this one is the purest of toss ups.

Looking for past open seat House sketches? Here's IL-14 and OH-15 as well as Mississippi's 3rd.

By Chris Cillizza  |  September 4, 2007; 10:33 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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