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Will Dems Get Another Shot at Arizona's 1st?

It's been a bad last week for Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.).

Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona
Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona -- on resignation watch? (Getty Images)

Following the news that his wife's business had been raided by the FBI in connection with an investigation over a land-swap deal involving the congressman, Renzi stepped down from all three of his House committee assignments. He also voluntarily removed himself from a fundraiser hosted by House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and aimed at firming up targeted GOPers heading into 2008.

Then came a story in the Business Journal of Phoenix that said a Renzi resignation was imminent, prompting Renzi's office to release a statement that said: "I am honored to have recently been re-elected, and I'm looking forward to continuing to serve the people of the 1st District for the next two years."

Despite that strong statement, it's generally a bad sign when a sitting member of Congress is fighting off resignation rumors less than a week after the FBI raids your wife's business in connection with an ongoing investigation.

National Democrats are already preparing for the likelihood of a vacancy before November 2008, setting up a special-election fund to raise money for whichever Democrat wound up winning the nomination.

By contrast, Republicans have gone underground -- perhaps following the advice that if you don't have anything good to say about someone, don't say anything at all.

Early indicators argue that Renzi's long-term political prognosis is not good. So what happens if and when he steps aside?

Under Arizona law, a special primary election to replace Renzi must be held no less than 75 days and no more than 105 days following his official resignation. The special general election would be set no less than 35 days and no more than 45 days after the primary. The only caveat is that if Renzi resigns with six months or less remaining before the November 2008 general election, no special election would be staged.

Renzi's would be the fourth special election of the year. Races are already underway to replace Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), who left the House to take a job as the chancellor of UMass-Lowell, as well as late Reps. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) and Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.).

But unlike those three seats, the competitive nature of Renzi's vast 1st District would make the northern Arizona seat a focal point of both national parties.

Renzi won the seat in 2002 with 49 percent of the vote over a flawed Democratic candidate named George Cordova and was reelected two years later with 59 percent over Paul Babbitt, the brother of former Arizona governor and Clinton administration Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt. In 2006, Renzi was again reelected with 52 percent despite the brewing controversy over the land deal.

While the district favors Republicans generally on the federal level (President Bush carried it with 51 percent of the vote in 2000 and 54 percent in 2004), the toxic national political environment for the GOP could well level the playing field if a special election is called sometime this year.

Democrats privately acknowledge they put forth flawed candidates against Renzi in prior cycles, a mistake that would like not to repeat in a special election scenario.

A slew of names are already being mentioned, including former state party chairman and 2006 Senate nominee Jim Pederson, Coconino County Commissioner Liz Archuleta, Winslow Mayor Allen Affeldt, state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and attorney Jim Ledbetter. Kirkpatrick and Ledbetter are considered the strongest candidates of that group due to their ties to the Indian reservations in the district; roughly one-quarter of the 1st's population is Native American. Kirpatrick had been considering a challenge to Renzi previously and has already been to Washington to huddle with national party strategists.

For Republicans, the name of choice appears to be former state Senate President Ken Bennett, who has said he would consider the race if Renzi vacated the seat.

A competitive special election is the worst nightmare of House GOP strategists at the moment. The national political environment is slanted heavily toward Democrats, and a resignation by Renzi amid allegations of impropriety would add further fuel to the already combustible mix. Don't forget that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ended March with nearly $10 million in the bank, compared with $2.5 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee -- meaning that the DCCC would be better able to play longer and louder in a competitive special election race.

For a party already demoralized from losing the majority in 2006, the hits just keep on coming.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 30, 2007; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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