While the November election is still seven months away, surrogates in Southern Arizona's two big congressional races are already taking swings at the candidates.
The newest player on the scene is the LIBRE Initiative, a dark-money, Texas-based non-profit that is spending $700,00 on television ads targeting U.S. Reps. Ron Barber (D-CD2) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-CD1).
The slick LIBRE ads feature Latino actors and focus on criticisms of the Affordable Care Act, including charges that the legislation will increase premiums, limit access to doctors and—in the case of the ad targeting Kirkpatrick—will cost more than 2 million jobs across the country. The latter claim, based on a Congressional Budget Office report that said that 2 million workers might choose to retire earlier if they didn't need to continue working in order to get health insurance, was rated as a "mostly false" claim by Politifact, given "three Pinocchios" by the Washington Post's Fact Checker and generally debunked by the Associated Press and FactCheck.org.
Local Latino political officials and activists blasted the TV ads last week. Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías said he had never seen the LIBRE Initiative do anything in Pima County to improve the lives of Latinos; Dr. Laura Elías de la Torre complained that the ads were discouraging Latinos from signing up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act; and Vince Rabago, chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party Latino Caucus, said the ads were the work of an out-of-state political group that was serving as a front for the political efforts of Charles and David Koch, who fund a variety of GOP-oriented non-profits around the country.
"In my view, they are political carpetbaggers," Rabago said. "They are not from our community. They are not from Arizona. They are an out-of-state political organization doing these hit pieces. In an insidious way, they are scaring away Latinos from using the (Affordable Care Act) system by telling them that it doesn't work and that it's bad."
LIBRE Initiative Executive Director Daniel Garza declined to say whether his group had received money from the Koch brothers, adding that under the law, his non-profit organization was allowed to accept anonymous donations.
"We choose not to divulge that information," Garza said.
But another non-profit organization, Freedom Partners, has previously acknowledged accepting funding from the Koch brothers and contributing $3.8 million to the LIBRE Initiative, according to a report posted on OpenSecrets.org.
Garza, who worked in the White House during George W. Bush's administration, said that his group has been active in the last year in Arizona (though primarily in Maricopa County) with political activity in support of comprehensive immigration reform, as well as recent efforts to help Latino businesses with tax preparation. He said the group planned to help with education efforts such as GED classes in the future.
"We have been in Arizona for more than a year and we intend to be there well into the future," Garza said. "This is a long-term project."
The LIBRE Initiative's entry into Southern Arizona was yet another sign that the races in CD2 (where Barber is likely to face a rematch against Republican Martha McSally) and CD1 (where Kirkpatrick will face the winner of a three-way primary that includes Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin, state Rep. Adam Kwasman and rancher/oilman/hotelier Gary Kiehne) will be among the most competitive in the nation.
As the LIBRE Initiative was making its debut in Southern Arizona, GOP leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives were releasing the latest version of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan, which aims to balance the federal budget in the next decade.
Democrats were quick to pounce on the budget proposal, saying it included proposals to transform Medicaid into a voucher system whose assistance won't keep pace with medical inflation, slash discretionary spending programs that aid the poor, and enact tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
Barber used the release of the budget proposal as a springboard to go after McSally's support for the 2012 version of the Ryan budget.
"I opposed Paul Ryan's reckless budget plan in 2012 and 2013, and I'm standing up to his plan once again, because it's wrong to give sweetheart tax deals to millionaires and to ask middle class families to pay more," Barber said in a press release. "It's wrong to make seniors pay thousands of dollars more each year for Medicare or turn it into a voucher program."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee launched web ads last week that focused on McSally in Congressional District 2 and Tobin, Kwasman and Kiehne in Congressional District 1. This week, the DCCC unleashed a robo-call that was critical of the budget plan that targeted the District 1 Republicans. The call included the opportunity for listeners to be connected directly to the campaign offices of the three Republicans.
"We are giving Arizonans the opportunity to connect directly with Adam Kwasman, Andy Tobin and Gary Kiehne and tell them to oppose the Republican budget that heaps tax breaks and handouts on special interests and the wealthiest Americans, and forces the middle class to pay the price," said DCCC spokesman Tyrone Gayle in a press release.
Gayle said that the DCCC may do a similar call focusing on McSally in the coming days.
Representatives for McSally, Kwasman and Tobin ignored requests for comment from Tucson Weekly regarding their position on Ryan's proposed budget.
Kiehne told the Weekly last Friday, April 4, he hadn't had time to review the budget proposal, but added that he wasn't surprised to discover the DCCC was attacking him.
"They're biased in their stance against me," Kiehne said. "It's no big deal. They don't pay my bills and they don't saddle my horses."
For McSally, who said she would have supported a similar Ryan budget plan in 2012, it was the latest example of dodging questions from the press on her position on an issue. McSally has sidestepped questions about immigration, anti-discrimination laws, gay rights, abortion and a host of issues from the Weekly and other media outlets since launching her 2014 campaign.
"No wonder Martha McSally is in hiding," said Barber campaign spokeswoman Ashley Nash-Hahn via email. "She's already said she'd vote for the Ryan budget, and this latest version is more of the same: higher taxes on middle class families, slashing aid to college students and turning the Medicare guarantee into a voucher program—all so she can afford to give millionaires and corporations a giant tax cut. The Ryan plan would kill jobs and hurt Southern Arizona families. McSally should withdraw her support."