Giffords, who is recovering after being shot in the head on Jan. 8, has not yet said whether she will seek reelection next year.
Antenori, who has built a reputation as a staunchly conservative lawmaker in his career representing Tucson's east side, Green Valley and Sierra Vista, is the first Republican to launch an exploratory campaign for the seat since the January shooting rampage, in which six people were killed and 13 were wounded. Republican Jesse Kelly, who narrowly lost to Giffords in 2010, was preparing to announce his plans for another congressional run in January but suspended his plans after the shooting.
A former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, Antenori says he would not run if Giffords recovers and launches a viable campaign.
“I would love to see Miss Giffords walk up to a microphone and basically announce that she’s going to run for reelection and that she’s physically capable and psychologically ready to take on the rigors of a campaign and continue to represent District 8,” Antenori says. “If she did that, I’m out. I’m not going to run against a woman who’s physically and mentally capable of representing CD8. … I don’t think she’s beatable.”
But Antenori adds that he has “a sneaking suspicion, based on indication that I’ve been getting and rumors I’ve been hearing, that the strategy of the Democratic Party now is to drag out the Giffords decision as long as possible to hamper Republican opposition and fundraising in CD8 … and that she’s not running. They’re now exploiting this woman for political purposes. It’s disappointing but not surprising that they would do that.”
Antenori, who made his political debut with a 2006 congressional run in CD8 before winning a seat in the Arizona Legislature in 2008, has filed paperwork with IRS rather than the FEC as part of his exploratory committee. He hopes to raise between $20,000 and $30,000 to do some polling and traveling around Southern Arizona and Washington, D.C. to measure his support in the district.
Antenori says that he won't make a final decision until January, when the new district lines have taken shape and he can better understand the playing field.
But he vows to run hard against Kelly in the GOP primary if Kelly decides to get into the race.
“My mission will not be Gabby Giffords’ replacement, whoever that might be,” Antenori says. “My mission will be Jesse Kelly and I will run it as I run every campaign—hard and with everything I’ve got. I’m not going to look past the primary.”
John Ellinwood, spokesman for the Kelly campaign, said that Kelly campaign remains on hold and Kelly would have no comment on Antenori’s exploratory campaign.
We’ll have more in next week’s print edition. But in the meantime, here's a look at Antenori's Senate campaign from last year:
Democrat Todd Camenisch complained last week that state Sen. Frank Antenori was avoiding debates with him after the League of Women Voters canceled a Sierra Vista event when the group didn't hear back from the Republican lawmaker.
"I'm quite surprised," Camenisch says, "but I guess Frank realizes that a Marine can kick an Army guy's ass any day."
But Antenori, a retired Army special-forces soldier who now works as a project manager for Raytheon, says he's not dodging anyone; he just had a fundraising event planned with his fellow GOP candidates on the day of the proposed forum with Camenisch.
"I'm out raising enough money to bury him like a freaking fish in the backyard," says Antenori, who adds that he's ready for three debates with his Democratic challenger.
Frank Antenori is a no-B.S. kind of guy.
The former Green Beret gets things done. Antenori, 40, has seen combat in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. He's guarded the border in Texas. He's worked as an ambulance driver in New York City.
Antenori has a meaty agenda. He wants to scrap the income tax altogether, rein in government spending, stop military waste and properly outfit the troops. He says Arizona can solve its water problem by building a nuclear power plant and trading the power to Mexico in exchange for water from the Sea of Cortez, which would flow through a desalinization plant and up to Tucson.
Now a Raytheon project manager, Antenori, 40, is a cocky presence on the stump, even though he drew less than 1 percent in the Weekly poll. He's hardly daunted by the prospect of learning the ropes in Congress.
None of his opponents, he notes, have anything like his experience. On the other hand, he's confident he can master the legislative process in no time.
"It's about negotiation," he says. "I know about negotiation. I've negotiated with Afghan warlords."