If Republican voters were hoping to get some idea of where the Congressional District 8 candidates differ on the issues, I’m not sure that last night’s forum did them much good.
Only three of the four candidates in the race to finish Gabrielle Giffords' congressional term were onstage; Martha McSally, the former Air Force fighter pilot who is making her political debut, was in D.C. to take care of some campaign business.
So the forum featured state Sen. Frank Antenori, 2010 GOP nominee Jesse Kelly and sports broadcaster and marketing businessman Dave Sitton. All three agreed on most of the topics that came up. They all dislike Washington; they all believe Barack Obama has to go; they all want fewer regulations and lower taxes; none of them support a path to normalization for illegal immigrants who have entered the country.
There were a few elbows tossed. Antenori stressed his political experience over his rivals and knocked Sitton’s suggestion that the federal government do an audit of all spending to nail down where the waste, fraud and abuse come from. Antenori (a former Green Beret) and Kelly (a former Marine) clashed—in a friendly fashion—over the Army and Marine rivalries.
But for the most part, the debate was a collegial affair where the candidates worked to reassure the audience that they were true conservatives rather than tearing into each other.
So we’d chalk up last night as a wash among the candidates.
Given that Jesse probably has the lead among voters at this point (the only poll we’ve seen puts him out in front*), a wash translates into a win for Team Kelly. Early voting in the April 17 primary begins on March 22, so there’s not that much time for the other candidates to overtake him and there are few opportunities that will put them all on the same stage together and get some news coverage.
We’ll see how the debates go next week and how much money the candidates can raise to put into mailers, TV ads, phone banks and radio spots to move those numbers.
* Regarding that Citizens United poll: It’s been disparaged by the other candidates in the race and we don’t disagree that it was merely a snapshot in time. At the same time, it probably does reflect that Kelly has better name ID among Republican voters in CD8 than the other candidates, given that he was the nominee in 2010. That said, a good point to keep in mind is that polling for this race will be challenging because it’s a special election and, as experienced CD8 pollster Margaret Kenski has pointed out, we do not have a really good idea which voters will come out for the primary.