But Kolbe's decision to retire rather than seek a 12th term has given Democrats a chance to win a seat in a year when Republicans are battling charges of incompetence (Iraq, Katrina), corruption (Texas Congressman Tom Delay, California Congressman Duke Cunningham, lobbyist Jack Abramoff) and dirty talk with underage boys (Florida Congressman Mark Foley). On the national map, Congressional District 8 is seen as one of the Democratic Party's best hopes in the fight to flip at least 15 seats and take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
So far, the 8th District race has shaped up just as the Democrats had hoped. Last month, Republican nominee Randy Graf won a bruising primary with 43 percent of the vote, but his conservative image has some moderate Republicans quietly--and, in some cases, openly--supporting Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, a former state senator who carried 54 percent in a less-contentious primary.
With less than four weeks left before the Nov. 7 election, Giffords has led in every poll that's been released so far, although the size of that lead has waxed and waned. A Tucson Weekly/Wick Communications Poll taken in late September with a margin of error of plus or minus of 4.3 percent had her up by 18 percentage points, while a Zogby poll taken between Sept. 25 and Oct. 2 showed a slimmer lead of 8 percentage points, with 45 percent supporting Giffords, 37 percent supporting Graf and 16 percent undecided. One constant in all of the polls: Graf's support has remained in the mid-30s. (The other candidates in the race, Libertarian David Nolan and independent Jay Quick, were splitting roughly 4 percent of the vote between them in the TW poll.)
If he's going to build on his base, Graf has to convince moderates, independents and women that "he doesn't have horns," says his campaign manager, R.T. Gregg.
One thing's for certain: The voters in Congressional District 8 have a choice between two very different candidates.
A hometown girl, Giffords, 36, grew up on Tucson's eastside. After graduating from University High School in 1988, she earned a bachelor's degree in sociology and Latin American history at Scripps College in California and a master's in regional planning at Cornell University. Less than a year into a job at Price Waterhouse in New York City, she returned to Tucson in 1996 to take over the family's El Campo Tire business.
Giffords says her political awakening began when she read a newspaper story showing that Arizona was lagging in funding for education and mental-health programs at the same time that the state had disturbing numbers of teen suicides, teen pregnancies and high-school dropouts.
"On issue after issue, our state continued to be at the very bottom of the list of states, and I couldn't understand why," Giffords says. "I was serving my community on a variety of nonprofit boards, knew how to run a business, and I thought to myself, 'If someone like myself does not run, who is going to do it?'"
As she negotiated the sale of El Campo to a national chain, Giffords started looking into state politics. A registered Republican, she found herself dismayed by the state's GOP leadership. "It was way too conservative," she says. "It didn't adequately reflect the values someone like myself had. I consider myself a fiscal conservative but a social moderate."
She changed her registration to Democrat and won a seat in the state House of Representatives in a midtown swing district in 2000--the same year Graf won his first legislative race.
A Wisconsin native, Graf, 47, graduated from Green Bay's Southwest High (class of '77). Four years later, he earned a degree from the San Diego Golf Academy. In 1984, he moved to Green Valley and landed a job as a golf pro at the Canoa Hills Golf Club.
He got out of the golf biz in the mid-'90s and dabbled in residential real estate, car sales and an upscale taxi service over the next few years.
At the same time, Graf launched his political career when he won a seat on the Continental School District board in 1994, after some friends who were on the board encouraged him to give it a shot. "It was the first time I'd really gotten involved in politics," Graf remembers.
He found he liked it. He served just one term on the school board but quickly got involved in Republican politics, serving on the board of directors of a Republican club and serving as second vice-chair of his legislative district. When two House seats opened up in 2000, Graf won one of them.
It was during his first term at the Legislature that Graf became an immigration hardliner.
"We were up in the Legislature having to pass a budget and seeing some of the impacts on our schools, on our Medicaid system," Graf says. "You start finding out from the border counties, in particular, about the amount of their budget that deals with criminal activity of illegal aliens, and it just became an issue with a few us at the Legislature."
Graf fell in with conservative Maricopa County lawmakers and rose to the position of majority whip during his second term. Though he failed to get any immigration-reform measures through the Legislature and signed into law, Graf was one of the leaders in the campaign for Proposition 200, an initiative that restricted some welfare benefits for illegal immigrants and required Arizonans to prove their citizenship when registering to vote and show ID at the polls. The measure was approved by more than 55 percent of the voters in 2004. (The voter provisions were put on hold last week by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)
That same year, Graf gave up his House seat to take on Kolbe in a contentious GOP primary. Graf managed to land 43 percent of the vote and soon began talking about a rematch this year, which Kolbe sidestepped with his decision to retire.
Kolbe and Graf are very different types of Republicans--so much so that Kolbe announced after this year's GOP primary that he would not support Graf.
"There are such profound and fundamental differences between his views and mine on several key issues that I would not be true to my own principles were I to endorse him now for the general election in November," Kolbe said.
Margaret Kenski, who has polled the area for more than two decades, often on Kolbe's behalf, says the retiring congressman's politics--fiscally conservative, socially moderate--reflected the general values of CD 8, which is home to roughly 141,000 Republicans, 121,000 Democrats and 95,000 independents, mostly in Pima and Cochise counties.
"It's a moderate Republican district," says Kenski, who is conducting polls for the Weekly this year. Her most recent survey of 402 general election voters who cast ballots in the 2002 and 2004 elections showed that 43 percent of voters surveyed identified themselves as moderate, while less than 38 percent said they were conservative, and about 16 percent said they were liberal.
The poll also highlighted the difference between primary voters and general election voters. While about 39 percent of primary GOP voters identified themselves as "very conservative" in a Tucson Weekly/Wick Communications Poll taken during the primary, less than 24 percent of GOP general election voters put themselves in that category. By contrast, 34 percent of GOP general election voters said they were moderates, compared to 27 percent of GOP primary voters.
While Graf was able to win the GOP primary by appealing to his conservative base, he was having a harder time finding support in the larger universe of general-election voters, according to the Weekly survey, which showed that while Graf polled well among voters who identified as conservatives, only 20 percent of moderates were supporting him. Nearly two-thirds of moderates preferred Giffords.
The poll also showed a significant gender gap, with almost 59 percent of women saying they'd support Giffords and just 26 percent supporting Graf.
Judy Gignac, a Cochise County political activist who says she was "born a Republican," is one of those Republican women who is crossing party lines to support Giffords.
The first woman elected to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors and a former member of the Arizona Board of Regents, Gignac says Giffords "is easier to talk to. I don't judge her by her advertising; I judge her by the conversations that we have had. She has a more balanced view of solutions."
Gignac remains unhappy about Graf's campaign against Kolbe two years ago.
"It was just so mean-spirited and ugly," Gignac says. "Those kinds of things, in my way of thinking, start at the top. That's not the kind of tenor that I want in a congressperson. People have their opinions, but I want my elected officials to be open-minded enough to listen to other voices. Unfortunately, I just don't see that with Mr. Graf."
Gignac is among the Southern Arizona Republicans who are often dismissed as "RINOS"--or Republicans In Name Only--by hardliners in Southern Arizona.
"I've been called a RINO for years," Gignac says. "I have not left my party. A portion of my party has left me. ... The Republican big tent has become a whole lot smaller. With many of these folks, if you don't pass their litmus test, then you're not considered a true Republican. That's just not the way I look at life."
Graf plays down the gender gap.
"We're working hard on making sure that everybody knows my opponent and knows me in this race," Graf says. "I've been out front and center on a number of issues for years, so there are probably more folks who know where I stand on a number of the issues."
Both candidates--and any number of polls--say that border security is the top issue in the race. That's hardly surprising, given the impact of illegal immigration on the district, which includes about 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Weekly survey showed that voters split evenly on the question of which candidate they trusted more to handle border security, with 39 percent favoring Graf, and 39 percent favoring Giffords.
Both Giffords and Graf have focused their TV advertising on border security. Both candidates are calling for more Border Patrol agents and better technology to stop illegal immigrants from entering the country. And both say they want more crackdowns on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. But they disagree on key points regarding the illegal immigrants now in the country.
Like Congressman Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., Graf opposes creating a guest-worker program until the border is secure and the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States leave the country. He says he doesn't want to round up illegal immigrants for deportation; instead, he believes that if the federal government comes down hard enough on employers, then the undocumented workers will return to their home countries. Once that's happened, then Congress will have a better idea of whether a guest-worker program is necessary.
Graf opposes working out a guest-worker program before the country is cleared of illegal immigrants, because "I believe the American public is somewhat cynical about whether the securing-the-border side of it would ever be implemented."
Giffords supports creating a guest-worker program as part of a comprehensive reform plan, similar to the proposal supported by U.S. Sen. John McCain and the White House. She insists that she opposes a blanket amnesty, but does say that illegal immigrants who have been living in the United States for a number of years should be allowed to apply for citizenship if they speak English and pay a fine.
Although the debate over border security has dominated the campaign, the candidates disagree about many other issues--and Graf's conservative image may be hurting him as voters weigh the candidates. The Weekly poll showed that on the issues other than the border that were identified as top priorities, voters tended to have more trust in Giffords, by wide margins in some cases.
Take health care, which was identified as the top issue for almost 17 percent of the voters. A full 60 percent had more trust in Giffords on the issue, while less than 20 percent had more trust in Graf.
While she opposes creating a new federal program to provide health insurance to all Americans, Giffords wants to find ways to extend health insurance to people who currently lack coverage. She wants to provide coverage to the so-called "doughnut hole" in Medicare Part D, which expanded the federal prescription-drug program. She'd push to change the law to allow the federal government to use its bulk-buying power to negotiate deals on its prescription-drug buys, which is now prohibited under the program passed by the Republican Congress.
Graf says he supports Medicare, but he adds that "we've got to work on it. These are fiscal disasters that are coming down the track and it would be much easier to deal with it today than to wait another five or 10 years. Some difficult decisions are going to have be made."
Graf says he's not sure what those difficult decisions will be. "I'm not suggesting I have all the answers of what needs to be done."
Graf does says he would have opposed the Medicare prescription-drug program, because the government couldn't afford it. Graf supports health-savings accounts to allow people to save money for health emergencies, and tort reform to bring down medical costs.
The candidates also split regarding the other financial crisis looming on the horizon: Social Security. The Weekly poll showed that 53 percent of voters had more trust in Giffords, while 25 percent had more trust in Graf.
Giffords opposes privatizing Social Security accounts, but says that future beneficiaries may have to wait longer to collect benefits. She also supports raising the income limit at which people stop paying Social Security taxes. Graf supports allowing younger workers to invest some of their Social Security into private accounts.
Most surprisingly, voters even preferred Giffords over Graf when it came to tax policy and reducing the federal government, even though Graf is an unabashed tax-cutter and spending hawk. Graf promises to make all the Bush tax cuts permanent and get rid of the estate tax. Giffords says she'd support keeping the middle-class tax cuts in place, but would repeal the cuts for the highest income brackets and keep the estate tax in place.
Then there's the contentious issue of abortion. The Weekly poll showed that 56 percent of voters in the district are pro-choice, while just a third identify as pro-life.
Graf opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, saying that women should only be able to terminate their pregnancies if their lives are on the line. He also opposes federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
Giffords, who supports federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, comes down on the opposite side, saying she supports keeping late-term abortions legal.
Graf blames his low poll numbers on the bitter GOP primary, during which he was attacked as an "extreme" and "irresponsible" candidate by state lawmaker Steve Huffman.
"We came through a very difficult primary," Graf says. "To be honest, I don't think the voters know Gabrielle Giffords very well or know me that well."
But there are signs the GOP is uniting behind their nominee. Just last week, Graf landed the endorsement of U.S. Sen. John McCain, even though Graf opposes McCain's border-reform package, and McCain opposed Graf's Proposition 200.
"Randy Graf's record as a state representative has demonstrated his commitment to the values important to the people of Arizona," McCain said in a statement. "His voting record on issues such as supporting our military, reducing taxes and reining in election and welfare fraud bodes well for his future in the U.S. Congress."
Huffman also seems to have changed his mind about Graf's "extreme" and "irresponsible" positions. This week, Huffman joined with auto dealer Jim Click, attorney John Munger and three other Republicans to sign a fundraising letter for Graf.
"Here's a simple question that each of us who supported other candidates for Congress must ask: What would it be like if Washington were run by Hillary, Nancy and Gabby?" the letter reads. "Unless you support their agenda of '3 R's' (Retreat in the War on Terror, Refuse to enforce border security and Raise taxes), it's time to stop licking our wounds and start putting some teeth into our support of Randy Graf."
Graf has to raised money if he's going to erase Giffords' lead in the polls. Without a strong television presence, Graf won't be able to define himself or Giffords.
Giffords has been far more successful in the fundraising race. According to a pre-primary Federal Election Commission report covering activity through Aug. 23, Giffords had raised $1.1 million and still had almost $335,000 left in the bank. Graf had raised just less than $484,000 and came out of the primary "flat broke," according to Gregg, who says that fundraising has picked up in recent weeks. New FEC reports are due Oct. 15.
It appears that neither side can count on much help from the national parties. Despite the race's importance in the battle for control of the House of Representatives, the National Republican Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have abandoned plans to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race. The NRCC, which supported Huffman in the primary, canceled its advertising buy shortly after Graf emerged victorious. One day after the NRCC pulled out, the DCCC followed suit.
Even though the national committees have moved on, both candidates say the race remains vital to the future of the country.
Graf warns that if Giffords wins and the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, Republicans won't be able to continue cutting taxes and fighting terrorists.
"I certainly have concerns about changing control of the House and the impact it would have on the presidency," Graf says. "There are a number of folks up there calling for investigations into President Bush. But we have so many positive things that have gone on that we we need to go back there and work on moving this country forward."
Giffords counters that the recent scandals for Republicans show that "these people have too much power. I think our country works best with a series of checks and balances, and I think the American people understand that. Whether it's the fact that we've seen these Abramoff scandals, the situation with Congressman Foley, the stay-the-course strategy in Iraq, yet there is no end to staying the course--we need new leadership in Washington."