With the Aug. 24 primary just days away, the race for the Republican crown in Congressional District 8 has come down to this: It's former state lawmaker Jonathan Paton vs. political rookie Jesse Kelly.
And the gloves are coming off in the showdown between the establishment candidate and the insurgent challenger.
The race came into sharper focus last week when Brian Miller, an Air Force veteran who now teaches pilots how to fly A-10s as member of the Air Force Reserve, quit the race and endorsed Paton, saying that he believed only Paton could defeat Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The CD 8 race is viewed as a key battleground in the GOP's efforts to retake the House of Representatives in November.
"I think it's very important that Jonathan Paton win the primary," Miller said.
Miller was the second candidate to drop out of the CD 8 race. In July, Andy Goss dropped out and endorsed Kelly.
Miller and Goss will still appear on the primary ballot, along with Jay Quick, who has not seriously campaigned for the office.
Paton and Kelly are now locked in fierce combat as Election Day approaches. While no recent polls have been released, a survey released by Conservatives for Congress, an independent campaign committee that has aired negative ads against Paton, released a poll showing that Kelly had a substantial lead over Paton in late July.
And Kelly is showing momentum in at least one other area: He raised $78,528 between July 1 and Aug. 4, while Paton raised just $46,405, according to campaign-finance reports filed last week. It was the first time that Kelly outraised Paton in a reporting period this year.
"The momentum is with us, because people realize that a former lobbyist like Paton, with virtually no real-world business experience, is not the best person to face Giffords," Kelly said in an e-mailed statement.
But Paton found enough money in recent days to begin airing a new television commercial that focuses on the fact that Kelly's employer, Don Kelly Construction, has received public contracts worth tens of millions of dollars that are partially funded by federal earmarks and stimulus funds.
The ad states that "Kelly took stimulus funds for his own company. ... Kelly lined his pockets with our tax money."
The Tucson Weekly first reported earlier this year on Don Kelly Construction's pursuit of public contracting jobs. (See "In the Pipeline," Feb. 18.) The story detailed how Don Kelly Construction, which is owned by Jesse Kelly's father, has received public-works contracts around the country—often funded with stimulus dollars and congressional earmarks—worth well into the tens of millions of dollars.
"With only a week left until the election, it's important for the voters to know that Jesse Kelly is feeding at the public trough," Paton campaign spokesman Daniel Scarpinato told the Weekly via e-mail. "He is lining his pockets with millions in stimulus and earmarks, and his campaign's only response has been to defend this excessive spending by the federal government. Jesse should either give the taxpayers their money back, or stop deceiving them."
Via e-mail, Kelly dismissed the ad as "the last, desperate act of a career politician trying to distract the voters from Paton's record of taking Arizona to the edge of financial ruin. Jonathan is falsely attacking Jesse's private-sector business experience because Paton doesn't have any, except as a paid lobbyist."
Paton's history as a lobbyist for the payday-loan industry has also been highlighted in recent months by the Arizona Democratic Party, which has dubbed the former state lawmaker "Payday Paton" because of his work on behalf of payday lenders.
Earlier this week, the Arizona Democratic Party sent out a mailer reminding voters that Paton was on the payroll of a lobbyist for the payday-lending industry while serving in the state Senate in 2008. Paton also supported a ballot proposition written by the industry that would have allowed payday lenders to remain in business. That initiative was rejected by 60 percent of voters in 2008.
The CD 8 race resembles other GOP primary contests around the country, where establishment politicians like Paton are losing ground to insurgent newcomers like Kelly.
Whether CD 8 voters will make the same call next week remains to be seen—but whichever Republican emerges from the primary is likely to be low on funds. As of Aug. 4, Paton had $186,857 on hand, while Kelly had $78,980 in the bank.
They winner will be facing a well-funded Democratic opponent. Giffords, who has been airing testimonial TV spots from supporters such as Cochise County rancher Warner Glenn, had more than $1.9 million in the bank as of Aug. 4.
Follow the final days of the CD 8 race—and all the other primary campaigns—online at The Range, our daily dispatch, at daily.tucsonweekly.com, where we will also bring you live results, news and commentary on primary night.