Prominent Republicans Avoid Ariz. Governor's Race

Conservatives have long dominated the political landscape of this state, the home of the late Sen. Barry Goldwater (search). Republicans dominate the Legislature, hold both Senate seats and six of eight U.S. House seats.

One exception: the governor's office, narrowly won in 2002 by Democrat Janet Napolitano (search), who has clashed with Republicans ever since. Yet as next year's election draws near, that one exception may remain.

Many prominent potential Republican contenders to Napolitano have waved off a race, leaving only two announced candidates: a former lawmaker who has been out of office for nearly a decade, and a Goldwater relative.

"I keep hoping that somebody will turn up," said June Bryan, an 86-year-old member of the Central Republican Women's Club. Otherwise, "I suppose that Janet will get in again."

State Senate President Ken Bennett is the latest current or former Republican officeholder to decide against a run. He said Napolitano is beatable but that he won't run because of family, business and legislative considerations.

A litany of other prominent Republicans who decided to stay on the sidelines include U.S. Reps J.D. Hayworth and Rick Renzi; ex-Gov. Fife Symington, who was forced from office by fraud convictions later overturned; and former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, a proven vote-getter in the county that includes the Phoenix area.

Nationally, 36 of the 50 governor's seats are up for election in 2006, including 22 now held by Republicans and 14 by Democrats. Of the 36 seats up in 2006, seven — six Republicans and one Democrat — are open either because of term limits or retirement.

In the Arizona race now are attorney John Greene, a former legislative leader out of office more than eight years, and party activist Don Goldwater, a nephew of Barry Goldwater.

A few others may join the race, but no current officeholders or prominent names, leaving a slim field in a state where Republicans have a 51/2-point advantage in voter registration.

"They see the writing on the wall," Democratic state Sen. Jorge Garcia of Tucson said of Republicans who decided against challenging Napolitano. "I don't think the big names are interested in losing."

That's not just partisan bravado, according to Northern Arizona University political science professor and pollster Frederick L. Solop.

Napolitano, who has pushed for all-day kindergarten and tougher federal action to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, consistently enjoys strong poll ratings, cutting across party lines, Solop said.

"If I was a candidate or a potential candidate, the public approval rating alone would make me a little cautious. Arizona tends to think favorably about incumbents. This is a difficult person to beat."

Money considerations also could make it hard for challengers to overcome Napolitano's advantages as an incumbent. Gubernatorial candidates participating in Arizona's public-campaign financing systems — one of the nation's broadest — start with basic allotments of $453,849 and $680,774 for the 2006 primary and general election, respectively. The funding system helps even out the private fund-raising advantages the Republicans might normally enjoy.

Timing also may be a factor for some Republicans. Term limits would bar Napolitano from running again in 2010 if she's re-elected next year. That would leave the governor's office open in the same year that Republican Sen. John McCain's (search) Senate seat comes up. Already, Renzi has said he will consider running for governor that year.

But not everyone thinks Napolitano is a shoo-in next year.

"That's what campaigns are for, to get the name ID out," said Doug Cole, a veteran Republican political operative who supports another potential candidate mulling a run, former state Transportation Director Mary Peters. Cole notes that Symington started his 1990 gubernatorial race with a low public profile but beat former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard.

Napolitano, who was finishing a term as state attorney general, eked out a win against former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon in the gubernatorial race in 2002. And though she has drawn Republican criticism for vetoing illegal immigrant legislature, she has made few attention-getting missteps.

"She's been a very cautious governor," said Cole.