WASHINGTON – He's been called many things, but Rep. J.D. Hayworth has never been accused of being either lazy or understated.
Despite winning the label of “windbag” in surveys conducted by Washingtonian magazine, Hayworth is known to exude a sense of humor to match his 6 foot 5 inch frame and an easy manner with the media — not a difficult feat for the former sportscaster.
But a new seriousness currently emanates from Hayworth, who is facing a strong challenge from a Democratic opponent convinced that the 12-year incumbent is all bluster. It is an unusual test after a streak of easy re-election victories for the Arizona Republican.
"It's close," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and publisher of the online Crystal Ball election forecaster. "We have it leaning to J.D. Hayworth, but I think it's a very competitive race."
Democrats charge that constituents in Arizona's 5th Congressional District want less talk and more action from their representative. Former Tempe Mayor and state Sen. Harry Mitchell is also trying to use one of Hayworth's signature issues — illegal immigration — against him, saying that after six terms in office, Hayworth and the Republican Party have done nothing to curb the problem, which affects Arizona more than most states.
On top of that, Mitchell points to the nearly $65,000 Hayworth received from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients since 2002 as a symbol of what has gone wrong in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of Hayworth's fellow Republican revolutionaries. Hayworth denies working with Abramoff.
"I think J.D. is very vulnerable, and I hear that on the campaign trail," said Mitchell, a Democrat whose Web site says little about his party roots but boasts a litany of endorsements from Republicans and Democrats.
One of those Republicans is former state Attorney General Grant Woods, who said in a statement on Hayworth: “I have found him to be ridiculous most of the time he’s been in Congress.”
GOP endorsements are key for Mitchell because this district, which includes the Phoenix suburbs, Scottsdale, Tempe and the northeast corner of Maricopa County, is white collar, conservative and largely Republican.
While some say the district is more Libertarian, and as it grows in population and affluence is becoming less conservative on social issues, it still went for President Bush over Democratic Sen. John Kerry 54 percent to 45 percent in 2004.
Warren Severin, who is running on the Libertarian Party ticket, warns that a lot of “anger against Republicans” right now could translate into serious losses for Hayworth and other GOP members.
“I think District 5 is more pragmatic” than ideological, Severin said.
Hayworth — whose book "Whatever it Takes: Illegal Immigration, Border Security and the War on Terror," co-written with his chief of staff, Joseph Eule, was published early this year — said he believes he has the confidence of voters, whether it be on immigration, national security or pocketbook issues like taxes.
“I have always had the utmost respect for the voters of my district … I don’t take anything for granted,” he said, calling this “a spirited election cycle.”
Hayworth blamed outside interest groups for fueling attacks against him and funding his opponent.
“They’ll make another turn on me this time but again they’ll be unsuccessful,” he said. “People in Arizona don’t want outside groups coming in and trying to buy Congress for anybody.”
Hayworth is unabashed about his hard-line position on immigration. He has proposed a tough border security solution as well as a moratorium on visas for Mexicans, and supports dropping automatic citizenship for children born to illegal immigrants inside the United States.
He said he's also hard-set against a guest worker program envisioned by Bush and other colleagues in Congress. These differences have led to an impasse on Capitol Hill that could prevent any immigration reform from being passed before the midterm elections.
"We could have a bill done right now if it concentrated first" on enforcement and closing loopholes in the system,” Hayworth said. "I'm not averse to coming back every week and passing an enforcement-first bill to deliver to the door of the U.S. Senate to make it clear that the House … demands enforcement of the borders."
Of his opponent, Hayworth said Mitchell "endorses the amnesty plan," which he describes as out of step with the desires of Arizona's 5th District residents.
Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party, said despite Democratic attempts to make Hayworth as an out-of-touch politician, he does not fit that bill.
"He has been effective, not only in his position on the Ways and Means Committee, but he's very accessible to his constituents, he works hard and when it comes to campaign season, he doesn't take any voters for granted," Taylor said. "He works hard not only in the district, but on the Hill as well."
On the contrary, David Wade, chairman of the Democratic Party in Arizona, said he believes Hayworth has had an "underlying vulnerability" all along, but no Democrat until now has "stepped up to it.”
“We now have an A-list candidate and therefore an A-list chance of toppling this incumbent,” Wade said. “Harry is perfect for this race.”
A May KAET/Arizona State University poll found that 59 percent of Arizona voters want a temporary worker program — a position that Mitchell's supporters say is more in line with the challenger's vision of immigration reform than Hayworth’s.
Kate Bedingfield, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is putting a lot of energy into this race, said Hayworth is “all talk and no action.” Bedingfield also questioned Hayworth's ethics by linking him to convicted lobbyist Abramoff.
“(He) is also tied to Jack Abramoff, a special interest lobbyist indicted in one of the worst influence-peddling scandals in history,” she said.
Abramoff entered a federal plea agreement in January admitting to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe members of Congress and their staffs. His clients at the center of the controversy were representatives from Indian tribes with gaming and casino interests.
Several of these tribes are constituents of Hayworth's, and he said he has worked hard to represent their interests in Congress. He has voiced no regrets from taking their campaign contributions.
Meanwhile, Hayworth’s campaign has responded hotly to Democratic attacks regarding Abramoff.
“Congressman Hayworth has done nothing wrong or unethical and has not been notified by anyone that he is the target of anything except unsubstantiated rumors and lies,” said campaign spokesman Brian Hummel.
Hayworth adds that he is proud of taking principled stands on issues, even if that puts him at odds with the Bush administration and his own party. On Hayworth’s merits, including his warm personality, many of his colleagues concur.
“Aside from the fact that J.D. is right on the issues, he also brings some humor to the House,” said fellow Arizona Republican, Rep. Jeff Flake. “So we’d sure like to keep him around.”