WASHINGTON – Rep. David Schweikert’s campaign fundraising is down sharply against a possible Democratic challenger with a larger warchest, his office is dogged by ethics complaints and he appears to be running what one analyst called a “zombie” campaign.
All that combines to make Arizona’s 6th District congressional race competitive and closely watched nationally. But it doesn’t mean Schweikert, a Fountain Hills Republican, should be counted out, political experts say.
“Obviously, one would rather have more money than less, and Schweikert’s fundraising is weak,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “That said, he still benefits from holding a district that is right of center, although it has been getting more competitive.”
Attempts to reach Schweikert’s campaign for comment Friday were unsuccessful, but a consultant told the Arizona Republic that the campaign is not worried about the pace of its fundraising ahead of the 2020 elections.
“Congressman Schweikert has always run well-funded campaigns and will again in 2020,” said Chris Baker, the campaign consultant. “He has easily defeated every Democrat challenger by double digits and we expect 2020 to be no different.”
The most recent reports filed with the Federal Election Committee show that Schweikert had raised $621,904.61 so far this year and spent $522,308.77, leaving the campaign with $143,828.33 in the bank as of Sept. 30. But the campaign also reported $186,740.88 in outstanding debts.
By contrast, Democratic challenger Hiral Tipirneni reported raising $773,040.26 and spending $270,145.75 in the first three quarters of the year, with a $70,000 debt. That left Tipirneni with $603,496.25 cash on hand.
In a statement Friday, Tipirneni said Schweikert’s “ongoing ethics scandals” and “extreme voting record” are not what Arizonans are looking for, painting herself as the candidate with the integrity and will to “fight for common-sense policy solutions,” that voters are looking for.
But Tipirneni faces a primary, which Schweikert currently does not. Democrat Anita Malik, the 2018 nominee who lost to Schweikert by just over 10 percentage points, is running in the 6th District again, along with Democrats Stephanie Rimmer, Karl Gentles and Gene Paul Scharer.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face an incumbent with more vulnerabilities than in past races.
Bill Scheel, founding partner of the Phoenix political consulting firm Javelina, said Schweikert’s anemic fundraising so far does not surprise him, calling it part of a “zombie” campaign by the Republican.
“There is no sign of an active campaign,” Scheel said. “He’s not raising money, he’s not meeting constituents, he’s not spending time in the district.”
The September FEC filing also showed Schweikert – whose congressional office is the subject of two different House Ethics Committee investigations over its use of office resources – spent $105,000 in legal fees in the third quarter.
Scheel said Schweikert will continue to raise money, but noted that he is currently “not raising enough money to even cover” his legal fees.
“His deficit is growing and so at some point you got to start raising money and he is not raising any money,” Scheel said.
Despite the obstacles, however, Schweikert still enjoys the benefit of a district with a large Republican majority. The most-recent numbers from the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office show 190,429 registered Republicans in the 6th District to 122,117 Democrats and 160,041 independents.
Independents will be key to the 2020 election outcome, said Dave Wells, an Arizona State University political science professor. He added that voters tend to vote for the party moreso than the candidate, and that Schweikert’s success in 2020 depends on how the GOP and President Donald Trump perform in the next year.
“A lot of people don’t pay that much attention to who the Congress member is, they go by party affiliation,” Wells said. “Not that they don’t know who David Schweikert is at all but they are not attuned to it, so to me a lot of it has to do with how the brand name of the Republican Party is perceived by voters in the district.”
The district will be closely watched because it is a must-win for Republicans to take back control of the House from Democrats, said Geoffrey Skelley, an election analyst at FiveThirtyEight.
“I don’t think there is any path to a majority in the House if they (Republicans) are losing this seat, and I’d also take that as a bad sign for what’s going on at the top of the ticket with the Republicans in Arizona and elsewhere in terms of the presidential contest,” Skelley said.
Skelley said a win for Democrats in the district “would be nice to add on, but they don’t need it.” Because of the stakes, he and others said the race will be closely watched for insight into how the elections will play out nationally.
Even though it is still a Republican district, Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Matt Grodksy said the FEC report shows Schweikert has “mounting legal obligations that are distracting him from serving his constituents.”
Despite all that, Scheel said it will still be tough for a Democrat to beat the five-term incumbent.
“Even notwithstanding Schweikert’s scandals, it is a huge uphill battle for a Democrat to win,” he said. “So it’s not a lot of pressure on the Democrats, but they see it as a big opportunity for a pickup in the state.”