Ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s quest for vengeance faces test in Rep. Eli Crane’s primary

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Eli Crane and former Yavapai County Supervisor Jack Smith will battle for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District seat in the Republican primary on July 30. (Left: File photo by Ian McKinney/Cronkite News and Right: Photo courtesy of Jack Smith campaign)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Eli Crane got $900,000 worth of support from Kevin McCarthy when he won his Arizona congressional seat in 2022, according to campaign finance records. Less than a year later, he was one of eight hardline Republicans who ousted McCarthy from the speakership.

Now McCarthy is out for revenge. Using his vast war chest and web of affiliated PACs, the deposed Californian is trying to knock Crane out in the Republican primary on July 30, backing a challenger Crane’s camp has denounced as a “puppet.”

McCarthy is batting .000 so far in his quest to punish the turncoats who joined with Democrats to push him out last fall, bringing the House to a standstill for weeks until Republicans settled on a successor.

Crane, a former Navy SEAL who left college in his senior year to enlist after the Sept. 11 attacks, is seeking his second term in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District. The vast district encompasses the northeastern part of the state and includes Flagstaff, Prescott and parts of the Valley. He lives just outside it in Oro Valley.

Crane frames his sole primary challenger, Jack Smith, a former Yavapai County supervisor, as a stalking horse. McCarthy recruited Smith, Crane told supporters in a fundraising email. “Nobody in the district asked him to run – just a corrupt swamp creature who’s bitter that he lost his grip on power.”

Smith said he’s never met McCarthy or even spoken to him and as far as he knows, McCarthy hasn’t supported his bid. He emphasized that the former speaker hasn’t supported or personally donated to his campaign, which was borne out by Federal Election Commission filings through the end of March.

Kevin McCarthy's brief tenure as Speaker of the House, from Jan. 7 to Oct. 3, 2023, was cut short by a rebellion of Republican backbenchers. (Photo courtesy of Congress)

Kevin McCarthy’s brief tenure as Speaker of the House, from Jan. 7 to Oct. 3, 2023, was cut short by a rebellion of Republican backbenchers. (Photo courtesy of Congress)

“I’ve never taken any money from McCarthy. … I don’t know McCarthy,” Smith said, attributing Crane’s efforts to tie him to McCarthy as “a character thing.”

Crane’s chief of staff Greg Smith – no relation to Jack Smith – echoed his boss’s attack: “All the elites of the country care about is power. If they can’t control you, they try to replace you with one of their puppets.”

The winner will face Jonathan Nez, a former president of the Navajo Nation who would be the state’s first Native American in Congress. Nez is unopposed in the Democratic primary, though he’ll face an uphill fight in this Republican stronghold. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district as “solid Republican,” and the state’s independent redistricting commission calculated a 7 percentage point edge for Republicans based on recent elections.

McCarthy’s anger against Crane and the other seven rebels is no secret. “They don’t get to say they’re conservative because they’re angry and they’re chaotic,” he told reporters at the Capitol shortly after his ouster. “They are not conservative and they do not have the right to have the title.”

In 2022, a McCarthy-affiliated PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, spent about $900,000 on ads supporting Crane and attacking three-term Democrat Tom O’Halleran, campaign reports show. The blitz helped Crane oust the incumbent by nearly eight percentage points in a district that had been close to a tossup before the latest redistricting.

Two months later, Crane was among the conservative holdouts who forced major concessions from McCarthy in exchange for supporting his election as speaker. Crane himself never voted for McCarthy. Eight months later, he was one of the eight backbenchers responsible for McCarthy’s demise.

A top McCarthy adviser called them “traitors,” Politico reported.

Two of the eight aren’t seeking reelection. Two others are unopposed in their primaries. McCarthy has targeted the others, so far without success.

In South Carolina, Rep. Nancy Mace comfortably weathered a multimillion dollar blitz to win her June 11 primary, beating McCarthy-backed candidate Catherine Tempelton by more than 25 percentage points.

In an ultraconservative Virginia district, House Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Bob Good – also targeted by Donald Trump for endorsing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – trailed in Tuesday’s primary by about 300 votes. Mail-in ballots may tip the outcome and a recount is possible.

The leader of the rebellion, Rep. Matt Gaetz, faces former Navy pilot Aaron Dimmock in the Florida primaries on Aug. 20.

The attacks on Crane started in April.

The American Prosperity Alliance, a group linked to McCarthy, began running ads attacking him for opposing a border security bill supported by all but 21 House Republicans. That put Crane on the same side as Democrats, though he argued the bill would deliver on a Democratic goal of “unrestricted amnesty for illegal aliens.”

“Eli Crane voted against funding our border security, opposed billions for ICE, opposed funding for the wall, opposed thousands of new border agents. Eli Crane voted against all of it,” sounds the voiceover, accompanied by images of fentanyl and cartels, dramatic music stirring in the background.

The group did not respond to requests for comment.

Smith said he would have voted for the bill, which would have resumed construction of the border wall begun by Trump, fast-tracked the removal of illegal immigrants and toughened the asylum-seeking process. He painted Crane as strident and rigid.

“To have an understanding that not everyone has the same beliefs as you … that’s what makes America great,” Smith said, borrowing Trump’s slogan. “We need to … make sure everyone has a voice at the table, and not just the loudest and most disruptive voice.”

Smith borrowed Trump’s slogan, but Crane enjoys the former president’s support.

Trump endorsed him in April, crediting him with “doing an incredible job fighting for the people of Rural Arizona.”

That’s a potent credential in the primary, said Stephen Nuño-Pérez, a political consultant and professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

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“If you’re asking Republicans to choose between Trump and McCarthy, they’re just not going to pick McCarthy over Trump,” he said. “There are no moderate Republicans.”

Apart from other advantages of incumbency, Crane holds a commanding financial edge. Through the end of March, he’d raised nearly $4 million to Smith’s $1,350, FEC records show.

Crane lives in Oro Valley, a wealthy suburb of Tucson in the district represented by Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Tucson; U.S. House members only have to reside in the state, not the district.

Crane’s chief of staff, Greg Smith, confirmed that he hasn’t moved into the district he represents, saying, “What good is being someone’s neighbor if you’re going to sell them out when you’re in D.C.?”

Jack Smith lives in Prescott Valley, north of Phoenix in Yavapai County, which lies entirely within the 2nd Congressional District.

“He very seldom even visits the district … so I’m not sure how attached to community issues you can be,” Smith said. “I’ve lived there many years, so I know the rural issues.”

Supporters agree.

Crane “has simply made no effort to be actively engaged with public education,” said Tim Carter, the Yavapai County school superintendent. He called Smith, who served seven years as a county supervisor, “extremely responsive and willing to communicate. A person of integrity. Strong education supporter.”

Jean Bishop, a Mohave County supervisor, lamented the rightward lurch of the Arizona GOP. Smith, she said, is “big on integrity and honesty” and a welcome contrast to the more raucous conservatives like Crane.

Crane’s team is unfazed by Smith’s challenge.

“He’s kind of stumbled out of the gate. … There’s nothing yet to prove he’s a credible challenger,” said the incumbent’s chief of staff.

News Digital Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Alex Cunningham is an international intern studying journalism at Dublin City University, where he expects to graduate in October 2024.