Southeastern Arizona voters did it again.
Republicans told Rep. Jim Kolbe in no uncertain terms they want him to remain in Congress, and Democrats tapped a woman to go up against him in November.
Eva Bacal decisively beat back two other Democrats for the chance to run against Kolbe, a 10-term incumbent who over the past two decades has proved to be one of Arizona’s most able vote-getters.
Democrat Mary Judge Ryan found that out two years ago. Republican Randy Graf learned it on Tuesday.
Kolbe, Arizona’s longest-serving House member, easily cruised past Graf in the 8th Congressional District’s GOP primary.
In the Republican primary in the 7th Congressional District, Joseph Sweeney won the chance to face Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat, in November.
Sweeney trounced Lou Muñoz with 60 percent of the vote in Pima County and 70 percent districtwide. Grijalva was unopposed.
Kolbe captured 57 percent of the vote throughout his district and 59 percent in Pima County, home to the district’s largest pool of voters.
But Graf, a state lawmaker from Green Valley, prevailed in Cochise County with 53 percent of the vote. He found a receptive audience there for his get-tough approach to illegal immigration.
“We always knew he was tapping into a frustration that some Republicans were feeling,” said Kolbe, who with Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake of Mesa backs a plan to allow foreign workers the opportunity to find jobs in the United States. “We knew it would be tough.”
Graf criticized the plan as “amnesty” for millions of illegal immigrants, and attempted to cast himself as the real Republican in the race by calling for the U.S. military and local law enforcement agencies to beef up border security. He also staked out positions to the right of Kolbe on gay marriage and abortion.
But Kolbe said his victory showed that district Republicans want “practical solutions” to problems.
Bacal, a one-time member of the Tucson Unified School District governing board and an assistant attorney general, attributed her win over Tim Sultan and Jeffrey Chimene to a focused, grass-roots campaign.
“Grass-roots works,” Bacal said as she celebrated with other Democrats at a Midtown hotel. “Lots of friends, lots of volunteers. That’s the way to go.”
Despite a clear fund-raising edge enjoyed by Sultan, Bacal said she benefited from her high name recognition among the Democratic Party faithful.
“They know me,” she said. “They know my record. They know I work hard. They know I keep my word.”
Now, Bacal said, she will aim her grass-roots organization at Kolbe. And while issues like Iraq and prescription drugs will form the backbone of her campaign, she said she also plans to make the most of being a woman.
As a mother and a grandmother, Bacal said, she thinks she’ll be able to connect to voters in a way Kolbe cannot. “It’s a way of looking at the world,” she said. “A way of looking toward the future.”
For his part, Kolbe said Bacal is well-known and will be a tough campaigner. Two years ago, Kolbe beat Ryan with 63 percent of the vote. In 2000, Kolbe earned 60 percent against Democrat George Cunningham.
Kolbe is the only openly gay Republican in Congress. He favors abortion rights and does not support an amendment to the Constitution banning same-sex marriage.
Sultan said he is “100 percent” behind Bacal, and stressed the importance of all Democrats getting behind her. “I wish her great success,” Sultan said. “To go against a 20-year incumbent, it’s going to be difficult.”
Sweeney, a perennial candidate who in the past has sought to unseat Kolbe, also ran on a strong anti-illegal immigrant platform.
He will now go up against Grijalva, who won the newly created seat two years ago.